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Construction Engineers and Job Burnout

posted Mar 9, 2011, 4:50 AM by Administrator 1   [ updated Apr 4, 2011, 1:39 AM ]

In Hong Kong there was a study carried out in which it was found that engineers working in contracting organizations report a higher level of burnout than fellow engineers working within the consulting fields.  It has been established that burnout is primarily attributed to stress factors of job conditions and working environment.

Qualitative overload and lack of advancement prospects were found to be major predictors of job burnout within the consulting sector, while long working hours, role conflict, role uncertainty and lack of job security were found within the contracting organizations. 

Strategies to minimize burnout, such as redefinition of job descriptions, were suggested within each type of the engineering sectors.


The Construction Industry

Inherently, the internal and external environments of the construction industry are hugely demanding.  The construction industry is highly competitive and therefore exhausting to the employees. 


Taking into account Porter’s Five Forces Analysis and applying it to the construction industry, it is evident that construction businesses operate in a minefield of demanding conditions with overwhelming rivalry among existing competitors, the ever-present threat of new entrants and the high bargaining power of its customers.

Primarily, the industry has an on-going tendency to choose the lowest bidder in most construction projects.  This occurs even though this practice has been repeatedly criticized for causing unhealthy competition.

Secondly, the industry is an open market, with virtually no entry barriers; therefore minimal initial capital is required.  Additionally, the bargaining power of clients is very high because of the traditional line-management system.  This therefore leads to a grim operational environment for contracting and consulting organizations.

The internal environment within the construction industry is also grueling.  The “fast-track” system with severe penalties for delays causes “unrealistically compressed delivery programmes”.  The resulting long and irregular hours cause mental and physical exhaustion and push such things as work-life balance out of sync.  Long daily working hours and overtime is common.  Construction work is inherently dangerous, causes pollution and the required labour-intensive work leads to phenomenal pressures on construction professionals.

The recent worldwide recession has triggered a serious decline in the construction industry, adding to the issues of unemployment and job security in this field.    Construction companies attempts to cope with the situation and survive leads to a general reduction in labour.  Those who retain employment invariably work longer hours and carry greater workloads.


Construction Engineers – Consulting versus Contracting Organizations

Primarily, engineers design, manufacture, construct, operate and maintain products or services pertaining to their organizations, taking into account safety and dependability, and simultaneously must give consideration to economic, commercial and legal limitations.  Whether construction engineers are in the building, civil, structural, geotechnical or building services, they all receive similar education.  However, the scope of work and the working conditions of construction engineers in consulting practices or government departments are worlds apart from their fellow engineers in contracting fields.

Construction engineers within consulting organizations operate mostly from an office and work primarily with design, selection of materials and monitoring of work.  Construction engineers working for contracting companies are on site and are responsible for planning, coordination, supervision, management of the workforce, machines and materials, controlling progress, quality and budget and compliance with legal requirements in terms of safety and environmental concerns.  In short, these engineers often have a role of project management.  This typically encompasses a difficult balance of the expectations of various stakeholders, resulting in a high possibility for conflict.  Their level of stress is therefore exacerbated by the conflict within their role: there often is a clash between professional standards, tight deadlines and budgets.  This stress increases where “fast-track” projects operate with minimal profit.  The increase in safety and environmental factors, along with the threat of personal liability resulting from unforeseen incidents adds to their stress.  The job-related stress stemming from various sources threatens the health and well-being of construction engineers, thereby simultaneously reducing the productivity and long-term competitiveness of the companies for which they work.   Hence, contractors who are site-based are exposed to different and more severe stressors than office-based construction engineers.


Job Burnout – Definitions, Causes and Consequences

Widely, scholars recognize that job stress has at its basis:

·       Role overload

·       Role conflict

·       Role ambiguity

·       Responsibility resulting from the work environment

The negative impact on the organization results in:

·       Low levels of job satisfaction

·       Decreased commitment to the organization

·       Negative attitudes toward work

·       Low productivity

·       Reduced effectiveness

·       High levels of job uncertainty

Burnout is defined as Chronic Emotional Fatigue

Burnout is a gradual process.  It comes about as a result of persistent, daily exposure to stressors over a long period of time and results in emotional exhaustion, cynicism and reduced professional effectiveness. Professionals therefore have a tendency to assess themselves negatively, thereby becoming dissatisfied with their achievements at work.

It has been proven that burnout has a negative result on individuals and the companies for which they work.  Burnout leads to mental and physical health problems, such as:

·       Psychological distress

·       Anxiety

·       Depression

·       Reduced self-esteem

·       Headaches

·       Disrupted sleep  

·       Substance abuse

For the organizations, the above results in:

·       Absenteeism

·       Reduced staff productivity

·       Increased staff turnover

Very seriously, burnout is contagious, affecting colleagues and has a negative overflow into home life and personal relationships.

Since burnout affects the individual’s life and can influence socioeconomic factors, it is clear that intervention strategies have to be devised to minimize burnout.

The identification of occupational stress in the construction industry indicates that engineers in this arena are very likely to suffer from burnout to a high degree.  The nature of the industry is that the individuals are constantly and daily exposed to work-related stress over prolonged periods of time.


Predictors of Burnout

Comparison between engineers in consulting organizations and contracting organizations



Engineers in Consulting Organizations



Engineers in Contracting Organizations

Emotional exhaustion

Qualitative overload

Emotional exhaustion

Long working hours


Little control over work pace


Little control over work pace


 Role conflict


Dissatisfaction with pay


Long working hours


Role conflict


Dissatisfaction with pay




Lack of promotion prospects


 Role conflict


Role Conflict


Role ambiguity


Dissatisfaction with pay


Dissatisfaction with pay


Professional inefficiency


Social dissatisfaction


Qualitative overload


Professional inefficiency


Role ambiguity


Job insecurity




Role ambiguity


From the above table it is evident that the two categories of engineers are exposed to different job-related stressors, which lead them to experience burnout at different levels.

It is clear that there are enormous financial implications - both tangible and intangible - associated with job burnout.  These implications have an impact within the organization and also within the industry and within the economy to which it contributes.  Where burnout is widespread, the construction industry is very likely to suffer a reduction in its overall efficiency, threatening the long-term competitiveness of the entire sector.  This plays a significant role in the overall economy of the individual countries.  Therefore, through the mitigation or minimization of job burnout among construction engineers it is possible to bring significant additional financial benefit to the industry.

To resolve job burnout experienced by construction engineers and thus reduce the negative impact burnout may have on their well-being and the effectiveness of the industry, it is imperative to identify the potential sources of burnout.  Preventative strategies are more likely to succeed if the strategies address the sources of the problem directly.


Long Work Hours

The construction industry is characterized by long working hours.  Long or excessive working hours is a strong predictor of emotional exhaustion. 


§  Mental Fatigue

§  Physical Fatigue

§  Reduced participation in family matters

§  Work-to-family conflicts

§  Increased work pressure

§  Health threats

§  Continual tiredness

§  Stress-related disorders


Job Security

Job security has been found to be a predictor of professional efficiency among engineers.  The implication is that if there is any uncertainty about the continuance of a current post this threatens the psychological well-being of engineers and potentially lowers their emotional resources and energy at work.  Since the construction industry is project-based, continued employment is often conditional on successful tendering for new projects – and this in a highly competitive environment.  This unpredictability leads to uneven workload and severe lack of stability in employment.  Substantial fluctuations in demand cause contracting organizations to face financial difficulties and resource challenges in lower times of demand.  The result in the engineers is a psychological threat of unemployment and therefore a job predictor of burnout.


Role Conflict and Role Ambiguity

Burnout has a likelihood of being linked to the incompatibility of the expectations communicated to an employee and the means of accomplishing them.  This role conflict and role ambiguity significantly predicts their levels of cynicism.  Construction engineers, in the nature of their jobs, are involved in multiple disciplines and tasks.  These include balancing the expectations of different stakeholders, with a huge potential for role conflict resulting in high levels of stress and, thus, burnout.  Conflicting stakeholders that contribute to this burnout include clients, project managers, consultants, subcontractors, suppliers, the government and public utilities.  There is a role conflict that arises between professional standards on the one hand, and budget constraints and project progress on the other.  These responsibilities are associated with life-threatening consequences should something go wrong, adding further stress.  There are, hence, strong grounds to support the view that within the construction industry the requirement to complete projects on time, to desired quality, and yet within budget, as well as satisfying a wide range of stakeholder objectives (which are often conflicting), can subject engineers to pressure that manifests itself as burnout.


Qualitative Overload

Qualitative overload has a substantial effect on emotional exhaustion in reduced professional efficiency among engineers.  In the situation of qualitative overload they often feel that they lack the basic skills and talent required to complete their tasks sufficiently.  Fast-track projects, with extremely tight design and construction schedules, typically have these types of results on engineers.  Often design and specifications change during projects, adding to engineers’ workloads.  In organizations where there is a scarcity of resources, qualitative overload is sure to be found.  Adding to overload is the continual threat of cutbacks.  Cutbacks have immediate and clear economic benefits in organizations but this imposes an additional workload on those who remain behind.


Promotion Prospects

The recent decline in the construction industry has resulted in promotion opportunities not materializing, causing in deep cynicism.  Engineers invest significant time, skills and effort to obtain recognition, remuneration and reward, to find that their working conditions impede their capacity to achieve their personal expectations, causing a violation of their personal psychological contracts.  These engineers therefore adopt a cynical attitude.  Burnout occurs when personal self-concept and organizational environment fail to match.  This can happen when, perhaps, an engineer feels that he should be promoted but subsequently this fails to occur.  Burnout also occurs where individuals and their job conditions is a misfit.  There may also be a mismatch between promotion prospects of construction engineers and the promotion policy of the organization.


Job Redesign

Steps for reducing burnout:

1.     Job redesign may be an effective preventative strategy.

2.     Organizational intervention strategies with the objective of reducing qualitative overload should be implemented.

3.     Enhance promotion prospects.

4.     Organizational intervention designed to

§  Reduce working hours

§  Reduce role conflict

§  Reduce role ambiguity

§  Enhance job security

However, the reality is that during low or negative periods, there are daily greater competitive demands on businesses.  During such times, generally, organizations are ill-equipped to apply such intervention strategies if there does not appear to be an immediate return on investment.  Instead, employers typically are forced to downscale and become more cost conscious, down-sizing head count, assigning multiple roles (sometimes conflicting) to those retained who then need to work longer and carry a higher workload.  The workers experience greater stress since, in these types of circumstances, they have a low level of control over work-related causes of stress. 

Given that the identified job predictors of burnout are not easily minimized or removed, other strategies, such as coping interventions, become more relevant and are being conducted in further studies.  Also, the different factors leading to burnout between the engineers in consulting organizations and those in contracting organizations clearly emphasizes that different intervention strategies should be devised and implemented within these two types of organizations to effectively manage the job burnout experienced by their engineers.


Based on a paper titled Job Burnout among Construction Engineers Working within Consulting and Contracting Organizations written by Brenda Yip and Steve Rowlison, published in the Journal of Management in Engineering July 2009 

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