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 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 is perceived as being less predictable and harder to understand. It comes with a lot of stigma and discrimination attached, making it difficult for people to discuss their mental health. If staff feel awkward and reluctant to talk about it, it can lead to a sense of isolation.
Architecture and mental health
There are many stressful factors within the world of architecture which can affect mental wellbeing. These include:
- being poorly paid in general
- working long hours
- having volatile workloads
- requiring the constant commitment to, and defending of a personal design
- dealing with technological challenges
- not being ‘protected’ by a union
- working for small practices without HR support
Tips for a healthy workplace
There are steps that any employer can take to help address wellbeing in the workplace and to make sure that people feel supported. These often have no cost to the practice and improve the working life of everyone. Practical steps might mean:
- ensuring any medical or life insurance you have in place as a company has mental health cover
- setting up mental health first aiders
- 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 8 pm and 8 am
- 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 for advice
- contacting the Architects Benevolent Society, who can offer excellent support including free counselling.
Signs to look out for as an employer
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 or a discussion about their workload. These signs may involve:
- changes in people’s behaviour or mood or how they interact with colleagues
- alterations 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.
What to do as an employer or teacher
It might be that the cause of someone's mental health crisis is due to a change in personal circumstances such as money worries, relationship problems, loneliness, or a personal loss. But as an employer or teacher, there is a lot you can do to support people in your place of work or learning:
- create a culture that supports people to be open about their mental health
- do not underestimate the power of listening and showing compassion
- 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 people with managing any time off-sick and their return to work
- offer assistance in managing staff workflow
- 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.
Your own mental health
It is not easy to spot (or accept) the signs that you may be experiencing 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
- sense of being overwhelmed with work
- need to shut out home life or social life
- inability to take a holiday
You may find yourself 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 becoming overwhelmed with the symptoms can vary hugely between people and their circumstances.
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.
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.
Twelve practices that share a strong commitment to staff wellbeing came together earlier this year to form the Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Forum, which has now produced the Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Toolkit with the support of the RIBA and the Architects Benevolent Society (ABS).
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.
We’re supporting the Architects Benevolent Society's #AnxietyArch campaign to help improve wellbeing in our architectural community.
Through the campaign they aim to:
- Encourage architectural professionals and students to recognise and talk openly about mental health issues and know where they can access help when they need it most
- Raise money to enable ABS to support more people experiencing stress, anxiety and anxiety based depression
- Promote good practice in terms of people looking after themselves, their colleagues, their employees and their families.