Although employers keep an eye on their staffs and monitor performance, few companies in construction directly address the issue of burnout with formal stress-management or work-redesign programs.

For example, Indianapolis-based RATIO Architects Inc., a 28-year-old planning and architecture practice, worked on keeping spirits up after shedding 12 of its 88 positions in 2009. “Open communication about staff adjustments is key,” says Tracy Imes, RATIO administration director. “We make sure that it’s announced to everyone when it occurs, so employees understand why and how it happened. We are trying to be as open as possible. We want to develop trust with our employees.”

Mindful of the possibility of poor morale, RATIO closed its offices between Christmas and New Year’s Day; the furlough, or forced vacation, saved operating costs and allowed staff to return refreshed and refocused.

“It is just something that comes with the territory it seems, but that is probably a bad thing to say.”
— Frank Martin,
CEO, Martin-Harris Construction Co

RATIO holds office events—like a chili cook-off—that emphasize camaraderie and team building.The events also relieve tension and encourage non-work-related interaction. RATIO even has brought in jugglers and a comedian for entertainment. “They’re silly things that help keep the mood light,” Imes says. “Those types of things are important for morale and keeping people happy.”

“Culture is a very big thing in our office,” Imes adds. “We are trying to instill a sense that we are all in this together.”

Contractors can be more accepting than designers that workers will endure stress. “This is still a macho business, especially in the field,” says Richard Condit, senior vice president and chief administrative officer for the Sundt Cos. Inc., a 120-year-old, Tuscon, Ariz.-based general contractor with 1,200 employees. “People are just really appreciative to have a job, quite frankly.” Sundt has trimmed its staff by 450 positions, more than 300 of them craft labor, during the last 18 months.

Yet communication, attentiveness, performance and evaluation remain key management touchstones for big contractors; it has led to specialized training. Phoenix-based Kitchell Contractors has a program for managing in “challenging times.” Times like this “lead to stress on everyone,” according to Kitchell human-resources director Laman Snyder. “[Burn-out] is indeed a major concern.” Many firms have scaled back as jobs become scarce. Sundt’s Richard Condit adds, “We are down to our muscle now, and we don’t want to lose them.”

Karen O’Hara, CEO of HR to Go, a Fresno, Calif.-based human-resources consultant and outsourcing firm, describes burnout “as a type of job depression.” The secret is to find out what is behind the melancholy, because sometimes it comes from outside the job, she says.

The attitude expressed by Frank Martin, chief executive of Martin-Harris Construction Co., a Las Vegas-based contractor, displays the dilemma companies face.

On the one hand, Martin-Harris is celebrating getting every job, safe-site awards, technical successes such as pouring concrete during the recent rainstorms without the use of overtime or losing any flatwork to stay on schedule, Martin says.

On the other hand, when it comes to burnout, “We really have not done much, but it is something that we probably need to look at. We are putting more pressure on our folks, not only our project-oriented people but also the officers at every level. It is just something that comes with the territory it seems, but that is probably a bad thing to say.”