Does Preconstruction Promote a Workaholic Culture?
[Estimating]…”is portrayed as a career path with a workaholic culture, and one that is not particularly rewarding. At least, that's how it was when I was going to career fairs and whatnot. I actually got steered away from estimating because every single senior estimator I met had been divorced at least once.”- (2) Lack of interest in estimating from university students? : estimators (reddit.com)
Okay, so there is a difference between correlation and causation. When we look at the country’s divorce rate data, 36.7% of cost estimators have been divorced, compared to the national average of 36.4%, we can’t conclude that estimating equals divorce. However, it is still a very powerful statement, especially coming from the incoming workforce.
Are Estimators Overworked?
- Is staying late at the office the norm?
- Are you continuously checking email and texts, and answering phone calls outside of work?
- Have your relationships or health suffered because of how much you work?
If you answered yes to any of the above, you might be overworked. But it’s not just the construction industry.
Americans in general work on average 75 more hours than most of the other developed countries in the world.
We also are a country that celebrates working ourselves to the bone. We wear our overtime hours like a badge of honor. Like somehow spending more time in spreadsheets than in bedsheets makes us richer, more successful, and more desirable to those who have a stake hold in both those sheets.
"Alarming new research shows that people working more than 54 hours a week are at major risk of dying from overwork."
But the data doesn’t back up the belief that more work and longer hours make us more successful. Research shows that “increased productivity does not have a direct correlation with increased number of hours worked.”
This culture of work has been deemed:
- “Cult of overwork”
- “Glorify overwork”
- "Overwork culture"
The old-school term for it is “workaholic.” Coined in 1971 by psychologist Wayne Oates, the scientific definition of a workaholic is “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” Much like the dependence on alcohol, drugs, or other substances, a workaholic is literally addicted to work.
Grant Stucker, at Precon World 2022, the premiere preconstruction event of the year, (which you should attend. Get your ticket here.) said, “I’ve seen some guys that I’ve worked with getting there [the office] as early as you can possibly get there. They’re the first ones there. They’re the last ones to leave. I get that they wear that like a badge of pride but at the same time, I’ve seen how it affects their at-home relationships.”
The term has since become a catchphrase that means someone who works a lot…not someone necessarily addicted to work. Addiction is not what we’re addressing in this article. We’re asking and attempting to answer: does estimating really promote a cult of overwork?
We interviewed estimators who have left the field (for a very wide variety of reasons) and asked them what they thought of the (Redditt) student’s statement… do they think precon has a tradition/culture of overwork/workaholic? After analyzing their answers, we conclude that precon isn’t necessarily a position predisposed to workaholism but that overwork in estimating is a mix of perception, company culture, and the realities of the position.
One ex-estimator commented, “Most people hit burnout five years into the industry. I hit it in three. It was a combination of project teams, the projects themselves, and a lack of training. Everyone was so overworked and overwhelmed that no one had time to train anyone else correctly. Meaning I was left to learn by trial by fire and got burned a lot. Which lead to me working double to correct the mistakes I was making that I didn’t know were mistakes to begin with.”
Another responder said, “When I felt overworked, it was because I didn’t like what I was doing in that particular cycle. It’s important to note that burnout (a closely related term with overwork) has more to do with a misalignment of priorities and control than actual workload.”
Psychology Today says, “Burnout is not simply a result of working long hours or juggling too many tasks, though those both play a role. The cynicism, depression, and lethargy that are characteristic of burnout most often occur when a person is not in control of how a job is carried out, at work or at home, or is asked to complete tasks that conflict with their sense of self.”
When it comes to workplace burnout, the lack of control is poignant in reference to preconstruction.
The same ex-estimator above who mentioned not liking what they were doing in a particular cycle said, “The point about not being in control is huge. Cost Estimators are by nature control freaks. Personalities attracted to cost-estimating type work tend to be engineering-minded (things oriented). We naturally want to learn about and control things. But when your workload is entirely dependent on incoming sales efforts, external collaborators meeting schedule milestones, feedback from industry counterparts, and so on… there is very little an estimator can actually control in their work life.”
One of the biggest problems could be income disparity in the construction industry. Preconstruction departments are typically viewed as not being a profit center for contractors and estimators have a below-average salary compared to the rest of the industry. When the amount of work and hours put in don’t seem comparable to income, it could be perceived that estimators are overworked.
The average cost estimator is literally the lowest-paid person in the room for a large portion of the estimator’s job. They work with designers, client execs, Project Managers, General and Ops Managers daily, but are on the very bottom of the pay scale. Compound that with the estimator being looked to as the magician to take a project from ‘money grows on trees world’ to ‘the owner could actually afford this,’ and you have yourself a recipe for burnout/misery,” said one former project estimator.
Compounding the salary question, estimating being seen as boring and related to “workaholic” culture without much reward, attracting recent graduates will be damn near impossible if we can’t combat this perception that precon glorifies overwork. This is especially troubling when 82% of general contractors responding to a 2023 Engineering and Construction Industry Outlook survey said that hiring and retaining employees will be one of their biggest obstacles this year.
How can we resolve this problem? The ex-estimators we spoke to have the following suggestions:
“I have seen a lot of companies talk about Work/Life Balance, but no one is actually able to live it. I have seen HR and Upper Management preach it and support it, but it falls apart on the project level. There needs to be something put into place that people are called out for NOT taking time off. An audit or something that says, “Hey you haven’t taken a day off in 6 months. I think you should.” Plain and simple, companies need to take care of all of their employees. Upper management needs to hold managers accountable for creating the environment they want. I know companies have to look at the bottom line and make sure they are profitable, but they need to make sure they take care of the people that make the bottom-line work and help make the company profitable, and it is not necessarily the managers they have promoted.”
Rethink Preconstruction as a Profit Center
“Construction firms need to treat their precon departments as profit centers. Market them as a professional service, staff the department like it’s an engineering firm, bill 100% of hours at a rate commensurate to mid-level consulting (2.5x base salary).”
We wrote about how to make preconstruction profitable. Click here to read it.
Bend the Perception that Construction is a Commodity
“Commodity-based industries are also the most competitive. This lends itself to an overworked culture by nature of the need for survival. Construction is mostly seen as a commodity, not a service and so it makes sense that it straddles the line between the two types. Those in construction work 11% more than the average American. This change has to impact every aspect of the industry from publicity to contract methods.”
"Research shows that downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, enhances productivity and creativity, and is essential to achieve our highest levels of performance."-Janelle Bruland
On The Other Hand
It was pointed out during our research that we need to make sure there’s actually a problem. One former estimator said, “Our society varies widely and there’s literally a niche for anyone. It may be that construction is just a niche for folks who prefer to work more than others. How we define ourselves defines what we do.”
Another completely disagreed with the student’s perspective: “The entire reason why I chose precon was work/life balance. Estimators typically work more of an 8-5 than other roles. And you’re likely always in the office, so no chance of your next job being an hour plus commute (or being shipped to another city for a job). It’s also one of the only construction roles that can be fully performed from home.”
At the end of the day, preconstruction professionals want a better work/life balance regardless. Niche Specialist Staffing Partners, a staffing firm specializing in preconstruction, asked 1,379 estimators in 2022 what their primary reason for leaving a company for another one was. The majority responded that it was because of a promise of a better work/life balance. And 78% of respondents said they would prefer a better work/life balance over a promotion.
In conclusion, we can’t say exclusively that preconstruction is inherently a workaholic culture, but we also can’t deny that the perception exists.
Precon is an extremely rewarding career. After all, you are helping build the buildings that cure disease and keep people alive. You help build the buildings that are educating and influencing the next great leaders of our world. You help build the buildings that give people a better life. You are creating the future.
For more information on work/life balance and working in preconstruction, refer to the following resources: