Managing mental health

Each year, the NSW Architects Registration Board receives applications from architects for all sorts of things. It may be an application for an exemption from completing continuing professional development due to prolonged illness, surgery or personal circumstance. In some cases, applications are supported by a doctor’s certificate. In a few cases, the applications relate to mental illness.

The Board has the authority to grant exemptions and waivers. But we recently asked ourselves, is that the limit of our role? If our primary mission is to protect the public by ensuring that architects provide services to the public in a professional and competent manner, don’t we need to ensure that an architect experiencing mental illness has some support? For example, in one recent application, a doctor certified that the architect in question had not been fit to practise that prior year. Yet she had – presumably providing services to clients, working with councils and builders and making sure her business activity statement (BAS) was in on time.

What do we know about the mental health of architects? Are there risk factors we should know about? Lawyers have support networks called LawCare and BarCare. How can architects get support when they need it?

It turns out we’re not the only ones asking these questions. The Architects’ Journal reported in 2016 that more than a quarter of UK students surveyed said they were receiving or had received medical help for mental health problems resulting from their course. A 2013 study by the Graduate Architecture, Landscape and Design Student Union at the University of Toronto suggested that some unhealthy aspects of architecture’s “organizational culture” may be rehearsed during university. (Who else downed No-Doz? How many all-nighters did you pull?) The Canadian study went further, recommending that accreditation of courses in architecture should not only measure the qualities of the faculty and the physical assets such as the building, but also the health of students and staff. 

Closer to home, we revisited Parlour’s Guides for Equitable Practice, which reminded us that there are common mental health issues associated with long working hours which include depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. These issues can then flow into other areas of work – for example, poor decision-making, difficulties identifying priorities and weak negotiating skills .

We soon ran out of solid research. There just didn’t seem to be much out there on the mental health of architects. And what there is can be rooted in myth. How often is mental illness put down to the “creative streak”? A 1998 global literature review by Canadian psychiatrist Charlotte Waddell found that while many studies promote a positive association between creativity and mental illness, it’s just not supported by evidence.

A 1965 study by American psychologist Donald MacKinnon found that creativity in architects was associated with unusual profiles on personality tests, including courage and independence. An even earlier study by the Institute of Personality and Social Research famously studied some of the greats like Eero Saarinen and Phillip Johnson and found that architects may have a tendency to nonconformity and a preference for complexity and ambiguity over simplicity and order. Creatives could make unexpected connections, researchers found, and see patterns – regardless of their native IQ.

This is all interesting stuff, but does it get us any closer to a support structure for architects experiencing mental illness? We approached one of the leading minds in mental health, adjunct professor John Mendoza, former chair of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health (who himself has three architects in the family), and associate professor Lee Stickells, Head of Architecture at the University of Sydney.

We put three questions to Mendoza and Stickells:

1.         What research currently exists to indicate the prevalence or incidence of mental illness in the sector?

2.         What research currently exists to indicate the triggers, risk factors and early warning signs that could assist the sector to better support those through periods of mental illness?

3.         Does existing research suggest any correlation between the triggers and risk factors of mental illness, and any particular part of the sector?

At another level we were interested in whether mental illness was more prevalent in sole or regional practitioners – those who may lack support networks to help them cope with what architectural practice can throw at you. We also wanted to know whether project delivery might come with extra stress and anxiety, because we know it’s where mistakes can be costly, and where surprises on-site can demand that decisions be made instantaneously.

These questions formed the premise of the first literature review exploring the mental health and wellbeing of architects in Australia. To give away the punchline early, the answer is: there’s precious little research specific to architects.

So what do we know? We know that, in any given year, almost 4 million Australians experience mental illness. Mental illness refers to a wide spectrum – including those with mild to severe mental illnesses, to high prevalence conditions such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse. We also know that around 75 percent of mental illness is evidenced by the age of 25 (which means many will experience a form of illness while at university, or after graduation and before they register). So, we asked ourselves, how are universities dealing with this?

It turns out that students in humanities, art and design are significantly more likely to have mental health problems, although law students experience higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than students in other disciplines. Senior staff at some schools of architecture tell us that they’re seeing a spike in students reporting stress, anxiety and depression – resulting in requests for extensions or exemptions from coursework.

What factors help to insulate against mental illness? And can we apply these to the studio environment of today’s practice?

Mendoza and Stickells tell us the factors that contribute to being mentally healthy include having good friends to talk to, keeping the mind active and having the opportunity to have control over one’s life. A productive role in architecture is seen to require:

-           commitment and drive

-           overlearned skills (learning skills beyond the point of initial proficiency)

-           aesthetic sensitivity

-           the ability to sell well

-           the ability to delegate responsibility.

By contrast, factors that can contribute to being mentally unhealthy include: excessive alcohol or drug use, having no friends or support, and experiencing a particular crisis or trauma.

Other factors explored in the review that may resonate with young or aspiring architects include the lack of creative expression on offer when entering the workforce, which leads to a kind of disillusionment with a profession students have worked so hard and long to join. Add to this the tendency for job insecurity thanks to the boom/bust cycles of the property and development sector, which can also have a negative impact on mental health.

Much of architecture is about a team-based environment – whether with consultants and clients or in larger practices where projects demand many staff to design, model, document, prepare the specifications and more. So it follows that the collaborative environment of team-based work can also be a factor in supporting a healthy, or unhealthy, workplace environment. The review sketches out the common traits of what the research team calls a “dysfunctional design team”:

1.         Poor interpersonal relationships (for example, between a project director and a project architect and the wider team of graduates and CAD technicians)

2.         Perceived career decline (due to an economic downturn, the practice downsizing, underemployment or job insecurity)

3.         Negative leadership (defined as being insincere, despotic, exploitative, restrictive, failed, avoiding or laissez-faire). A good employer understands employee needs, is trustworthy, compassionate, stable and should offer hope.

4.         Poor organizational culture (architectural practice is overwhelmingly a story of small practice, so projects often involve individuals imposing themselves on a team. This organizational culture can be easily manipulated and abused, which can contribute to infective processes. One individual’s beliefs can affect the overall wellbeing of employees.)

5.         Long working hours (again, the Parlour work is relevant here)

6.         Precarious employment (see item two, above)

7.         Lack of creativity (confronting the reality of working life, which does not always fulfil the desire of many who enter the sector seeking creative work. For students, the gap between expectations and reality often causes disillusionment and can have adverse effects on job satisfaction.)

Throughout, the review provides hints for architects seeking a healthier work environment. It prompts some big questions. For example, should sole practitioners be encouraged out of their front rooms and off their dining room tables, and into co-working spaces where support and services are more easily found? Can more research and promotion of what makes a healthy studio environment, or team, help to build more replicable models in architectural practices? Should we measure the mental health and wellbeing of the profession so that we have industry data that can be tracked over time?

Who is best placed to do this? What is the role for the Board? The Australian Institute of Architects? Practices themselves, and architects everywhere? It’s not yet clear. More research would be valuable. But, as we have seen in the excellent and ongoing work by Parlour and the network it fostered, nothing beats the profession doing it for themselves.

The NSW Architects Registration Board launched a landmark literature review on Monday 17 October 2016 at 10am at the Brain and Mind Centre, with Prof Ian Hickie, Prof John Mendoza, Prof Helen Lochhead, UTS final year student Levi Fletcher, BVN Operations Manager, Bianca Smith and CEO of dwp suters, Leone Lorrimer. 

Download the literature review HERE

Tim Horton, Registrar NSW Architects Registration Board

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