We need to find our groove again

We need to find our groove again

Are you feeling the strains of workplace fatigue?  Has it been a long year for you? Much of the content here on The Working Engineer is intended for an international readership and resonates well in most countries and sectors of the construction and consulting industries. However, this particular piece will perhaps have more currency for engineers, architects, builders, and other construction industry people in Sydney. That being said, certain aspects of the following discussion, particularly workplace fatigue, are no doubt universal.   So….

Let’s be frank:  For most consultants and players in the construction industry – particularly in Sydney’s domestic, residential sector – the last three years have been intense.  Engineersarchitects, and builders have worked for a prolonged period now under extremely trying and draining circumstances as two events clashed simultaneously: In the blue corner, COVID uprooted our norms and, well, everything; and in the red corner, we’ve had the busiest construction period in 30 years. (Again, looking mostly at Sydney and the residential sector…particularly the high-end, luxury homes market).

The strain of three years with an intense and seemingly non-stop workload is starting to show, and it’s manifesting itself in how we’re acting within our industry and what we’re doing – or choosing not to do – in activities outside the office or the building site. We’ll explore and discuss this in just a moment, but first consider the backdrop of the last three years…

It wasn’t just COVID, but what took place within the industry around COVID’s influence. Below are just some of the issues we all dealt with:

  • Lockdowns, social distancing, and restrictions.
  • Adjusting to working from home.
  • Unprecedented workloads in a huge construction boom of renovations, commercial developments, knock-down-rebuilds, and new house projects. We all experienced greatly increased numbers of Development Applications, feasibility studies, fee quotes, reports, tyre kickers, designs, drawings, contracts, estimates, new builds, RFI’s, Council hearings, commissions, pre-purchase inspections, and site work – and all squeezed under increasingly tighter time frames and pressures.
  • With overseas travel generally restricted until earlier this year, many workers denied themselves holidays or to take time off to relax and recharge.
  • Conversely, when travel did open up, workplaces experienced large numbers of employees taking long-overdue leave – leaving those left on the ground to carry increased workloads to cover their colleagues’ absence.
  • The construction boom, combined with supply chain issues linked back to COVID, has led to a massive shortage of materials, particularly timber. There are also long lead times for the supply of materials or services (try getting any steel hot-dipped galvanised just now!); builders have been caught out; design and material change requests are being fired from site as builders scramble to stay on top. Many projects were continuously designed and re-designed to suit whichever material could be sourced at short notice, or fit within the originally determined budget, or to switch to an alternative product that had a shorter lead time.
  • As a function of the preceding item, building costs exploded. The costs of a typical residential project went up as much as 30-40%. Some clients were forced to shelve their dreams or cut back on scope to keep within the bounds of the original budget; other clients drove their projects on harder and faster for fear that costs or availability would worsen.
  • The “great resignation” played out, and there’s a huge skills/resource shortage across all corners of the playing field. The consulting firms, in particular, have all complained about being short-staffed and simply not having the resources needed to service the higher work levels coming through the door.  And builders have struggled to find foremen, leading hands, and sub-contractors.  Which means that those left standing on the ground have had to carry higher workloads.
  • Increased regulation (e.g. the Design & Building Practitioners Act), coupled with increased insurance premiums and rising costs across the board.

All of the above issues and items have accumulated in various combinations and permutations to drive workloads up, prices up, expenses up, stress levels up, mental health issues up, and everyone’s time and patience down.

The executive summary is this: We’ve all been busy. Insanely busy. For a long and sustained period.  Some builders had the added stress of increased supply prices for materials that they couldn’t contractually pass on to their clients, bringing about financial strain. On the other side of the coin, many practices and operators in the consulting sectors – that is, engineers, architects, project managers, etc – at least found the last three years good for revenue. (Not necessarily profit, but at least revenue!) We’re in a cyclical industry that has its ups and downs; the last three years have been an exceptionally busy “up”.  If we’re to make hay while the sun shines, there’s been plenty of hay around for those placed to pursue it.

Making hay while the sun shines


But it has come at a cost: We’re tired. We’re drained. We’ve lost our groove.  And, as a result, we’ve lost enthusiasm for some of the broader, peripheral aspects and activities in our industry.   I’m talking specifically about industry social events; industry networking events and activities; learning and educational events; and events that promote our professions and all within the construction industry.  Perhaps we’ve been too weary to head out, or perhaps we’ve been too resource-poor to commit time to anything that doesn’t directly help meet a project deadline?  Regardless, the symptoms are complex and widespread, and they’re impacting the construction industry community in ways that extend well beyond your personal place of work.  Workplace fatigue can affect your office or building site.  Workplace exhaustion is a bit more far reaching…

It is our industry bodies that are feeling the pinch and reporting the problems. Attendances at their various events, activities, and initiatives are down, particularly the ones that are more socially focused. As an example, the Concrete Institute of Australia recently had to cancel its end of year social gathering in Sydney due to a lack of registrations, despite historically being a popular and widely enjoyed event. With COVID seemingly receding this year, many similar industry organisations were keen to move back to “live events” (as opposed to webinars or live-streamed affairs), but they’re reporting that enrolments and bookings are well down on pre-COVID levels. Similarly, the Association of Consulting Structural Engineers observed a sharp and significant decrease in the number of submissions for its annual Excellence in Engineering Awards this year, with many firms citing a lack of time and/or resources to assemble and submit entries. A recurring pattern of lack of engagement by us all does not bode well for the industry at large, and the future of how we go about our work.  We need to rekindle our groove…

Are we still reluctant to go out? Have we forgotten how to be social? Have we forgotten the benefits of involving ourselves in our industry’s various bodies and interest groups?  Needless to say, we need those bodies and groups: The aforementioned CIA and ACSE; Engineers Australia, the Australian Institute of Architects, the Master Builders Association, Consult Australia, the Housing Industry Association, and so forth. We rely on these organisations to look out for our interests; to promote our sector and our work; to support our endeavours; to foster our ongoing learning and development; and to represent us at various levels.  In many instances and areas, they provide us with much-needed services.  And they, in turn, need us!

Events need participants; speakers and presenters need an audience; sponsors need end-users; and awards programs need nominations and submissions.   Like anything in life, you only get out of something what you put into it and – after three years of intense workloads that have been conditioned by working from home and reduced social engagement – we perhaps need reminding that there’s a side to our professions outside our projects and their looming deadlines.  There is no “Uber Eats” for your industry’s events – they don’t deliver to your door while you sit at home on the couch…you have to go out to them.

An empty classroom
Giving a technical presentation to an empty room is not fun for anyone…


Some commentators have expressed a concern that we need to “use it or risk losing it”. The programs, activities, events, and services that our various industry bodies and organisations provide need our engagement. Let us not ignore or dismiss them further. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone…and we don’t want to find ourselves in a few years’ time with industry organisations that are weakened or diminished in the services they provide because we were too tired or busy to participate in what they used to offer.

So as the Christmas break approaches, let’s take this time off as a circuit breaker. Let’s recharge and refocus. Let’s find our grooves again. Let’s return to supporting our industry bodies and their activities. I encourage you to sign up for their next drinks night, or seminar, or trivia night, or site excursion, or product demonstration, or awards evening, or golf day, or short-learning course, or whatever. Expand your horizons; expand your network; expand your CPD, expand your space and your place in our industry. It’s good for your career, it’s good for your health and, of course, it’s good for the entire game. If a rising tide floats all boats, then an engaged construction industry builds everyone up.  Groovy baby, yeah.


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