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Who to talk to about mental wellbeing concerns

The outlets that are available to architects suffering from stress and anxiety

12 September 2019

There has been a welcome recognition of mental health issues in the workplace over the past few years. Encouragingly, more and more employers are waking up to the pressures that mount up on their staff.

"There does seem to be a generational change happening," reveals Katie Vivian of the Architects Benevolent Society (ABS). "Many more people are talking about mental health and having conversations about their issues. Practices are asking for advice on how to make cultural changes in their workplace."

All employers have a duty of care for the welfare of employees. Anyone who is suffering from undue stress or mental health issues should first approach their line manager, HR department, or a staff wellbeing officer (if the practice has one). However, when stress or anxiety is work related, this may not be an easy thing to do.

Contacting the welfare team at ABS is an alternative route, giving people a chance to talk about their situation and discuss the next step to accessing help and support. The ABS has a well-established partnership with Anxiety UK that offers Mental Health Support via the charity’s UK-wide network of some 200 therapists.

This help is not restricted to those with a particular qualification or professional membership but is offered to anyone who has worked in the profession in the UK for at least one year.

The scheme will pay for a wellbeing assessment and a subsequent course of therapy an approved therapist. This might include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), counselling, clinical hypnotherapy, or acupuncture. The therapy service can be provided in person but also via Skype if that is preferable.

"The most important thing is that it is very quick," explains Vivian. "A therapist will be in touch in a matter of days following our referral. Therapy can begin within a few weeks or even sooner, compared to typically six to eight months with the NHS, during which time a person’s wellbeing can deteriorate."

ABS has now funded courses of therapy for over 150 people since their partnership with Anxiety UK was launched in 2017, with very positive outcomes.

Vivian reports that the most frequent feedback from those using the service is that having a simple platform to talk is extremely valuable. Talking about the problem and making formal its existence is in itself a huge relief.

"Many of those going through this experience feel very alone, as if they are the only ones," Vivian states.

She will be hosting a lunchtime ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing’ session at Guerrilla Tactics 2019, at the RIBA in London on Wednesday 6 November 2019.

If there is a problem, it is vital to talk about it, whether that is to dedicated staff within your practice or using the ABS helpline

Experiences and lessons learned by several practitioners are shared on the ABS website’s wellbeing pages . Suggestions are provided to address the widespread long-hours culture, the pressure to complete tasks by impossible deadlines, and the squeeze on leisure time and social life.

The expectation of long working hours begins at university, she suggests. Architecture students suffer a disproportionate amount of stress: one in three admit to mental health issues of some degree according to a recent study. The ABS will pay for undergraduate membership to Anxiety UK, giving them access to various resources including a helpline and email support.

For both architects and employers looking for advice, a good place to look for information is the AMWF Toolkit produced by member practices of the Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Forum, with the support of ABS and the RIBA. The Toolkit brings together lessons learnt by practices who have taken steps to create a work culture more supportive of mental health.

"The message is really resonating with the profession at the moment, and the fact that people are having these conversations within practices is itself a great help to people who may have felt alone with their problems," she suggests.

Thanks to Katie Vivian, Operations Manager, Architects Benevolent Society.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas

RIBA Core Curriculum Topic: Health, safety and wellbeing.
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