On 20 June, the Architects’ Forum for Mental Wellbeing launched its first toolkit, providing industry-specific insights into the causes of poor wellbeing and offering a range of resources practices and individual architects can use to help themselves or seek help elsewhere.
‘The thinking behind it came from my realisation that there was a real will – not just in architecture – for people to try and improve workplaces and mental health, but that there wasn’t that much easily accessible advice, particularly in architecture,’ Ben Channon, the co-founder of the forum and instigator of the toolkit, told Icon ahead of the launch.
Government figures show that over 15 million days are lost to stress, depression and anxiety every year in the UK – though when it comes to architecture, numbers are less specific. Recent work by Melissa Kirkpatrick, cited in the toolkit and drawing on surveys of students, gives an idea of the extent of mental health issues among training architects – one in three say they are struggling with their mental health – and in part the issues at university continue in the office, Ben believes. ‘There are very similar problems,’ he says. ’It’s very deadline-focused at university and as an industry. In the toolkit we’ve tried to identify some key areas that make this a difficult industry and take a toll on people’s health.’
The toolkit highlights six key areas that impact health, wellbeing and productivity and breaks them down into industry-specific issues – for instance, in demands, it looks at the impact of overtime and workload. It demonstrates specific industry knowledge gained from the 12 practices involved in the Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Forum, including discussion of technology’s impact – with the stress of slower systems adding to an expectation from some clients that computer-aided design should make things quicker.
‘There is a feeling that overtime and late working is embedded into the culture and people perhaps can’t imagine a scenario where they leave on time,’ Channon says. ‘But we’re seeing a shift – we certainly have at Assael – where people realise burned out staff are not productive. It’s a myth that more hours always equals more work – it’s better to do 40 productive hours than 60 burned out hours.’
On the overtime front, the toolkit provides both resources to back this up – studies and examples of workplaces that have experimented with shorter working hours – and practical tools such as a stress risk assessment or techniques to manage workload and remain efficient. Channon also points out how putting a monetary value on overtime can discourage long hours: ‘Getting paid overtime signed off gives project managers that incentive to avoid it, and it becomes more once in a blue moon, for instance when there’s a major deadline.’
The toolkit is being distributed in physical form by the RIBA and ARB and is also be available for all online here, with resources hyperlinked. Channon says that when he set up a CPD around the topic with a specialist in mental health first aid, it was one of the practice’s best attended sessions.
‘It would be wrong of us to go, ‘this is right answer’,’ he says. ‘We’re looking for feedback, to hear what works and what doesn’t. And that can also come from elsewhere, outside architecture and further afield – for instance, I’ve had people get in touch about the forum from Auckland and the US.’ His aim is to spread the toolkit as widely as possible and get people realising ‘that everyone has mental health – we often give it negative connotations, but we can have good mental health, too.’