World Mental Health Day 2019

By Catherine Blain, Associate Architect, Watson Batty Architects

The construction industry as a whole has a poor record of mental health, with male site workers three times more likely to commit suicide than the average UK male. Whilst the ‘tough guy’ image widespread in the industry is very much to blame, other factors include the fast-paced environment, uncertainty and long-hours.

I love my job as an Architect and – most days! – I enjoy the challenges of working in a fast-paced, dynamic environment. However I am aware of the high expectations and severe pressure put on project professionals to deliver a project on time and on budget in an environment where scope and parameters can be fluid and subject to change. Indeed a recent report by the Association of Project Management found that project professionals compare unfavourably with the norm group and one of the greatest departures from the norm was in work relationships with a lack of support from bosses and colleagues.

As responsible employers we have a duty to ensure people in our team are not only coping with their workload and responsibilities but are fully supported in order to thrive. At Watson Batty Architects we recently welcomed the Architects Benevolent Society, as part of their #AnxietyArch campaign, to provide guidance to our management team on mental health, how to support our staff and widen the dialogue on this sensitive subject.

Pressure vs stress and anxiety

An amount of pressure in our day-to-day lives is normal and often necessary, after all without goals to achieve and challenges ahead we might not find the motivation to get out of bed in the morning! Indeed too little demands or pressure can leave staff feeling bored, frustrated and with low self-esteem. Manageable levels of stress can give us the drive to surpass ourselves and the adrenaline boost can get us through the occasional late-night working to meet a deadline. Problems occur when the pressure becomes excessive and beyond our ability to cope. Stress experienced over a long period of time and on a daily basis can lead to anxiety or depression, which impacts negatively on our health, work and relationships.

Knowing the signs

The response to stress and anxiety can manifest itself through physical symptoms such as panic attacks, difficulty breathing, sweating or nausea, and psychological signs such as constant worrying, obsessive thinking, catastrophizing and feeling overwhelmed.

In our working life this can lead to an avoidance of difficult situations or tasks, difficulty concentrating and poor decision making. This can in turn lead to absenteeism or increased sick leave, a loss of morale and motivation and a drop in performance. However presenteeism and long-hours can also be a warning sign that a member of staff is not coping and needs support! Watson Batty Architects encourages staff to leave work at a sensible hour and enjoy a good work/life balance. This is led by senior staff to promote a healthy office culture and we have found it improved productivity and quality.

It is important however to note that the threshold for coping with pressure can vary widely between individuals, as can the reaction to stress. What might seem a challenge to relish to one can be seen as unsurmountable to the other. It is essential we know our own limits, those of our colleagues and team members, and allow for an open dialogue and opportunity to ask for help.

What can employers do?

The potential cost of mental health for a business is clear to see, from poor performance to increased sickness leave. Ultimately this could lead to losing a valued member of the team and their irreplaceable experience and knowledge. Indeed, the loss of productivity arising from mental ill health is estimated at a cost of £25 billion per year. So what structure can employers put in place to create a supportive workplace?

• Make it part of the culture – create a supportive environment which enables people to seek help, led from the top with a clear mental health policy communicated to staff. As Watson Batty Architects Health & Safety Manager I have been nominated ‘Mental Health Champion’ for the practice and we are investing in training for Mental Health First Aiders.

• Set-up a platform for open dialogue – through regular one-to-one meetings, appraisals and feedback. Watson Batty Architects has an open-door policy with staff able to approach any member of the management team for a sympathetic ear, reinforced by informal quarterly reviews, which are focused on wellbeing and job satisfaction rather than performance. It is essential to offer support and training for managers so that they are confident in tackling sensitive conversations and able to sign-post staff to available support within and outside the workplace.

• Give control to staff over their workload, working hours and environment. Let staff have an input into resources and timescales so they can voice concerns over unrealistic deadlines. We have found that being transparent with our staff on the programme, fees and resources gave them a real sense of autonomy and ownership of their projects. Consider flexible working around family life and commuting; for example we have staff who start and finish their day earlier in order to beat the traffic.

• Provide a space for staff to ‘switch off’ both as a physical environment for breaks but also a move away from the sandwich-in-front-of-the-laptop culture. Promote movement and physical activity throughout the day and encourage social interaction in and outside work.

What can I do for my own mental health?

Even with the most supportive employer, as individuals we are still also responsible for our own mental health and wellbeing. In the same way as we go to the gym to maintain our physical health, we must look after our mental health through self-care and self-awareness There are a number of things we can do to help ourselves:

• Work smarter, not harder – investigate time-management techniques such as ‘chunking’ or the Pomodoro technique, to improve efficiency and focus.

• Speak-up if you think the demands on your time or resources are unrealistic – it is far better to voice concerns early to allow changes to be made.

• Remember to get-up and move throughout the day, take a short walk at lunchtime and take up a physical activity suited to your fitness level.

• Speak to colleagues instead of sending an email – we spend a third of our time at work and the social interactions and relationships we develop are key to our wellbeing.

• Open up to someone in your organisation if you are struggling, it does not have to be your direct line manager and it might be easier to speak to someone outside your team. Or sometimes simply ‘unloading’ to a work colleague can help.

• Look up the ‘5 ways to wellbeing’ on the Mental Health Matters website, 5 simple daily habits to improve our wellbeing:

I would like to conclude with the World Health Organisation’s definition for mental health:

‘Mental health is defined 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’

Building on the positive message in this definition, isn’t it time we stop seeing mental health as an issue but instead as an opportunity and an aspiration? For most of us our job is something we are proud of and a source of self-esteem, so the workplace should be a place where we can thrive rather than simply survive.

Further resources:

Architects Benevolent Society – AnxietyArch campaign

Association for Project Management (APM) – The wellbeing of project professionals

Mental Health Matters – Five Ways to Wellbeing

Mental Health at Work – Building mental health in construction

Architect’s Mental Wellbeing Toolkit –

Catherine Blain