Mental health and architects
One in six British workers are dealing with stress, anxiety or depression at any one time. People don’t like to talk about these and yet they cause an estimated 70 million sick days each year and are estimated to cost UK employers over £30 billion a year due to lost productivity, recruitment and absence. It makes sense to keep your greatest assets both physically and mentally healthy to ensure a content, productive and loyal workforce.
The stigma associated with the subject of mental health means that most architectural practices have nothing in place to support those employees affected. Yet there is plenty that can be done to help employers and sufferers, and to create a healthy working environment.
If an employee breaks an arm, you can empathise and understand how long they are likely to be out of action, what help they will need to return to work. etc. There is an assumption that they will recover and be able to carry on successfully as before.
Mental ill-health can be less predictable and harder to understand. It is associated with vulnerability, and therefore sufferers are unwilling to discuss their mental health. Colleagues often feel awkward and reluctant to raise the subject which adds to the sense of isolation.
Is there a problem?
There are certain characteristics about the way architects work which can add to the likelihood that mental health issue will occur:
- poorly paid in general
- often involving long hours
- volatile and susceptible to ‘feast or famine’ workloads
- highly personal, requiring the constant commitment to and defending of a personal design
- potential of needing to compromise personal ethics
- technologically challenging (particularly for older practitioners)
- not ‘protected’ by a union
- most architects work for small practices without HR support
Healthy mental wellbeing
There are steps that any employer can take to help address well-being in the workplace and to make sure that people affected feel supported. These often have no cost to the practice and improve the working life of everyone. Practical steps might include:
- ensuring any medical or life insurance you have in place as a company has mental health cover
- setting up mental health first aiders - it wouldn’t occur to you not to have first aid at work
- educating your staff - provide access to resources, perhaps on your intranet, which will help them become more literate in mental health issues and encourage them to seek support earlier
- making sure HR staff, or a nominated person, have at least some basic training to understand mental health issues generally
- addressing work/life balance issues. Don’t contact staff on holiday and make it possible for people to take time off for personal and family commitments. Operate a no-email policy between 8pm and 8am
- identifying any triggers in the workplace. Survey your staff and simply ask how people are doing
- using the support that is already available through employee assistance programmes (EAP) to catch issues early
- checking out the mental health charity MIND’s website (www.mind.org.uk) for advice
- Contact the Architects Benevolent Society (www.absnet.org.uk) who can offer excellent support including free counselling (see What to do as an employer, below)
Different types of mental illnesses
Just as there are many ways that a person can me physically unwell – migraine, flu, chicken pox, broken bones, cancer - there are many mental illnesses which will be diagnosed and treated differently. MIND identifies and gives advice on dealing with:
- Anxiety and panic Attacks
- Bipolar disorder
- Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Dissociative disorder
- Drug abuse
- Eating problems
- Hearing voices
- Hypomania and mania
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Panic attacks
- Personality disorders
- Postnatal depression
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Schizoaffective disorder
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
- Self-esteem issues
- Sleep problems
- Suicidal feelings
- Tardive dyskinesia
Signs to look out for as an employer
A broken arm is reasonably easy to diagnose, but what signs could be an indication that someone is experiencing mental health issues? These do not necessarily mean that there is a problem but could indicate that someone might benefit from a friendly chat, a discussion about or gentle reduction in workload, or just benevolent closer observation:
- changes in people’s behaviour or mood or how they interact with colleagues
- changes in their work output, motivation levels and focus
- struggling to make decisions, get organised and find solutions to problems
- appearing tired, anxious or withdrawn and losing interest in activities and tasks they previously enjoyed
- changes in eating habits, appetite and increased smoking and drinking.
Check out MIND for further information.
What to do as an employer or teacher
As an employer, you will not be in a position to offer advice to someone who you suspect or know to be suffering.
It might be that the cause of the crisis is due to a change in personal circumstances such as money worries, relationships problems, loneliness or a personal loss.
It might be that people need assistance in managing their workflow so that they feel the pressure is being shared;
The simple act of listening and showing compassion can be sufficient help to get them back on track. Do not underestimate the power of listening. You can also
- create a culture that supports staff to be open about their mental health
- be open and have a conversation with someone about their mental health if you have concerns. There is help available on the MIND website regarding how to manage this
- offer support by having an appropriate Employers’ Assistance Plan and suggesting that the employer uses it
- help them with managing any time off sick and their return to work
- advise that they contact the Architects Benevolent Society who, through their partnership with Anxiety UK, are able to provide confidential advice, support and funding where appropriate for people experiencing anxiety, stress and anxiety-based depression.
Are you suffering?
It is not easy to spot (or accept) the signs that you may be suffering from mental health issues and need to make some changes. The early signs are probably felt by most of us at some point in our professional career due to work:
- low level constant anxiety
- worrying about work first thing in the morning and last thing at night
- insomnia or waking up fretting
- sense of being overwhelmed with work
- need to shut out home life or social life
- inability to take a holiday
Signs can develop into, but are not limited to, feeling:
- down, upset or tearful
- restless, agitated or irritable
- guilty, worthless and down on yourself
- empty and numb
- isolated and unable to relate to other people
- that there is no pleasure in life or things you usually enjoy
- a sense of unreality
- no self-confidence or self-esteem
- hopeless and despairing
- tired or unable to sleep
These issues are a spectrum which we are all on, and the borderline between coping and not coping with the symptoms can vary hugely between people and their circumstances.
Practical steps - what to do if you are suffering
It's common to feel unsure about seeking support for your mental health, and to feel like you ought to wait until you can't handle things on your own. But it's always OK for you to seek help – even if you're not sure if you are experiencing a specific mental health problem.
Some reasons why you might choose to seek help could include:
- finding it difficult to cope with your thoughts and feelings
- thoughts and feelings having an impact on your day-to-day life
- wanting to find out about available support
A good start to understanding and finding the words to express your feelings will be on the MIND website.
Don’t forget that the Architects Benevolent Society (ABS) is able to provide practical advice and funding to help you get the appropriate support.
Do try to speak to an appropriate person at your office or school to express your feelings and concerns, or find a colleague or friend who you can open up to.
Remember, there is plenty of help available and you are not alone.
How you can help
I am keen to collect a series of case studies from people who have experienced mental health issues to share with RIBA members, and to help us ascertain if there are new initiatives people may benefit from.
I don't need to know the specific details of any mental health issue you were dealing with, but would like to ask you about:
- how you felt about dealing with your situation
- what, if any, help you received
- what help you would have benefited from