Avoiding Burnout

Peter Raisbeck , 22 May 2019

Running and directing an architecture practice is often gruelling, and can take a real toll on your mental health. Peter Raisbeck identifies the stress factors and offers some basic tips on self care.

Today, there are insidious issues of mental health lurking in our profession and the architecture schools, and the latter to a large extent sets the culture of the profession. Speaking from my own personal experience, burnout is a common factor among architects and architectural academics. Last year I heard the story of the overloaded project architect who had a stroke. I have come to the conclusion that the “grin and bear it” school of working doesn’t really help anyone. It may seem easy to sweep a culture of balanced work practices under the carpet, but it doesn’t help anyone long-term. Not employees or practices. Expecting employees to “man up” or “just grin and bear it” when unreasonable expectations are made will inevitably lead to burnout and high staff turnover. The wellbeing of staff inevitably feeds into the wellbeing of practice. Managers who demand long hours and quicker, faster documentation time only foster cultures where nothing of excellence is achieved, and people are damaged in the process.

Most architects and architectural academics already take on a great deal of personal risk for their vocation. In our profession, there is a high personal investment in the actual work. But there is also a long list of additional challenges – lower pay relative to other occupations, a culture of long hours, ad-hoc career pathways, gender and other forms of discrimination, and “boom” and “bust” workflows. There is, in pockets, entrenched cultures of discrimination and, worse still, bullying. There is also a lack of union protection for employees, while many practices have no HR infrastructure. This is not to say that every architectural practice exhibits all of the above attributes. But architecture is hard enough anyway, so why make it worse for those dedicated to it?

The Stress Factors

No matter how hard architects try to manage risk, it doesn’t take much in practice for things to go awry. In the last year, I have been witness to some of these things: A builder who misrepresents his financial position because he is not getting paid on another project. A  bullying project manager who can’t make decisions on a prestigious government project and then blames everyone else for time delays. A client who moves in and then vociferously complains about every detail despite extensive prior consultation. The bad advice from the product manufacturer combined with sloppy installation resulting in the necessity to replace all the floor coverings. Every minor planning ambiguity or skirmish that architects have to deal with can be a source of personal stress for the architect.

All of the above situations are enough to put extreme pressure and stress on any architect, regardless of how experienced they may be. Running and directing an architectural practice can be gruelling. No matter how big or small your architectural practice, or even if you are a student of architecture, being an architect can take a real toll on your mental health. Here are a few points for your consideration:

1. You are not invincible

We all need help sometimes. For younger architects, it is easy to think you are invincible. But like everyone else, life events – for example, grief – can easily take their toll. So, as individuals we should not be afraid to seek help from a trained psychologist or counsellor.

In Australia, you can start to find someone who might be able to help at this link. There are also plenty of places where you can go to for immediate and urgent help such as Lifeline if you are having an immediate personal crisis. Also see our Resources Roundup for a list of useful links.

2. Getting a coach or mentor

As architects, we need all the help we can get. No matter what kind of practice you lead, it is really important to develop your own support groups or find yourself some mentors further up the food chain.

If you are in a position of leadership or decision-making in architecture there is also a lot to be said for getting a career coach. Leadership, decision making and management is not taught in architecture schools, so more leadership development may help fill the gaps. The best design leaders are the ones that are reflective and can evolve. The best design leaders understand how to manage the issues around mental health and wellbeing.

3. Take a Mental Health Day

Sacrificing your mental health for architecture does not really help anyone. It’s a great idea for all architects to take a mental health day. If every architecture firm gave its employees a day off when they really needed it, think how much better our profession would be. As a local, regional and global community of architects, we will be stronger if we start to have this conversation. As a profession, no matter our roles or where we are situated, not talking about mental health is toxic to architectural culture. As architects, we all need to be kinder to each other.

Dr Peter Raisbeck is a senior lecturer in architectural practice at the Melbourne School of Design, University of Melbourne. He is also research director of the ACA. Peter writes a blog called Surviving the Design Studio. His book Architecture as a Global System: Scavengers, Tribes, Warlords and Megafirms will be published by Emerald in late 2019.


Photo: Nik Shuliahin, Unsplash