Shortening work week to improve construction culture

Monday, 06 May, 2024

Shortening work week to improve construction culture

A new report has explored construction industry culture, highlighting the problems of excessive work hours and the benefits in addressing them.

The Construction Industry Culture Taskforce (CICT), led by the governments of NSW and Victoria along with the Australian Constructors Association, has released the ‘Culture in Construction Pilot Projects: Interim Report’, led by RMIT University.

The report found that a 50-hour work week spanning five days has strong support within the construction industry.

Many within the industry typically work six days per week, with Saturday shifts often the norm. However, the interim results of pilot projects run under a new draft Culture Standard, aimed at improving the infrastructure construction industry, show that a five-day week would not adversely affect site productivity.

Achieving cultural change

The report studied the integrated strategies used by pilot projects to improve time for life and flexibility, diversity and inclusion, and wellbeing to determine how they contribute to positive cultural shifts in the industry.

“Cultural change in the industry is one of the key ways to address the acute skills shortage that has led to escalating labour costs and stagnant productivity in an industry which has so many other reasons to be a place to have a great career,” said Gabrielle Trainor, Chair of the CICT and Interim Chief Commissioner of Infrastructure Australia.

“The Culture Standard, designed to be part of the procurement process, means a level playing field for contractors and government clients to buy in, project by project, and create better, safer and more equitable work environments and support construction to become an industry of choice.”

What were the key findings of the report?

One key finding was the strong support for a five-day work week, with 84% of salaried respondents and 61% of waged respondents preferring this schedule. This preference contrasts with the current industry norm of longer working hours, where 64% of workers exceed 50 hours per week and Saturday work is routine.

“The lack of work and life balance faced by many construction workers can cause significant stress, relationship issues and reduced productivity. It is a leading reason people exit the industry,” Trainor said.

“However, the five-day work schedule preferred by the workers in the study allowed them to spend more time with their kids, play sport, see friends or relax, and a two-day weekend also ensured they were better rested and recovered from the work week.

“Monday to Friday is clearly shown in this study to be the ideal. But the standard provides for the reality that not every project can work five days. These findings also demonstrate the positive benefits of a deliberate and accountable focus on ensuring no-one works excessive hours and flexibility is built in, and where measures on diversity and wellbeing are also in place to support the other key aspects of culture change women and young men are looking for,” she said.

Minimal impact on productivity

Despite initial concerns about productivity and pay impacts, feedback from pilot project participants indicates minimal adverse effects.

“On our Mulgoa Road Upgrade Project Stage 1, our team reported that productivity was not adversely affected by implementing the Culture Standard’s five-day work week,” said Greg Anderson, Seymour Whyte Alliance Manager in New South Wales.

“With Saturdays typically seeing lower productivity across the industry, the loss of Saturday as a workday in the move to a Monday to Friday schedule was more than offset by the fact that we had a better rested, healthier and more satisfied workforce, which led to productivity improvements across the five-day week.

“We also saw positive impacts in terms of recruitment, with other workers in the industry seeking to join our project due to the five-day work week.”

Before the implementation of the draft Culture Standard at the pilot projects, some workers on wages, mostly young men, were concerned about the effect on their pay.

However, once the Culture Standard was operating, many of these same workers said that the effects on their pay had been minimal and, even though they may have experienced a small reduction in their earnings, the benefits of spending more time with their family and friends outweighed the cost.

Australian Constructors Association CEO Jon Davies said while recognising the need to limit the hours worked, the pilots are also considering how to maintain the flexibility of projects to work the hours needed to meet operational requirements.

“The Culture Standard acknowledges the interconnectedness of working hours, wellbeing and gender diversity.

“Addressing working hours in isolation from wellbeing and gender diversity won’t yield the desired cultural transformation and outcomes,” he said.

“These results are very encouraging, and we are looking forward to finalising the pilot studies later this year to inform the case for broader adoption of the standard in procurement,” Trainor said.

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