A State of Mind

Healthy architects, healthier environments

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Architects and designers have a key role to play in improving the mental wellbeing of their communities—that much is clear. We spend 80% to 90% of our time inside or around buildings, and how those spaces are designed impacts the way we feel and interact with those around us. City dwellers have an almost 40% increased risk of depression, over 20% more of anxiety, and double the risk of developing schizophrenia compared to people who live in the countryside.

How odd then that despite knowing the relationship of good design to mental wellbeing, the latter is rarely discussed in our own practices. Is there actually much of a problem? Yes, and the problems run through all career stages.

Unhealthy work practices in architecture

One in four British workers are dealing with stress, anxiety or depression at any time, causing 70 million sick days each year, costing UK employers billions in lost productivity and absence. It makes good business sense to keep your greatest assets both physically and mentally healthy to ensure a content and productive workforce.

Mental health issues can – and most probably will – affect all of us at some point in our lives, and yet the stigma associated with the subject still means that architectural practices don’t yet offer employees support. If someone breaks an arm, you empathise and understand how long they are likely to be out of action, and what help they need, assuming that they will recover and pick up as before. Mental ill-health is less predictable and difficult to deal with.

Sadly many architecture students in the UK report mental health issues related to their studies, with workload and debt among the leading causes. They study for at least seven years to qualify; longer than most other professions. Schools still encourage individualism and competition rather than collaboration and mutual support, putting pressure on students which continues into their working lives. Much could be done to rethink how architecture is taught and learned.

In the professional realm, the likelihood of mental health issues among architects increases due to long hours, heavy workloads, tight deadlines and demanding clients, technological challenges particularly for older practitioners, and a lack of HR support.

“We must care for staff, so that they can then care for the mental wellbeing of those people that live and work in the buildings they design.”

Exercising care in your own practice

In our own practices, it is important that we pay attention to our own state of mind and those of our employees. Signs such as changes in behaviour or mood, interaction with colleagues, work output or focus indicate that someone might need some extra care.

In my practice this means starting with a chat and deciding together if a re-prioritisation of workload or time off is needed. Depending on the seriousness of each case, we recommend medical assistance, or self-care. Organizations like the Architects Benevolent Society, are also available to provide confidential advice, support and funding where appropriate.

The simple act of listening and showing compassion can be sufficient, but you can go further and create a culture that supports staff to be open about their mental health. Ideally, mental health should be treated in the same manner as physical health. Many offices have trained first aiders, but who only deal with physical issues.  Can we aspire to having mental health first aiders too?

The market in which architects and designers operate is not going to change overnight, but the way in which we run our practices can. We must care for staff, so that they can then care for the mental wellbeing of those people that live and work in the buildings they design. We cannot have one without the other.