Mental health in architecture research project receives funding

A major research project investigating the work-related wellbeing of architects and architecture students has received funding in the most recent round of the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects scheme.

Led by Naomi Stead, head of architecture at Monash University, the project will be an interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers in Monash’s architecture department and the Department of Management in the Faculty of Business and Economics.

“The interdisciplinary collaboration […] is significant because, as a profession, architects don’t always make great business-people,” said Stead.

“It’s an unfortunate fact that many practices operate on the very edge of financial viability, and the discipline of architecture looks to the arts and humanities, as well as engineering and the STEM disciplines, much more than it does to business and economics.”

Also on the project team are Maryam Gusheh, deputy head of the Monash architecture department, and Kirsten Orr, registrar of the NSW Architects Registration Board. From the management department there are Brian Cooper, an expert in quantitative research methodology, and Julie Wolfram Cox, who specializes in studies of organizational change and sustainability.

Titled “Architectural Work Cultures: professional identity, education and wellbeing,” the project will be the first major study to use interdisciplinary, qualitative and quantitative methods to address the question of how workplace cultures and professional identity affect subjective wellbeing in architecture. The hope is that it will “lay the foundations” for practical improvements in the future.

Also involved are six architecture practice research partners – BVN, Designinc, Elenberg Fraser, The Fulcrum Agency, Hassell, and SJB – and a number of industry groups, such as the NSW Architects Registration Board, the Australian Institute of Architects, the Association of Consulting Architects, and the Association of Australasian Schools of Architecture.

The research aims to “involve the full spectrum of Australian architectural education and practice,” and will attempt to capture the experiences of workers in small, medium and large practice.

The project will include a postdoctoral research fellow, Byron Kinnaird and two PhD scholarships, looking at the education and practice contexts respectively.

Justine Clark, Stead’s collaborator on the Parlour research-based advocacy project (which itself emerged out of a Linkage reseach grant a decade ago) will also contribute. Stead said she hoped this project might have a similar impact to Parlour, this time with the focus on work-related wellbeing.

“We would argue that if architecture practices are run as sound and profitable businesses, they will also be better workplaces, support the wellbeing of their staff, and be better able to produce beautiful, quality buildings which contribute to the common good,” she said.

The project will build upon an earlier literature review on architects and mental health commissioned by the NSW Architects Registration Board in 2016 and will also integrate international research, which shows that aspects of architectural work culture can have a negative effect on the wellbeing of students and practitioners.

“While there is a strong and widespread perception of similar problems in Australia, there has so far been insufficient applied research to definitively prove that is the case,” the researchers argue.

The project will take the form of a series of events, forums, discussions, actions and interventions aimed at improving the work- and study-related wellbeing of architects and architecture students. It will produce two “toolkits” to assist the profession to support cultural change across educational, workplace and institutional settings.

“In this way it hopes to produce better outcomes for all members of this unusual and strongly-identified cohort, which stands at the intersection of the creative and construction industries, as both a cultural and technical practice.”

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