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C+I Roundtable

A Human Agency hosted our first Construction and Infrastructure Roundtable event for the year (2021) at Nanda/Hobbs gallery in Chippendale, Sydney. We were joined by Alison Mirams, CEO of Roberts Co, and Phil Garling, Chairman of Energy Queensland and Newcastle Coal Infrastructure, who provided us with some very valuable insights into how the industry works to promote and improve positive culture.

Garling explained that to change culture, you have to change the way you do things. The construction and infrastructure industries are safety-focused, and companies are often proud of their safety culture. However, our guest speakers as well as attendees highlighted the importance of turning the focus to health and safety on a more holistic scale. It is critical that mental health be given much larger weight in the maintenance of a healthy and safe workplace. This also includes fostering a healthy work-life balance for employees in order to improve productivity and overall workplace culture. The way to do this is to operate in a preventative manner, rather than reactive.

One area of interesting conversation was gender stereotypes and the way that these are perpetuated in the industry. Mirams gave us several examples of how changing this will contribute to an improved industry culture. Firstly, Mirams discussed the research project, Project 5, in NSW Government Health Infrastructure which aims to measure how workplace wellbeing interventions impact construction workers and their families. Specifically, a compressed five-day working week with no weekend work. 

Mirams went on to explain that the kicker for her was that the traditional 6-day working week preserves the gender stereotype that the man makes money while the woman is the carer. The need to change the industry for women is commonly talked about, but we also need to make changes for men that will benefit all workers. From the research so far, workers are healthier, happier and more involved in family life. One worker’s spouse told Mirams that she had saved their marriage. With the cooperation of the Union in EBA negotiations, workers can be provided with more balance and quality of life. This will contribute to improving the health and safety of construction workplaces.

The discussion also focused on dealing with mental health in order to have a safe working environment. Statistics show that workers in the Australian Construction industry are 70% more likely to take their own life than employees in other industries. Garling explained that this has become a major issue in the last 5 years. From his experience, changes in this area have been driven by the workforce, typically where they are impacted by a colleague suffering from mental health issues. 

Mirams continued that although it is difficult, we can try to address systemic issues that will contribute to change. Along with providing a better work-life balance, it can also be beneficial to focus on culling any workers that do not fit the culture of the organisation. Mirams explained that to do this you need a decency quotient, basically asking yourself, ‘Would I take that?’. Operating in this way can contribute to increasing the positive culture of an organisation where the holistic health and safety of workers is valued. This will likely have a flow on effect on the mental health of employees.

An overarching take away from this is the importance of having a preventative approach to the safety of the workplace as opposed to a reactive one. This starts with focusing on people rather than process, Mirams explained. When workers have process pushed in their face, their brains turn off and they aren’t empowered to think for themselves. It is critical that workers are encouraged to think and express ideas or concerns so that workplaces can implement preventative measures that protect the physical and mental wellbeing of workers. 

Garling provided a very interesting example of the ‘Safety is Defence’ program implemented at Energy Queensland, which is based on Wayne Bennett’s approach to coaching rugby league. The core of the program being that you win by focusing on defence rather than attack. This is a good example of relating to workers and using preventative actions for health and safety, rather than responding to each event as it occurs. This will contribute to the betterment of culture within the construction industry.

The biggest risk with organisational culture is how hard it is to grow, how quickly it can be lost and how challenging it can be to change. The valuable perspective of both Garling and Mirams indicate the need to focus on consistency and prevention in all levels of an organisation to promote a positive workplace culture. Prioritising health in all forms will be essential to continue improving the perception of the construction and infrastructure industry.

Thank you to our guest speakers and attendees for their invaluable contributions to our conversation.   

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