Work-related mental wellbeing in architecture

In contrast to many other professions, the architecture profession knows relatively little about the mental wellbeing of its practitioners. And yet, in a sector as complex and paradoxical as this, in an age in which mental illness is so common, an examination of the relationship between work and wellbeing appears crucial. Just as we have begun to address gender equity issues in architecture in Australia, it is time to get the facts straight on mental health so that we can act accordingly.

Concerns about mental health and work-related wellbeing within the architecture profession are not new. For some years, there has been a strong shared perception, and growing anecdotal evidence, of a challenging work environment and high levels of stress and anxiety among architectural practitioners and students alike. Discussion in the architectural press – particularly in the UK-based Architects’ Journal, but also across almost all of the online and print publications in the Anglophone world – has been both widespread and emphatic, with many arguing that we have real issues with work-related mental wellbeing, that these problems are widespread and systemic, and that they are at least ongoing and perhaps getting worse. Australian commentators including Sandra Kaji-O’Grady,1 Byron Kinnaird2 and Peter Raisbeck,3 among others, have addressed the issue in widely discussed essays.

Individuals at every level of the profession, from recent graduates to senior leaders and academics, have their own stories to tell: of practitioners and students pushed to the brink, with mental health challenges becoming more common, more complex and more serious, far exceeding “normal” (even beneficial) levels of everyday stress. Further, many of us have our own direct experiences to reflect on: the often quite profound effects of work-related stress on physical and mental wellbeing, which have caused some to burn out and depart the profession altogether.

But while many of us think there may be a problem in architecture, or know it at a personal and experiential level, we can’t prove it. We lack a detailed understanding of whether, how and why it is true across the whole profession. If there is a systemic problem, we don’t know its precise nature, what exactly is causing it, or which aspects are particular to architectural culture and which are the same as the issues facing the population generally.

We also don’t know what aspects of architectural culture might actually have a protective effect. And, in fact, many of us struggle to untangle the strengths and advantages of our disciplinary culture from its challenges. It is clear, for example, that the architecture profession has a well-defined and distinctive identity, shaped by a rich disciplinary history and dynamic contemporary culture. Architects report high levels of professional engagement, the sense of community is strong and there is a high level of alignment between personal and professional identity. Architects seem to believe in what they do and find their work meaningful and fulfilling, and they value the sense of shared purpose, the fellowship and the camaraderie that can be found among the community.

And yet, at the same time, many believe that the mental health challenges we face originate from within architectural culture – the workplace practices, norms and attitudes that prevail within the profession and its education. Ours is a complex and paradoxical professional culture that appears to be at once desired and sustaining, yet precarious and unsustainable. If indeed there is a wellbeing problem caused or exacerbated by architectural culture, we have little idea of how to resolve it without undermining the very attributes that enliven and enrich us as a collective. Is there any wonder this seems to be stressing us out?

There has been some research globally: the Architects’ Journal has undertaken several surveys that, though arguably sensationalist in their reporting, certainly indicate a shared belief that the profession has a problem. Another major set of surveys, of university students in Canada, has shown that there seems to be genuine issues (though this data should be treated with caution due to the possible skewing effects of self-reporting).4 Closer to home, in 2016 the NSW Architects Registration Board, under the leadership of then-registrar Tim Horton, commissioned a report on research related to “the prevalence or incidence of mental illness in the sector.” The report concluded that “there exists a dearth of research around the mental health concerns facing architects, when students, when seeking employment, and when employed.” It recommended that primary research be undertaken to build “a clearer picture of the current context of the profession” and “a framework for mental health promotion, prevention and early intervention.”5

Perhaps it would be surprising if there weren’t issues with architects’ mental wellbeing. This is partly because such issues are so common. The Black Dog Institute notes that one in five Australians aged 16 to 85 years experiences a mental illness in any given year. Many of these people will have more than one condition at the same time, with the three most common illnesses (anxiety, depression and substance-use disorders) frequently occurring in combination. Universities face a particular challenge: the Black Dog Institute states that Australian youths (18–24 years old) have the highest prevalence of mental illness of any age group – and this is the age when the majority of individuals are beginning and undertaking their studies.6 Many architecture students in this age group are completing demanding degree courses, finding their first professional jobs and negotiating registration.

We have heard in recent years about the mental health challenges facing specific demographic groups, such as adolescents, homeless people, the LGBTIQ community, the elderly, and new mothers. Each of these cohorts faces particular circumstances and challenges that can impact their psychological wellbeing. At the same time, specific occupational groups have been shown to face greater risk – either because of trauma or violence encountered in the course of their professional work (such as members of the armed forces and emergency service workers) or other aspects of a high-pressure, competitive and cut-throat professional situation (note, for instance, the high suicide rates among workers in the construction industry – a concerning problem that the Mates in Construction program seeks to address).

In light of these acute issues, some might say that the work-related wellbeing of architects seems to be, well, a bit of a first-world problem. But action in this area should absolutely not await a crisis or a high-profile tragedy. Our response should be preventative and should take account of not just severity but also the number of people affected and the particular impacts of our own culture. Meanwhile, whatever the specificities of work-related wellbeing in architecture may be, the project of destigmatization and the encouragement of a culture of care remain important tasks no matter what.

The profile of the architecture profession in Australia as a whole is strikingly under-studied. Beyond demographic data, it is amazing that the profession has such little understanding of its own workforce, including when and why people leave. We do know a reasonable amount about architectural education – through Michael Ostwald and Anthony Williams’s two-volume report published in 2008,7 and through the comprehensive follow-up led by the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia, published in December 2019. But one of the key findings of this most recent report was that “more data and research is required,” since:

There is no recent information on length of time between graduation and registration, and no detailed information about graduate destinations and career pathways. There is no reliable data about the number of practices in Australia, their size, practice model, or types of work undertaken. There is no detail on the numbers of students working in architectural practices, and only limited information on the diversity of students and the architectural workforce.8

Beyond analysis of census data, there is little understanding of the human capital of the profession, and little information about their work-related wellbeing.

In contrast with the architecture profession, other professions are further advanced in their understanding and support of their workforces, through both research and resources. The medical profession, for example, has a vastly better picture of the mental health of its people, both students and practitioners, through the Beyond Blue Doctors’ Mental Health Program.9 Likewise, the legal profession has various initiatives, including the Minds Count Foundation, the objective of which is to “decrease work related psychological ill-health in the legal community and to promote workplace psychological health and safety,” in part via a series of Workplace Wellbeing Guidelines, which hundreds of legal practices have adopted.10 The point here is that these more proactive professions seem to understand work-related physical and mental wellbeing as interrelated – indeed, as an occupational health and safety issue – and also as a cultural issue as much as a medical one.

Architecture does present a unique culture, and a unique set of workplace challenges. Practitioners face a more fragile and precarious economic situation than other statutorily regulated professions (such as medicine, law and engineering), while bearing significant responsibility and risk within the highly competitive environment of the construction industry. The “creative” component of architectural work can be constrained and plagued by idealized conceptions of individual authorship, linked also with creative perfectionism, and a sense of vocation, which brings with it an intense project focus and a long-hours culture. The expectation that “professionals” (including architects) are distinguished by altruism and the pursuit of the common good, means they can sometimes prioritize the needs of others above their own. Meanwhile, the prevalence of small-scale practice in architecture means that organizational structures can be under-resourced. In a profession in which commercial success is frequently not seen as the main objective, some practices operate just below financial viability, subsisting on unpaid overtime. Overall, we might hypothesize that in architecture there are significant work-environment pressures: weak or unstable organizational structures and overall high stress and frequent burnout in the workforce.

There are related challenges in architectural education, where studio-based educational culture closely follows professional norms: competitive, intense, deadline-driven and shaped by modes of critique that have frequently (in the past, and sometimes still, in certain locations) been harsh, capricious and public. Practices prevalent in industry are equally anticipated, enculturated and reinforced through university education, and vice versa. Further, as US-based advocacy group The Architecture Lobby – now with active Australian chapters – has pointedly demonstrated, the idea of architecture as a calling rather than a job or career tends to lead to privileging work over self-care, while also opening up architect-workers to exploitation. There are also distinct challenges for different student demographics: Australian architecture schools attract a high proportion of international students and have been proactive in seeking candidates from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and yet there are few discipline-specific programs to systematically support wellbeing across this diverse cohort. The other challenges facing all students and young people today impact equally on architecture students. These include the need to work while studying, the challenges of social media and the existential threat of the climate crisis – all of which can be sources of intense anxiety, pressure and stress.

The response from the architecture profession has been spirited, if sporadic. In Britain in 2017, twelve architecture practices with a strong commitment to employee wellbeing came together to form the Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Forum (AMWF). The forum includes representatives from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architects Benevolent Society, alongside current architecture students. Ben Channon, founder of the AMWF, is also seeking to open an Australian chapter. The Association of Consulting Architects Australia has for some time been actively facilitating discussion on wellbeing issues,11 while the Australian Institute of Architects has recently updated its Acumen practice notes to include mental health issues and regularly includes them in its professional development offerings. Meanwhile, teaching practices in many of the universities have comprehensively shifted to better support and enable all students to flourish and meet their potential.

But it is clear that further research is needed in order to undertake a system-wide examination of the relationship between work and educational cultures in architecture, how they intersect with professional identity, and the mental health and wellbeing of practitioners and students. It is precisely this research that we hope to undertake (pending the outcome of a funding application to the Australian Research Council) alongside interdisciplinary researchers in management and organizational studies, working with the inimitable Justine Clark, as well as a comprehensive collaboration with the architecture profession. Rarely, if ever, have so many private architectural practices, institutions and professional bodies in Australia come together on a proposed research project that investigates the culture of the profession and its impact on the wellbeing of its members. Industry partners in our proposed project include the NSW Architects Registration Board (led by registrar Kirsten Orr), the Australian Institute of Architects, the Association of Consulting Architects Australia, the Association of Architecture Schools of Australasia, and six architectural practice partners: BVN, Design Inc, Elenberg Fraser, The Fulcrum Agency, Hassell and SJB. This breadth of industry engagement attests to both a pressing, shared concern about the wellbeing of architects, and a belief that significant solutions can only be found in this form of meaningful alliance between university researchers and industry.

Following the same model as an earlier Australian Research Council Linkage research project, which began by investigating gender equity in architecture and eventually became the Parlour advocacy group and website, we hope that, eventually, this new research project will also produce practical, discipline-specific resources and convene a whole-of-profession conversation about how we can change the culture of architecture to increase the wellbeing of all its people.12

This seems timely because today’s national conversation on workplace wellbeing reminds us strikingly of the position Australian architectural culture was in 10 years ago with regard to gender equity. Back then, some people had personally experienced inequity and discrimination, others were adamant that there were major systemic issues, and others thought there was no problem at all, or that incidents were small and isolated. Others thought that the architecture industry only had the same issues as society as a whole. Others still believed that the debate was simply ideological. The conversation was circular, and thus it continued: round and round, in a tone often tetchy and frustrated, arguments asserted and resisted but basically intractable, the conversation unable to jump the tracks.

What shifted that situation, of course, was research, which produced evidence: quantitative, statistical data compiled, analyzed and visualized by Gill Matthewson and others.13 This research proved once and for all that women were under-represented in Australian architecture at senior levels, and that there were structural and systemic issues impacting the work lives of women.14 Over time, it became possible for the profession to acknowledge this as an actual, factual issue, and then to move (slowly and haltingly) towards cultural change. The tracks were jumped, the circular conversation unspooled, and since then, that conversation has emphatically shifted.

Before you can address a problem, you must broadly and genuinely acknowledge that it exists. Before you can acknowledge that it exists, you need solid evidence based on substantial, systematic research. We know that policy and advocacy is most effective when it is based on rigorous and well-designed research, using the power of both qualitative and quantitative methods. We need to get our facts straight and understand the issues – if they do indeed exist – in all their complexity. Then, when we have the proof, the facts and the argument, we can all go to work on making change.

Authors’ note

This paper, and the planned larger research project, has benefited from discussions with Lee Stickells, Valerie Francis, Peter Raisbeck, Byron Kinnaird, Alysia Bennett and Anita Blom, among many others; also the research assistance of Jane Grant, Judith O’Callaghan and Bella Singal. We thank them all.

1. Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, “Stress test: addressing mental illness at architecture school,” ArchitectureAU, 8 September 2016, architectureau.com/articles/stress-test-addressing-mental-illness-at-architecture-school/ (accessed 21 January 2020).

2. Byron Kinnaird, “An anxious discipline,” Parlour, 23 September 2016, archiparlour.org/an-anxious-discipline/ (accessed 21 January 2020).

3. Peter Raisbeck, “Mental health, burnout and architects: starting the conversation,” 13 September 2017, Peter Raisbeck: Surviving the Design Studio, peterraisbeck.com/2017/09/13/mental-health-burnout-and-architects-starting-the-conversation/ (accessed 21 January 2020).

4. For example, see Sukh Kang, “Graduate architecture, landscape and design student union health and well-being report 2018–2019,” Issuu, 10 April 2019, issuu.com/galdsu/docs/galdsu_health_and_well-being_report (accessed 30 October 2019).

5. Larisa Karklins and John Mendoza, “Literature review: architects and mental health,” prepared for the NSW Architects Registration Board (Caloundra, Queensland: ConNetica, June 2016).

6. Black Dog Institute, “Facts and figures about mental health,” n.d., blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/default-source/factsheets/facts_figures.pdf?sfvrsn=8 (accessed 21 January 2020).

7. Michael J. Ostwald and Anthony Williams, Understanding architectural education in Australasia: Vol 1: An analysis of architecture schools, programs, academics and students; Vol 2: Results and recommendations (Strawberry Hills, New South Wales: Australian Learning and Teaching Council, 2008).

8. Architects Accreditation Council of Australia, “Architectural education and the profession in Australia and New Zealand,” December 2019, aaca.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Architectural-Education-and-The-Profession-in-Australia-and-New-Zealand.pdf (accessed 21 January 2020).

9.The National Mental Health Survey of Doctors and Medical Students was funded by Beyond Blue as part of the Beyond Blue Doctors’ Mental Health Program, first published October 2013, updated June 2019, beyondblue.org.au/about-us/our-work-in-improving-workplace-mental-health/health-services-program/national-mental-health-survey-of-doctors-and-medical-students (accessed 23 January 2020).

10. Tristan Jepson Memorial Foundation, “Psychological wellbeing: Best practice guidelines for the legal profession,” mindscount.org (accessed 23 January 2020).

11. In addition to a number of essays on the subject of mental health in the profession, the ACA has compiled a list of resources. See “Resources for mental health,” 27 May 2019, aca.org.au/article/resources-for-mental-health (accessed 21 January 2020).

12. “Equity and diversity in the Australian architecture profession: Women, work and leadership,” Australian Research Council Linkage grant (2011– 2014). Led by Naomi Stead, the project involved seven researchers (Julie Willis, Sandra Kaji-O’Grady, Gillian Whitehouse, Justine Clark, Karen Burns, Amanda Roan and Gill Matthewson) and five industry partners – Bates Smart, BVN, PTW Architects, Architecture Media and the Australian Institute of Architects.

13. Gill Matthewson’s work has been assisted by Justine Clark and Kirsty Volz (data compilation), while Georgina Russell, Jessica Riley and Catherine Griffiths have collaborated on the visualizations.

14. See, for example, Gill Mathewson, “Parlour census report 2001–2016,” Parlour, 23 October 2018, archiparlour.org/parlour-census-report/ (accessed 21 January 2020).

Source

Discussion

Published online: 28 May 2020
Words: Naomi Stead, Maryam Gusheh
Images: Photograph by Naomi Stead

Issue

Architecture Australia, March 2020

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