Is Architectural Practice Making Architects Sick?

Naomi Stead , 21 May 2019

Professor Naomi Stead, Head of Architecture at Monash University, is one of the champions of a proposed new research project currently under development, Mental Wellbeing of Architects and Architecture Students: Culture, Education and the Workplace, which aims to examine links between architectural culture and identity and mental wellbeing. Here, Naomi takes a quick look at the issues.

You're in the midst of developing a research project that will explore the issues of mental health within Australian architecture (schools and practice). Why is this research important?

For three reasons:

  • The mental health of everyone is important! We know that good mental health is a major component of overall happiness and wellbeing, just as poor mental health is linked with a number of physical ailments, and can seriously affect people's quality of life. At the same time, mental health problems need to be normalised, de-stigmatised, and seen for what they are: treatable, common, and a health problem like any other.
  • Anecdotal accounts tell us that mental health problems in both architecture schools and in practitioners are common, and possibly becoming more common, more compound and serious. Numerous people have observed this to me, and I certainly have made my own observations as an academic. I think we have specific issues in architecture, and (given the particularities of architectural culture) if they are to be addressed they will need to be examined in a discipline-specific way, and addressed with discipline-specific measures.
  • However, the point is that no one really knows for sure what is going on within this particular and peculiar community – not enough research has been done to highlight whether we have an issue, what factors are contributing to or exacerbating it, and also what factors in the community and culture of architects might even have some kind of protective effect.

Do you think mental health is an issue particularly relevant to architecture? If so, why?

Recently I was talking to a mental health professional who observed that people who actually make it into a university course have usually been travelling relatively well. If they have had mental health issues, these have not been enough to completely derail their progress – they might be described as 'high functioning'. On the other hand, this doctor also observed that certain degrees and professions possibly self-select for certain characteristics – for example, perfectionism (which has been linked with a range of conditions including anxiety and depression). I wouldn't be at all surprised if this was true for architecture! 

What role does tertiary education have to play in equipping students to deal with stressful situations and to manage their own mental health in the workplace?

I think it has a major role to play. Many of the practices that characterise the working life of an architect start in architecture school – cultures of overwork, long hours, the idea that a design is never finished, the uncertainty over what outcome is ‘right’, even the idea of architecture as a vocation or calling rather than a job or career. All of these things can tend to lead to stress, and students privileging the work over their own wellbeing, and can set up bad patterns that can continue in architectural practice. We need to get in early and encourage better patterns of self-care and manageable working conditions, as well as the ability to look after one another, and to recognise and seek help when it is needed. All of these things would be a start. 

What are some of the most effective initiatives you’ve seen in this area?

I haven’t seen many in architecture so far! Work on improving working conditions and equity more broadly is a step in the right direction, but more specific measures are needed. 

Without pre-empting the research too much, what changes and strategies do you consider would be worthwhile in tackling this important issue? 

First we need to understand the problem, through rigorous methods in collaboration with colleagues who are experts on mental health. I anticipate that we will include interviews and observations in architectural practices, but also a wider remit to understand the context and adjacent industries that architects are working within. Then we need to survey what measures have been effective in other professions or disciplines. Only then will we be ready to start thinking about changes and strategies that are needed.

We have been discussing the project with a range of research partners, both architectural practices and industry groups. If you are interested in being involved as a partner, and helping further our understanding of mental wellbeing for students and practitioners, please get in touch with Naomi Stead.

Naomi Stead is Professor and Head of Department in Architecture at Monash University; Adjunct Professor in Architecture at the University of Queensland; and the current President of the Society of Architectural Historians of Australia and New Zealand. Her research interests lie in architecture’s cultures of re/production, mediation, and reception. She is an award-winning and widely published architecture critic, having written more than fifty commissioned feature and review articles in professional magazines over the past decade, and is presently a columnist for the San Francisco-based Places Journal, where she writes essays on concepts and mythologies within and without architecture. She is an experienced qualitative researcher, having undertaken a range of research projects assessing the social, cultural, and architectural significance of built architectural projects. 

Photo: Aimee Crouch

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