“I was waiting for an email response from the guy..."
So went the claim of one architect in the US, as posted on the Archinect discussion forum in that country.
That reply never came. The person referred to – an engineer working on one of the architect’s projects – took his own life.
Such events underscore challenges associated with workplace mental health, from which architecture and engineering firms are not immune. In 2016, a study involving 12,312 suicide cases using 2012 data by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the US found that architecture and engineering had the fifth-highest suicide rate of any sector in that country.
The prevalence of mental illness should not be underestimated. In an address at the Green Cities event in Melbourne earlier this year, National Mental Health Commission chair Lucida Brogden said around one million Australian adults are living with depression whilst a further two million have anxiety. All up, this means that around one in five workers has a mental health condition.
Mental illness, Brogden said, costs Australia around $70 billion or four per cent of our gross domestic product each year. More important, however, is the suffering of those affected and their families.
Moreover, there are concerns about how mental health is being handled in the workplace. Whilst 91 per cent of employees in Australia believe having a mentally healthy workplace is important, around half say their own workplace is mentally unhealthy.
This is despite not only growing awareness of the problem but also legal responsibilities for employers to take steps to safeguard the physical and emotional well-being of their staff. Under work health and safety legislation across states and territories, employers must make certain that workplaces are, as far as practicable, physically and mentally safe and healthy for all employees. According to the Heads Up web site, this means they need to ensure that the workplace does not unduly harm the emotional well-being of their staff or worsen any condition which their employees may have.
This raises questions about misconceptions surrounding mental health in the workplace, factors which contribute to a mentally healthy workplace, common mistakes in respect of workplace mental health, benefits for employers in maintaining workplaces which are conducive to healthy mindsets and strategies which firms should adopt.
According to Brogden and beyondblue general manager, Workplace, Partnerships & Engagement Patrick O’Brien, the most common misconception amongst employers is that their own workers are free of problems. Given the above statistics, O’Brien says it is likely that at least someone within your firm has a mental health concern. Assertions on the part of executives that organisations are free of mental health issues, Brogden says, are if fact a red flag about the culture of that organisation and a sign that people don’t feel comfortable in disclosing their condition or their need of help.
A further misconception, Brogden says, involves notions that mental well-being can be addressed through pay rises. She says research has shown that morale typically improves during the first three months following the increase but that such a boost usually proves to be temporary.
By contrast, improvements from positive work environments are durable.
Workplace well-being also pays for firms. A PwC study in 2014 found that every dollar invested in the emotional well-being of staff delivered a $2.30 return for employers.
O’Brien says efforts to improve employee mental well-being deliver several benefits.
“Investing in creating a more mentally healthy workplace is beneficial to all staff,” he said. “As a result, employees will be more engaged and motivated, morale will be higher and staff will be more willing to go above and beyond the requirements of their role.
“Other benefits can include a reduction in presenteeism (reduced productivity at work), absenteeism, and compensation claims.
“All of this will add even more to your return on investment and makes for a happier and healthier workplace that will retain good staff.”
In terms of mistakes, Brogden points to two areas.
First, she says many employers place too much emphasis on the ‘fruit bowl’ and feel that this will drive positive attitudes and behaviours. Whilst such gestures should be encouraged, Brogden says employers should concentrate first on addressing any negative factors in the workplace. This means getting the job description right and removing (where possible) sources of pressure from roles.
Second, there are mistaken priorities. While many organisations talk about remuneration, Brogden says office plants are often first to be discarded in cost-cutting. This, she says, is foolhardy as plants and other biophilic elements have been demonstrated to support healthy mindsets.
Finally, O’Brien says a fundamental mistake is to wait until specific issues arise before acting. Far better, he says, is to be proactive and implement preventative measure before workers show signs of stress. It is likely, he says, that at least one staff member will experience a mental health issue. Where this happens, workers whose employers have adopted proactive approaches will be better positioned to cope and feel supported.
In terms of strategies, O’Brien talks of the importance of leadership. As every workplace is different, he says firms should tailor their approach to match the specific circumstances of their organisation. Nevertheless, it is leaders who have set the tone in terms of attitudes, behaviours and resource allocation.
Leaders, in turn, should identify workplace champions and engage with these people about how successful measures can be implemented.
Moreover, workers should be given a voice and provided with open forums to air their views and suggest new ideas. Workers, O’Brien says, have on the ground experience and can provide feedback about which actions are most important to them in their roles.
Brogden offers a different perspective.
First and most important, she says, is to look at the job description of each employee. For each role, it is critical to think about the physical and psychological demands of the position as well as the degree of variety and autonomy it offers. From here, it is important to consider how roles could be adjusted to reduce undue levels of stress.
On this score, she cautions about the long hours culture within architecture. Work design, she says, starts on a premise of eight hours per day and demands adequate time for rest and restoration.
As for colleagues, she encourages people to speak with anyone about whom they are concerned and to offer help. Often, those who contract mental health conditions experience a loss of self-awareness, Brogden say. By approaching them and raising your concerns, you are holding up a mirror to that person. This may help them to identify that they do indeed have a problem.
When doing this, Brogden says people should be unconcerned about privacy. Raising issues with them, she said, is simply the right and caring thing to do.
As with other companies, workplace mental health is a challenge for architecture.
With a few strategies, much progress can be made to protect the wellbeing of those who serve the profession so well.