Mental Health, Burnout and Architects: Starting the conversation.

RUOK day has come around again in peripheral part of the global architectural galaxy. Recently, I met an architect who was having a few really bad weeks in her practice. She said it was the worst time she had ever had in practice. After a series of particularly gruesome negotiations and risk management issues she decided to take, what is known as, a mental health day.

Survey Invite for Architecture Students

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a widespread issue regarding mental health the both for practitioners and students. If you are an Architecture student reading this you might like to complete our survey.  We are investigating how undergraduate and postgraduate students’ experiences of psychological wellbeing and distress relate to other aspects of their university experiences. Understanding these relationships is important for supporting students to develop strategies that enhance their wellbeing and overcome experiences of distress. The survey link is here.

The Stress Factors Practicing Architects Face 

No matter how hard architects try to manage risk it doesn’t take much in practice, for things to go awry. In the last year I have been witness to some of these things:

  • A builder who misrepresents his financial position because he is not getting paid on another project.
  • A  bullying project manager who can’t make decisions on prestigious government project and then blames everyone else for time delays
  • A client who moves in and then vociferously complains about every detail despite extensive prior consultation.
  • The bad advice from the product manufacturer combined with sloppy installation resulting in the necessity to replace all the floor coverings.
  • Every minor planning ambiguity or skirmish that architects have to deal with.

All of the above situations is enough to put extreme pressure and stress on any architect, regardless of how experienced they may be. Running and directing an architectural practice can be gruelling. No matter how big or small your architectural practice, or even if you are a student of architecture being an architect can take a real toll on your mental health.

Speaking from my own personal experience burnout is common factor amongst architects and academics.  I came to the conclusion that the “grin and bear” it school of working, doesn’t really help anyone. It is too easy to sweep a culture of out of balance work practices under the carpet. Run for the exit if you here your overlords telling you to “man up” or just “just grin and bear it” or it “is what it is” when unreasonable work expectations are made and you start to burn out.

Contributing Factors

In some practices staff are subject to long hours, relatively low pay, entrenched cultures of discrimination and worse still bullying. To what extent are these issues systemic? I guess, no one really knows as there have been few studies looking at these issues and the mental health outcome of architects (there is a PhD there for someone). Some of the contributing factors in regards to mental health and architects as noted by RIBA recently are:

  • Lower pay relative to other professions
  • A culture of long hours
  • Adhoc career pathways
  • Gender and other forms of discrimination.
  • “Boom’ and “Bust” workflows
  • High personal investment in the actual work
  • Lack of union protection
  • And a working environment where HR support is not a part of the working landscape

This is not to say that every architectural practice is exhibits all of the above attributes. But architecture is hard enough any way so why make it worse?

Discrimination

But, it also needs to be said that all of the above is relevant to those architecture students and architects who experience discrimination as a result of their sexuality, gender identity or ethnic differences. (You can read some of my thoughts on this here). Thankfully there are more, although not enough, community support groups for these people than there where in the past.  My previous blog on some of these issues can be found here.

For me personally, that many of the problems, is because of an entrenched culture that gives primacy to the architects as singular genius with loyal followers. Slowly but surely, architects are waking up to how much this has damaged our profession. Anyway here a few points for your consideration:

1. A Few Online Resources.

There are lots of online resources these days so here are a few.

In my country RUOK day is coming up and this can be found here.

There are plenty of online resources in Australia Usually a good place to start. Some of the resources again the ACA is on top of things here.

The AIA in Victoria currently has a health in the workplace module.

Tim Horton’s the NSW registrar’s article about this is also worth reading here.

2. You are not invincible.

We all need help sometime. For younger architects, it is easy to think you are invincible. But like everyone else life events, for example grief, can easily take their toll. So, don’t be afraid to seek help from a trained psychologist or counsellor.

In Australia, you can start to find someone who might be able to help at this link. There are also plenty of places where you can go to for immediate and urgent help such as Lifeline if you are having an immediate personal crisis.

3. Getting a coach or mentor.

As architects, we need all the help we can get. No matter what kind of practice you lead or are in it is really important to develop your own support groups or find yourself some mentors further up the food chain. One great group is EMAGN and also the young architects group in Victoria. There are also various groups for small practitioners around.

If you are in a position of leadership, or decision-making is crucial in There is also a lot to be said for getting a career coach. Leadership and Decision Making is not taught in architecture schools so executive coaching may help you develop and fill the gaps. The best design leaders are the ones that are reflective and can evolve.

4. Take a Mental Health day

Yep, just go for it. Turn the smart-phone off. Get out and party, or shop, or as suggested by the blog image go for a spin down the freeway. Go for the Yoga thing. Sleep in or hang out with the Baristas. Do nothing. Go to Burning Man 2018 as my friend did in 2017.

Sacrificing your mental health for architecture does not really help anyone. As a local, regional and global community of architects we will be stronger if we start to have this conversation. As a profession, no matter our roles or where we are situated, not talking about this stuff is toxic to architectural culture.



Categories: architects and mental health, architectural practice, surviving the design studio

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