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Guest blog: Jane Duncan reminds us that we are born to talk

President of the Architects Benevolent Society Jane Duncan shares her own experience of lockdown and reminds us all to prioritise our mental health.

18 May 2020

RIBA Past President and President of the Architects Benevolent Society, Jane Duncan OBE, shares her own experience of lockdown and reminds us all to prioritise our mental health.

We are born to talk

Of course it’s no surprise that we are, even after two months of lockdown and now in Mental Health Awareness Week, only really beginning to settle into the new ‘normal’ - which we all fervently hope will not last. The rather mixed government messaging last week nonetheless heralded the first small shoots of change, allowing some elements of society to re-emerge from the safety of their cocoons for economic reasons, but personal interactions are limited to one person only at a socially correct distance.

That’s been the hardest part of the lockdown for me, without doubt. It is really tricky to contemplate work/life balance when that balancing act is taking place in the same physical location. I am just about managing to cope with what seems like an interminable string of tiring Zoom meetings, but only seeing family and friends through my phone screen has been pretty tough.

And I am a lucky one, I know that. Indeed counting my blessings does help. I have plenty of distractions; a kind husband, a garden where I appear to be growing enough veg this year for an army, a new mania for pre-work exercise, and beech woods at the end of the road to walk through. The practice is busy too for the moment, and I am nicely busied by my RIBA work on Fire Safety advocacy.

I am thankfully easily distracted by beautiful lockdown ballet extracts, re-written songs, hilarious comedy in a range of languages and concerts, and (luckily?) I’m old enough to know that ‘All Things Must Pass’, but it still feels like a grim period which we could all do without, however positive a front one puts up.

I cannot even start to understand how much worse this has been if you are living or working alone, not a hobby person or natural volunteer, and perhaps even furloughed or worse, meaning you may also have financial worries. My heart and a huge (sadly virtual) hug goes out to you.

The RIBA has been super quick as always to set out a plethora of help and signposting for practitioners on Their first survey of the Covid-bound profession showed early on that nearly 80% reported project delays and more than half said turnover had been hit. More than a third of architects had schemes cancelled, most said projects have been delayed, or were experiencing a drop in practice income both from decreased workloads and new business inquiries.

It is hardly a shock to learn that, as a result of trying to cope with all of this - plus personal issues including home schooling or trying to care for older relatives at a distance - 25% of architects reported a decline in both their mental and physical wellbeing because of the lockdown.

There is plenty of advice out there too, offering useful tips for architects, designers, students, furloughed workers, parents and others who may become stressed. Sadly stress impacts our ability to sleep and we become increasingly irritable and tired. Walking with a family member or dog, running or cycling even alone is great to help boost mental health.

A good diet and exercise work together as we know to improve mental health, and settling this into our new daily routine makes us feel like we are being proactive; if we can improve energy levels, this can lift the mood too. Best still is keeping in touch - however you can manage it, to talk.

There is however, specific help there if you need it. Of course it may not be an easy thing for any of us to do, but in this time of crisis it really is better to seek help as early as possible.

The Architects Benevolent Society (ABS) of which I am currently President, has been modestly (and possibly rather quietly) helping more than a thousand architects, technicians and landscape architects each year, with both monthly financial grants (over £500k last year) and one off gifts (over £300k).

They have continued to be there to help throughout this difficult lockdown period providing advice, support and financial assistance, delivered by a wonderful, approachable and sympathetic Welfare Team, in partnership with Anxiety UK, Shelter and Law Express.

They provide financial, housing, legal and by no means least mental health support. Through a partnership with Anxiety UK, they can provide quick access to a range of mental health support including counselling which can take place over the phone, by email or Skype.

Currently, ABS is aiming to maximise and expand this work to help those in the profession affected by the global pandemic, and has launched a COVID-19 Emergency Appeal.

So, will you please help the architectural community in this time of crisis?

The Architects Benevolent Society has seen a sharp 60% increase in calls for support since the coronavirus pandemic started. This demand will continue to increase and they are appealing to you to please consider making a donation of whatever size you are able to. Your generosity will help ABS continue to support those who are in need.

Thank you.


“We are born to talk to other people ... we are born to be sociable and to sit together with others in the shade of the acacia tree and talk about things that happened the day before. We were not born to sit in kitchens by ourselves, with nobody to chat to.”

― Alexander McCall Smith, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built

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