Mental health in the profession

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Mental health is sometimes described as a continuum, where good mental health is at one end, and mild to severe mental illnesses at the other end. We can move back and forward along this continuum at different times during our lives.

Mental health is defined by the World Health Organization as ‘a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’. Good mental health provides the foundation for an individual’s effective functioning and wellbeing.

Architects are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues as a result of factors, such as long hours and a culture of perfectionism (Architects Mental Wellbeing Forum). Architecture has been described as an 'anxious discipline' (Kinnaird, 2016). Understanding mental health risks and protective factors, the roles and responsibilities of employers and employees in creating a safe work environment (including the requirements of WHS legislation) and being aware of and promoting mental health resources and programs are all critical to effectively managing mental health issues in the profession.

Page contents:

What is a mentally healthy workplace?

Work is generally considered beneficial to mental health and personal well-being. It provides people with structure and purpose and a sense of identity. It also provides opportunities for people to develop and use their skills, to form social relationships and to increase their feelings of self-worth.

A workplace can promote good mental health practices — a mentally healthy workplace is one that protects the mental health of all employees, promotes wellbeing, and supports employees with mental health conditions.

Mentally healthy working environments generally have in common:

  • A positive workplace culture;
  • Stress and other risks to mental health are managed;
  • People with mental health conditions are supported; and
  • A zero-tolerance approach to negative behaviour, such as bullying, harassment and discrimination.

Research in the area (Steen and Carey, 2019) indicates that common risk factors in the workplace include:

  • Working long hours for long periods;
  • Heavy workloads;
  • Unrealistic deadlines;
  • Insufficient support;
  • Job insecurity; and
  • Toxic behaviours, such as bullying, harassment and discrimination.

Mental health issues for the profession

Architecture can be an enormously rewarding field of work; however, industry research shows that constant or excessive working hours can take a toll on architects and those around them. Common mental health issues associated with long working hours and unrealistic deadlines include depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. This can impact on other areas of work, for example, poor decision-making or difficulties identifying priorities and can have consequences not only for an individual but the employer and /or practice.

The first literature review into the subject of architects and their mental health was commissioned by the NSW Architects Registration Board. The purpose of the review was to understand:

  1. The research around the mental health concerns facing architects, when students, when seeking employment, and when employed;
  2. Prevalence or incidence of mental illness; and
  3. Triggers, risk factors and early warning signs that could assist the sector to better support those in periods of mental illness.

The report concluded that the perception of architecture as a profession that is male dominated, that involves excessively long study hours and intense commitment during education, and excessive work hours and intense, often isolating, project focus in practice, suggests there are elements in the profession’s culture that could be contributing factors in mental health concerns.

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A table of risk and protective factors for the mental health of architects was developed. These factors remain relevant to today’s practice.

Risk factors Protective factors
Excessive alcohol or drug use  Having good friends to talk to
Having no friends or support Keeping an active mind
Particular crisis or traumas Having the opportunity to have control over your life
Particular populations Smarter work design that encourages employee engagement
Organisational injustice Building better work cultures to encourage trust, collegiality and team work
Project induced stress Evidence-based intervention strategies to seek help
Dysfunctional design team Awareness and faciliatation of timely interventions
Long hours of work Increase awareness of information and resources
Perceived career decline and/or Precarious employment Support recovery for individuals managing or returning to work from mental illness or stressful life events

Negative leadership behaviours and/or Poor organisational culture (closed communications, lack of gender diversity, competitive, coercive, selective/exclusive etc)

Leadership skills (committment and drive, overlearned skills, aesthetic sensitivity, ability to be a good sales person, extraversion and agreeableness)

Table 1: Risk and protective factors for the mental health and wellbeing of architects (Adapted from Karklins and Mendoza, 2016)

Students of architecture

There is evidence that university students are a high-risk population for mental health issues. Around 75 per cent of mental illness is evidenced by the age of 25. This means that many architecture students may experience a form of illness while at university, or after graduation and before they register (Horton, 2016).

Architecture has been described as one of the most intense university courses. It has even been called 'architorture school', with sleep deprivation a common place experience (Doorne, 2016). The expectation of long working hours in practice often begins at university (Vivian, 2019).

In addition to potentially five years of sleep deprivation, students must contend with:

  • Financial stresses due to the expensive course-related costs (hardware, software and presentation materials);
  • The process of design review/critiques; and
  • Pressure to work part-time to gain valuable work experience while sometimes studying full-time (Vivian, 2019; Kinnaird, 2016; Kaji-O'Grady, 2016).

The deeply embedded culture of overworking and negativity is one of the primary reasons why mental health is such a prevalent issue within the architectural student community. University may also be a rehearsal for some unhealthy aspects of architecture’s organisational culture (Horton, 2016).

Most universities offer a range of mental health support services to students, including free counselling services and access to health professionals, student services and student mentors. Students experiencing difficulties can access special consideration and seek extensions. Help is also available from general practitioners, who can provide a referral to a psychologist or other mental health specialist, and through online services such as SANE Australia, Mindspot Clinic and headspace.

Initiatives in the workplace include ensuring that students are supported, providing a mentor who understands their course requirements and deadlines and providing flexibility to work around semester deadlines.

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Graduates of architecture and employees

Common mental health risk factors include:

  • Long working hours, heavy workloads and unrealistic deadlines;
  • Insufficient support;
  • Job insecurity due to cyclical nature of the industry;
  • Inappropriate behaviours, such as bullying, harassment and/or discrimination;
  • Feelings of disillusionment on entering the workforce due to a lack of creative expression;
  • Lack of clarity of role and responsibilities;
  • Unhealthy team dynamics; and
  • Insufficient leadership.

To manage work stresses, deal with life’s challenges and work more productively, it is important to stay mentally fit. Employees can take steps to protect and enhance their mental health and wellbeing, such as:

  • Take regular breaks – go for a walk on your lunch break;
  • Try not to take work home;
  • Take annual leave;
  • Have a technology switch-off;
  • Access the Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if available, or speak with a senior staff member when experiencing a difficult time at work or personally;
  • Seek out a mentor;
  • Upskill with required training;
  • Practice time management – plan the day and tasks ahead;
  • Practice meditation, mindfulness and relaxation techniques;
  • Request flexible work arrangements to maintain work-life balance;
  • Engage in self-care behaviours (eg exercise, healthy eating, not smoking, and not abusing drugs or alcohol); and
  • Enjoy social activities with family and friends.

Employees can also contribute to a positive workplace culture and must take reasonable care not to affect the health or safety of other people in the workplace and cooperate with any reasonable instructions to ensure workplace health and safety.

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Employers and managers

Given the prevalence of mental illness in Australia it is highly likely that a manager (knowingly or unknowingly) will supervise an employee with a mental illness. Employers must comply with legislative requirements in relation to the management of mental illness in the workplace (read more here). Information about your legal rights and responsibilities can be found in the Acumen note: Workplace Health and Safety (WHS).

The duty of care under Workplace Health and Safety legislation (as applicable to each state and territory) extends to any employees with mental illness. An employer or manager is obliged to:

  • Identify possible workplace practices, actions or incidents which may cause, or contribute to, the mental illness of workers; and
  • Take actions to eliminate or minimise these risks.

Recognising and promoting mental health is an essential part of creating a safe and healthy workplace. Managers should ensure that organisational priorities, practices, and workplace norms promote a mentally healthy workplace including:

  • Promote a positive working environment and culture that supports a safe and healthy workplace by minimising risks to mental health such as job stress, and adopting a zero tolerance approach to negative behaviour, such as bullying, harassment and discrimination;
  • Actively manage workloads and pressures;
  • Encourage active participation in a range of initiatives that support mental health and wellbeing including social events, training, career development and education;
  • Speak openly about mental health in the workplace and encourage others to do the same;
  • Provide a workplace where staff with an identified health issue are properly supported (to the best of the practice’s professional ability);
  • Provide support services such as an Employee Assistance Program, and ensure this support is known about;
  • Provide support to employees returning to work after taking time off for mental illness; and
  • Educate employees through online resources and training;
  • Lead by example. When workplaces prioritise mental health, both employers and employees benefit (Steen and Carey, 2019). Provide a continuous and ongoing commitment to developing a mentally healthy workplace.

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Resources and support services

The Institute’s Senior Counsellor Service provides confidential assistance to architects who may need guidance or advice on projects, client matters or in relation to their professional responsibilities (contact your local chapter).

An Employee Assistance Program is a confidential counselling service provided by employers to their employees.

  • Architects Benevolent Society is dedicated to helping architects, assistants, technologists, technicians, landscape architects
  • Architects Mental Wellbeing Forum Toolkit
  • Australian Human Rights Commission provides information on employees’ rights to a discrimination free workplace.
  • Beyond Blue provides support and information about how businesses have created mentally healthy workplaces.
  • Black Dog Institute provides educational programs and resources for health professionals, community groups, workplaces and schools.
  • Conversations for life® App provides knowledge, tools and skills to plan conversations with individuals whose wellbeing and mental health is of concern. This might include a colleague, client or architect.
  • Colourtation managing stress or anxiety can be helped by the act of colouring. Dr Stan Rodski, University of Melbourne, and Jake Dowling, an architecture student, have developed a range of colouring books designed to create a calming or meditative state.
  • Fair Work Commission provides information on national anti-bullying laws.
  • Heads Up provides business information that demonstrates how to identify mental health risks and implement control measures.
  • Headspace provides mental health support for young people (12 to 25 years)
  • Lifeline provides all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services.
  • Mental Health First Aid is an evidence-based training course aimed at supporting a mentally healthy workplace.
  • Mental health project considers workplace mental health obligations and best practice.
  • Parlour notes including a toolkit and topics relating to the architecture profession.
  • R U OK? provides guidance and resources to help managers and colleagues manage conversations with individuals struggling and prevent suicide.
  • SANE Australia provides a helpline and suite of mental health resources for businesses and organisations.
  • Student Organised Network for Architects (SONA) is the official student body of the Australian Institute of Architects. SONA represents architecture students from across Australia, organising national, state and local events that provide opportunities for students to collaborate with each other as well as professional designers.
  • Suicide call back service a nationwide service that provides professional 24/7 telephone and online counselling to people who are affected by suicide.
  • SuperFriend provides information for employees and managers about what to do/what not to do in conversations with anyone they are worried about.
  • Workplace prevention of mental health problems guidelines prepared by WorkSafe Victoria, the Transport Accident Commission and Monash University, funded by the Institute for Safety, Compensation and Recovery Research.

References

Doorne, C (2016) The Dark side of architectural education The Red and Black Architect

Horton, T (2016) Managing Mental Health Architecture AU

Kaji-O’Grady, S (2016) Stress test: Addressing mental illness at architecture school Architecture AU

Karklins, L and Mendoza, J (2016) Literature Review: Architects and mental health A report prepared for the NSW Architects Registration Board, ConNetica, Caloundra, Queensland 

Kinnaird, B (2016) An Anxious Discipline Archiparlour

Steen, J and Carey, P (2019) 5 Steps to creating a mentally healthy workplace, ABC Life

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HR Advice Australia kindly contributed to the content of this note.