Designing Support in the Modern World

Kate Vivian , 23 May 2019

Katie Vivian from the UK-based Architects Benevolent Society introduces us to the charity’s history, the modernisation of its support services and its current AnxietyArch campaign.

The Architects Benevolent Society (ABS) is a UK-based charity dedicated to helping past and present architects, architectural assistants, technologists, technicians, landscape architects, students and their families, in times of need. The Society helps people of all ages facing financial hardship resulting from different challenges including ill health, accident, disability and unemployment. Support ranges from confidential advice to financial assistance. This article gives some insight into how the 168-year-old charity has recently developed its support offer to ensure that it is meeting the needs of the people it helps, most recently focusing on providing practical support for architectural professionals experiencing stress, anxiety and anxiety-based depression.

The foundations of support – a brief history of ABS

In 1850, a meeting in the Freemason’s Tavern, Queen Street, London, saw the formation of the Architects Benevolent Society. A small group of architects had spent several years enlisting the support of some of the leading architects of the time to set up a fund for the relief of the more unfortunate members of their profession. The objects of the Society were to provide relief to “persons engaged or formerly engaged in the practice of architecture and the wives, widows, children and other dependants of such persons being in necessitous circumstances.

Two of the first four people helped by ABS in their time of need were an architect “now in the evening of his life who was overtaken by sickness and want; a paralytic attack having entirely disabled him from the exercise of his pencil”; and a widow with five children whose husband “unhappily had been too negligent of the future, and at his death his widow found herself with a large, young family in pecuniary difficulties against which she has ever since struggled most meritously”. (ABS Annual Report 1852)

Since ABS was founded the world has changed dramatically, yet our goal of providing help and support to the wider architectural community in “necessitous circumstances” remains our mission to this day. Needless to say, there have been significant changes in the use of language since 1850 too, and we have updated our mission to reflect this!

Mental health support

Fast forward 168 years to ABS today, and we are now helping hundreds of people across the UK every year with a range of support, tailored to meet their individual circumstances and needs; providing financial assistance, emotional support, sign-posting and specialist advice delivered by our partner organisations. Alleviating financial hardship remains at the core of what the Society does; however, it is not sufficient as a means of helping to address the circumstances and complex problems many people face when they turn to us for support. As a charity committed to the wellbeing of architectural professionals it is important that we aim to take a holistic view and consider how we can support individuals and families as comprehensively as possible to enable them to reach a point where they no longer need our support.

Mental health was reported to be the biggest single worry for respondents aged under 30 in the Architects Journal (AJ) Life in Practice Survey 2017; and the AJ student survey 2018 reported that one in three architecture students have received or are currently receiving treatment for a mental health problem, an increase from the previous year. These issues are not specific to architecture, with an estimated 1 in 6 adults in the past week experiencing a common mental health problem (Mental Health Foundation 2016).  However, architectural professionals are particularly at risk with a widespread long hours’ culture and economic vulnerability, combined with issues outside work having the potential to impact significantly on mental wellbeing.

ABS felt the need to respond in a practical way. Our first step in this direction was to set up a partnership with Anxiety UK, a national charity run by and for those living with and/or affected by anxiety, stress and anxiety-based depression. Anxiety UK delivers a range of services for ABS including one to one therapy, a dedicated helpline and email services to provide emotional support, and self-help materials.

Since May 2017, we have referred and funded therapy for more than 100 people, with some very successful outcomes. The NHS Psychological Therapies Report 2016 / 2017 reported Recovered rates of 49.3%, Reliable Improvement rates of 65.1.% and Reliable Recovery rates of 47.0%. In comparison, when using Anxiety UK Approved Therapists, these rates for ABS clients were 65.6%, 74.3% and 62.5% respectively for the period from October 2017 to September 2018. Therapy can be delivered face to face, by phone or skype. The referral process is very quick, with most people being seen by a therapist within a few weeks of referral. This means that people are getting appropriate support when they need it most.

The response we have had to our new mental health support offer within the architectural community has been overwhelmingly positive, with an increase in enquiries for support, and the beginning of a more open discussion about the mental wellbeing among members of the professions and students.

The Architects Benevolent Society has committed to speaking openly about mental health issues and promoting positive mental health and wellbeing for those in the architectural community. Although there is a lot of media coverage about promoting positive mental health aimed at reducing the stigma attached to mental health issues, there is a long way to go and this is why we have chosen to put mental wellbeing in the industry at the top of the agenda throughout 2019 in our #AnxietyArch campaign.

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#AnxietyArch campaign 2019 – ‘build the arch and strengthen the support’

The campaign aims to:

  • encourage architectural professionals and students to recognise and talk openly about mental health issues and know where they can access help when they need it most
  • raise money to enable ABS to support more people experiencing stress, anxiety and anxiety-based depression, through its partnership with Anxiety UK
  • promote good practice in terms of people looking after themselves, their colleagues, their employees and their families.

Each month in 2019, the #AnxietyArch campaign will focus on a different theme relating to pressure points for stress and anxiety as well as coping mechanisms shared through personal stories and articles. Themes include wellbeing at work, exercise and nutrition, sleep, social interaction and the arts.

We launched the campaign in February with the Wellbeing at Work theme. Our contributors range from large practices to sole practitioners and students, all of whom embrace the notion of promoting mental wellbeing within architectural practice and education.

Some insightful observations from our contributors include:

“It only takes one person to start breaking the stigma surrounding this subject and contribute towards positive change in the industry.”—Charlotte Goodman-Simpson, Architect, ABS Ambassador, RIBA mentor.

Staff’s wellbeing – emotional, mental or physical – is our main priority.”—Assael Architecture

The market in which architects operate is not going to change overnight, but the way in which we run our practices and use our time can.   We must care for staff and ourselves so that we can also be fit to care for the wellbeing of those people that live and work in the buildings we design. We cannot have one without the other. We need balance in all things.”—Jane Duncan OBE PPRIBA, ABS President

As well as the #AnxietyArch campaign, ABS is working collaboratively with the RIBA on a pilot scheme to deliver wellbeing workshops to practitioners in architectural practices and students at universities to promote positive, supportive environments. ABS is also a member of the Architects Mental Wellbeing Forum, currently comprising 12 architectural practices, all of whom are renowned for their forward-thinking approaches to staff welfare, along with RIBA. The forum is putting together a toolkit for practices giving practical guidance about how to foster an environment that supports wellbeing. The toolkit will be published later this year.

There is so much more to achieve in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health problems, but ABS, in collaboration with others and buoyed by a wave of supporters, has begun the journey with practical support and the #AnxietyArch campaign. We will remain committed to promoting change and providing support to those in the architectural profession when they need it most.

For more on the campaign, including articles and stories, head to the Architects Benevolent Society.

Katie Vivian is the External Relations Manager at the Architects Benevolent Society.