alison mirams

When Roberts Pizzarotti won the $341m redevelopment tender for Sydney’s Concord Hospital three years ago, it was partly the result of a bold step to disrupt the construction industry. The company proposed two prices in the tender. One was based on a five-day working week with an extra 10 weeks allowed to complete the job; and the other the usual six days worked by construction workers around Australia.

“We were very clear that if the client chose the six-day option, it would increase the stress and anxiety for our staff,” says CEO Alison Mirams GAICD. “To the government’s credit, Concord Hospital said yes to the five-day program.”

One year into the project, Mirams is confident the team won’t need the extra 10 weeks to complete the job. She claims the five-day working week has brought higher productivity and happier workers. Now a UNSW team led by Dr Natalie Galea is studying the economic and social impacts on staff at the Concord Hospital redevelopment to see if this is true.

“Subcontractors are saying they are more productive, working less face-to-face hours than on a six-day week,” says Mirams. “What we’re saying to the workers is, ‘You know you can’t work Saturdays. It’s not your make-up day anymore. Get your work done Monday to Friday.’ And they’re relishing it.”

Mental health is a major issue in the construction industry, says the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce. The taskforce reports the Australian construction industry has: 190 suicides a year; construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than work-related accidents; and construction apprentices are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than other young men their age.

Quick stats

  • Six Australians on average die from suicide every day, and a further 30 attempt to take their own lives.
  • Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 25–44 years.
  • Men account for 75% of suicide deaths (2011).
  • 45% of Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime; 54% do not seek any treatment.
  • 20% of adults experience a mental illness in any year.
  • Young adults aged 18–24 years have the highest rates of mental illness.

The taskforce says factors influencing mental health issues are work and employment conditions, relationships, attitudes towards seeking help, alcohol and drug use, and stigma against mental ill health.

Mirams had previously worked at Brookfield Multiplex and Lendlease Building before Roberts Pizzarotti launched in 2017. She hopes more clients will choose tenders based on a five-day week and that other construction firms will follow suit so a five-day week becomes standard practice.

Roberts Pizzarotti is a joint venture between the Roberts family (formerly of Multiplex) and the Pizzarotti family in Parma, Italy, who in 2016 were looking to Australia for expansion. The company has grown from 35 staff to 130 on five projects worth more than $600m: Zurich’s new headquarters in North Sydney, the Dexus North Shore Health Hub, Concord Hospital redevelopment, Liverpool Health and Academic Precinct infrastructure works, and the T1 southern expansion at Sydney Airport. Mirams says revenue has increased from $8m in FY18 to $46m in FY19 with $325m forecast for FY20.

Governance

The company is governed by a board of two — Giorgio Cassina, managing director of Impresa Pizzarotti in Italy, and George Kostas, group CEO of RF Capital in Sydney. RF Capital founder Andrew Roberts was on the board, but recently changed from director to shareholder.

The board meets formally three times a year — once in Italy, once in Sydney and once by Skype. Mirams runs a monthly executive meeting with the two board members, and a separate remuneration meeting yearly.

“When we set up the company in 2017, the mandate from the board was to create the best construction company I could and the board pretty much left me alone,” she says. “You’ve obviously got to have profit, but to have profit, you have to have good people, a great safety culture and clients that want to give you work.”

Workers Compensation claims for mental health conditions 2010–11 & 2014–15:

  • Typical payment per claim was $24,500 (compared to $9000 for all claims).
  • Typical time off work was 15.3 weeks (5.5 weeks for all claims).
  • 41% of claims attributed to harassment, bullying or exposure to violence.
  • 31% of claims attributed to work pressure.
  • 60% of claims awarded to workers aged 40 and over.

Highest rate of claims by occupation

  • Train/tram drivers (10.3 claims per million hours).
  • Police (6.6 claims per million hours).
  • Indigenous health workers (6 claims per million hours).
  • Prison officers (4 claims per million hours).
  • Ambulance officers/paramedics (4 claims per million hours).

Source: Safe Work Australia

The five-day week is in place at the two hospital jobs and the company’s other worksites are open six days, but staff are rostered on five days a week. One project has a “Flee by three” policy in which staff clock off at 3pm once a week. “This is not about us having a competitive advantage. This is about trying to change an industry so it’s better for everyone,” says Mirams, adding the board is supportive of the innovative approach, noting they see the happiness among staff and the interest from talent wanting to join the firm, although conceding recruitment was tough before the company won major contracts.

She encourages flexible working hours and leads by example, starting work after dropping off her son at school and taking time off for family commitments. One project engineer works three days a week, including one day from home. “I have to lead flexibility. If the staff don’t see me doing it, how will they feel they can do it?” she says. “Everyone gets an iPhone, an iPad and a laptop computer when they start. Everything’s in the cloud so you can work remotely.”

Diversity

Besides improving mental health at work, Mirams has a second mission: to increase the number of women working in construction. She says at Roberts Pizzarotti, 30 per cent of the staff are female, compared with an industry average of 12 per cent (2018). “If I could just make the industry sustainable so that more women want to go into it, I would be so happy,” she says.

Mirams is calling for industry-wide efforts for change. “There are so many construction companies out there that say, ‘Safety is the highest priority.’ But their staff work enormous hours,” she says. “You can’t operate safely when you are doing enormous hours on projects. You become fatigued and at some point the fatigue will overtake your conscious decision-making and cause an issue.”

She urges construction company boards to discuss the sustainability of their businesses in terms of staff wellbeing and to reassess what is reported in terms of “safety”. “Mental health is not reported. Suicide is not reported,” she says. “It’s time we were transparent about these issues. Everyone is now focused on modern slavery because the government has legislated something. Why does it take the government to legislate something for you to focus on it?”

She points to the green star rating system introduced in 2003 to benchmark industry against energy and water use as an example of how the industry can evolve. “When that was introduced just a few firms took it on. Now, green star is business as usual.”

Employee wellbeing

Josephine Sukkar AM AAICD, co-founder of Buildcorp, is also a fan of the five-day construction week, and welcomes the state government’s agreement for the Concord Hospital redevelopment.

“Buildcorp undertook a major hospital project redevelopment a number of years ago on a five-day work week, and our staff found it great,” she says. “We’d welcome the day all clients were happy to stipulate a five-day week for construction in a way that allowed us to secure projects in a competitive environment and kept safety and wellbeing at the forefront of our projects. We applaud the state government for agreeing to what many clients will not.”

She notes that the only time a person on a Buildcorp site tried to take their own life was on a large project operating on a five-day week. “The causes of poor mental health are so multi-faceted,” she says. “What saved this young man, as I understand it, was an organisation called Mates in Construction. They come to construction sites and work with men in particular on how to recognise if one of their mates might be in trouble, and how to keep them safe.”

Sukkar says Buildcorp incentivises its staff to take their full four weeks of leave every year by giving them an extra week’s paid leave as a bonus. “This is the modern conundrum — the best people often are the hardest to get to take their leave.”