ACA Pulse Check Advice on Mental Wellbeing

Susie Ashworth , 15 April 2020

The ACA Pulse Check No 2 survey invited participants to answer questions about the mental wellbeing of their practice and people. Susie Ashworth unpacks the results and highlights the best tips and advice for looking after the mental wellbeing of all within practice.

The results of the survey around mental wellbeing were heartening, with a high proportion of respondents rating the mental wellbeing of their people as good (46.7%), very good (12.7%) or neutral (19.8%). Levels of concern about mental health within the practice were higher for those juggling work and caring responsibilities (30%), senior management (26%) and younger employees (23%).

Of the responding practices, 40% have processes in place to support wellbeing, 23% were looking into options, and another 26% did not have processes in place but would like advice. Only 10% did not consider mental wellbeing an issue that needed attention.

Respondents from architecture practices around Australia generously shared useful suggestions and advice for coping with the isolation of the home office and the uncertainty we all face. 

Displaying empathy

One of the key pieces of advice that came through loud and clear was to display empathy, to be kind and to go easy on each other in this difficult time. As one wise participant said, “Understand each person has differing motivations and stressors. One may be concerned about stability, another about health, another about connection and community etc.”  Each person has different life circumstances that may cause them more or less concern and anxiety. 

Another respondent believes that any strategy needs to work on a number of levels to ensure no one falls through the cracks. Regular direct phone calls and Zoom sessions, project leader feedback, being honest and transparent about the financial challenges ahead, working on building a virtual social life and trying to stay positive in these COVID-19 times are all suggestions that work hand in hand.

Maintaining a positive outlook

Limiting media exposure and heart-breaking news from overseas was cited as a method to keep dark moods at bay. One respondent says they “look for good news every day”, anything to keep things light and upbeat. Another recommends that everyone should “care for family and be kind, have gratitude where you can find it.”

Sometimes it’s easy to get tied to the computer when a deadline looms, particularly when working in isolation and away from the regular activity, routines and welcome distractions of the office. Many respondents emphasise the importance of taking control of their work/life balance and finding time for non-work-related activities. Regular walks, healthy eating, music and exercise are being used by many remote workers to lift spirits and improve wellbeing. “Staff are encouraged to take breaks, stretch, exercise and take time out throughout the day to connect with the outdoors,” writes one survey participant.

Making sure there is time for variety in the day works for one respondent, who tries to squeeze in a broad range of activities, from remote work to housework, gardening, shopping, walking, playing with pets and spending time with family. Keeping busy is key. Others promote the value of meditation and yoga, or trying something new, like learning an instrument or regularly writing in a diary. 

Minimising stress

No-one is immune to the impacts of the virus on our lives and livelihoods, and it’s important to remember that each and every one of us is experiencing stress and uncertainty. Several survey participants said they had decided to reset their immediate priorities to alleviate stress and reduce pressure. “We are a very small practice, but we are focused on not creating stress with deadlines at the moment, and just making sure we are in touch and communicating constantly as we adapt. We are staying in touch with how people are feeling about work, and giving as much flexibility as we can. We've all had to go down to four days, but are giving our tech staff the flexibility to work hours that suit them best.” 

Others speak of the importance of self awareness when it comes to stress. “Be compassionate to everyone including yourself; be mindful of your own stress response and that everyone is tense, distracted and worried.” Several respondents emphasised how critical it was to be gentler, kinder and more patient. 

Sharing tips and advice, being there for each other 

Actively encouraging virtual office banter during the day is a strategy several managers have used to try to emulate the camaraderie and social connection of the office environment. Some do this with dedicated text threads to share ideas and routines around exercise, and to exchange music and food tips. Others use Zoom chats to stay connected and maintain general office conversation. 

Several respondents mention daily team huddles on Zoom to compare home isolation activities, and to discuss issues, problems and experiences. The emphasis is on sharing coping strategies, personal routines and impacts on families rather than work and projects.

More structured arrangements have been put in place by several practices to ensure each and every employee has someone to check in on them on a daily basis. “We have set up a buddy system where we have paired more senior staff with a staff member they don’t necessarily work closely with. This is working very well.” The challenges of isolation may be more intense for those living alone, and a number of respondents say they are providing extra support in these cases.

For smaller practices, a daily routine of checking in is no less important than for employees used to a big, busy practice. “There’s only the two of us, but we are consistently checking in to see if both are doing alright outside the workspace, as this is often forgotten.” 

Keep in touch, keep in touch, keep in touch 

There’s no doubt about it. Online communication requires extra effort and can be exhausting – particularly if your entire day is spent in and out of meetings and battling Zoom fatigue. But the message that came through repeatedly in the survey was how imperative it was to keep in touch with staff. More junior employees may not have been in meetings all day. They may have spent a long day doing documentation. They may need the sight of a friendly face, or an encouraging comment from a respected colleague. As one respondent said, “Keep in touch. Ask the question: how are you going? Ask more questions if answers are vague. Don’t pry. Just make sure they are okay.” 

Regular video meetings have replaced face-to-face interaction for many – some weekly, some daily, some several times a day. “We catch up nationally every working day morning to start the day. We catch up locally every afternoon to close out the day. We are staying connected.”

Zoom meetings are not just for ‘special meetings’ anymore. For some practices they have virtually replaced the telephone. “Seeing a face is important. We have lots of video hook-ups,” said one survey participant.

Phone calls to all staff are a priority for several respondents, with employees hearing from colleagues and managers on a daily basis. “Keeping in touch is the most effective way to help. We have twice daily team meetings, so everyone feels valued and is kept busy. We also have phone calls from the MD to each person once a week to see how they are going.”

For one respondent, who has been forced to stand down staff, the need for communication is still critical, with regular weekly calls made to those who have been stood down. 

WFH life hacks 

It’s still early days when it comes to remote working. Many are still working out where to work, how to work, and the best ways of achieving project goals while working solo from home. One respondent shared their experience of transitioning their employees to home base. “Staff have set up home offices in areas that provide comfort and acoustic privacy, separate from other family members to reduce distraction/stress. Staff are encouraged to play music during work time to create a comfortable work environment. Staff have relocated the office equipment to their home office to reduce the impact of change.”

For those who already have years of experience of remote working, they offer some very specific tips for WFH.

“If you have others at home, make time to clean the house together (for example, say 8–9am) where everybody in the house cleans up. This means that someone on a call does not have the vacuum going in the background.”

“If you have the luxury of it, make up a small video conferencing facility to share with other members of the family so that you are not disturbed during the call. Share it with the other family members so they respect your time in there as you respect their time.”

Being honest

Several respondents have a strong belief in the benefits of being honest and open with staff about the financial health of the practice, the situation with project cancellations and affected workflow, and the challenges for “the immediate and predictable future”. 

One practitioner believes that total transparency has led to less worry in the workforce rather than more. Another wrote of the importance of letting everyone know what steps were being taken to maintain the practice and their employment. “Be honest. Prioritise the safety, health and wellbeing of the team and their families. Do everything possible to keep the office going and to keep the team together. Do not give up.” 

You gotta laugh

Humour can be healing, and several of our survey participants highlight the importance of sharing a joke and lightening the mood when our news feeds are so full of tragedy and despair. Silly phone calls, Dad jokes on email and Zoom, teddy bears in windows, shared photos of troublesome pets and baking embarrassments …  All help bring some fun and distraction to daily life in lockdown. 

“We send around ‘joke of the day’, which is typically architecture-based, and we all comment on it... They are typically lame, but in these times, they make us laugh – well, smile anyway!”

Virtual social life

Friday night online drinks seems to be a consistent theme with many practices, but others are experimenting with creative ways to stay connected. Virtual morning teas are popular, as are book clubs and office virtual yoga. Video hook-ups are being used to celebrate birthdays and other milestones. 

“We are deliberately trying to keep up with some of the non-productive practices of day to day studio life. We often do a crossword at lunch as a group and this has kept going as a Zoom meeting and we still engage in useless, distracting banter via the skype chat during the day.” 

Professional help and other support

At a time when the majority of us are feeling worried, anxious or distressed about the challenges ahead, several practices are offering connections to professional help and other support for those in need. These range from free mental health support from an external third-party consultant, connections to telehealth psychologists, and access to EAP assistance. One respondent says, “Beyond Blue and The Black Dog Institute are amazing in the absence of an EAP.” Another has signed up all staff to a mindfulness/meditation app.

For those seeking additional support, see our COVID-19 and Mental Health Resources Round-up.

The good news

Several respondents have an eye on the future and believe in finding inspiration and creativity in our changed life circumstances… 

“Great design comes from great inspiration and these times are a great breeding ground for new ideas about the way in which the world can live. This aspiration helps us all to believe in a better world and this should be the message we are expressing to all.”

“We send general emails not relating to projects but general encouragement in practice about this being a time to enjoy the process of the projects we have and prepare for the future...”

“Realise that you have 2–3 hours extra in your day due to the saving in travelling time, which can be spent anyway you want.”

The ACA Pulse Check 2 survey was conducted from 29–31 March 2020 to better understand the impacts of COVID-19 on architectural practices around Australia. The survey was taken by 777 responding practices, which employ over 7,740 full-time equivalent (FTE) ‘technical’ staff, and over 1,141 FTE casual technical staff.

Thanks to all who participated in ACA's Pulse Check 1 and 2 surveys, which will continue to inform material the ACA develops to support members and the wider profession.

Photo: Bruce Mars, Unsplash