Working Hours and Managing Stressors

David Mayor
David Mayor

Published: January 18th, 2021

7 min read

Early in 2020, in direct response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the Government amended Section 74B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to provide a temporary, fast track deemed consent route for developers to apply to local planning authorities to vary existing conditions, or the details submitted under a condition, that limit construction site working hours. If an application is approved, this will temporarily amend planning restrictions on construction working hours until 1 April 2021, unless either another earlier date has been requested by the applicant, or is decided upon by the local planning authority, with the agreement of the applicant.

The idea, of course, was to facilitate Governmental recommendations on safe working practices on construction sites, such as staggered start and finish times. If you have some of your staff coming in later, then they need to finish later. At least in theory.

That, like many changes, is open to abuse. If your site can open for longer then it could be just a teensy bit tempting for an employer to demand longer hours from all of its staff. The initial lockdown applied to the construction sector as well, and many firms were playing catch-up with stalled projects and broken promises after re-opening. If productivity increases per day, then projects could get back on track quicker than expected with increased output from each employee. From the employee's side, there is a chance to recoup lost earnings or overtime, or perhaps build up some reserves in case of another full lockdown and/or layoff.

There is, however, a human cost. All employers have statutory and common law duties to keep their staff as safe as reasonably practicable, but the various CDM Regulations go even further, with the 2015 version imposing specific duties on Clients, Designers, Principal Contractors etc. The message is clear; when health and safety is poor in construction, people die.

Which is where working hours come in to play. Many construction roles are physically demanding and some are similarly mentally taxing. Even those that do not require awareness of hazards on site. Tiredness leads to a reduction in concentration, which leads to accidents. There is a reason that transport professionals like pilots and HGV drivers have maximum working hours.

Extended hours can also lead to physical or mental burnout. Stress is a significant factor on construction sites, and long periods of intense concentration or labour superimposed on a background of global death and destruction can lead to a number of physical and mental ailments. It is difficult to work hard all day only to come back and find you are prevented from unwinding outside of your own home, you cannot see your family, and people you know are ill or dying. It all takes its toll in the end.

Which is why employers have to be vigilant to the possibilities, and where they may lead. Are you finding a trend towards longer hours per employee creeping in following external pressure? Are clients demanding results and solutions NOW, against impossible odds? Are you finding employees all the more willing to voluntarily sell themselves to the project for the sake of a quick monetary return, and yet absences through illness are starting to increase?

All are red flags for employee welfare. In times such as these, employers need to be alive to the stresses that employees are already facing in their personal lives. It is not enough to say "well Johhny seemed okay, and he didn't mention anything to me" but the default position is that every single one of your staff members will have been experiencing increased stress in some form or another since the pandemic struck. Strains on marriages, lack of face-to-face human contact, closing of places of relaxation (cinemas, gyms etc.) and increased alcohol abuse are not potential stressors anymore, but almost certain probabilities. Employers must assume that staff members are experiencing these stresses and take action accordingly.

All firms should be considering their staffing needs against a COVID background. Whilst it may be tempting to push output to its limits, any business is only as good as its staff. This is a time for companies to consider their physical and mental health/well-being policies, including working hours and rotations, travel, accommodation (hotels are no longer much fun when the bars and restaurants are closed), and health surveillance. Do you have access to counselling services, or can you signpost to someone who does? Do staff know how to see the signs of burnout in each other, and are they actively encouraged to deal with it, rather than sucking it up and getting on with things? Do you include well-being in your tool-box talks and is there a process of questioning staff on their physical and mental well-being, perhaps in an online questionnaire format?

A considerate employer produces a happier and more productive workforce and does much to offset the obvious potential for an increase in stress or physical injury claims sustained during the pandemic. The time to take action is now.

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