Work-related Wellbeing – Initial Findings

13 October 2021

Monash University Professor of Architecture Naomi Stead provides an update on the three-year, Australian Research Council–funded research project about the wellbeing of practitioners and students in architecture, with an emphasis on some early findings of the recent practitioner survey.

The project (generally known by its nickname, the Wellbeing of Architects project) is a three-year, Australian Research Council–funded project which investigates the wellbeing of people working in and studying architecture, and ultimately will develop tailored resources to contribute to greater wellbeing for these groups. It promises to be the first study to use interdisciplinary, qualitative and quantitative methods to question how workplace cultures and professional identity affect mental wellbeing in architecture – and thus lay the foundations for practical improvements in the future.

The larger project encompasses a range of research activities including 12 in-depth pilot interviews with key stakeholders; two major surveys of practitioners and students respectively, which have recently been completed and are now being analysed; a series of focus groups (including with sessional and permanent academics, PhD students, recent graduates, and practitioners at every career stage) to deepen and test findings from the surveys; a series of industry forums and discussions throughout the three years; and follow-up surveys with practitioners and students, in the third year of the project, to give a longitudinal aspect.

So, it’s a very comprehensive program of research, which we have really only just started, but already the findings are proving to be revealing, and promising – for positive change towards greater wellbeing amongst people working in and studying architecture in the future.

Survey aims

Within the larger project, our practitioner survey had five aims:

  1.  To better understand the work-related wellbeing of people working in architectural practice (broadly defined)
  2. To better understand how self-reported work-related wellbeing in architecture may be related to other occupation-related factors including career stage, working conditions, sense of professional identity, etc
  3. To build upon the findings of an earlier series of 12 pilot interviews with key stakeholders
  4. To develop questions and areas of focus to be explored in more depth in later focus groups and interviews
  5. To contribute to the development of tailored resources to support workplaces, and professional and educational organisations in architecture, as they work towards improved occupational wellbeing through cultural change.

Survey responses

The survey ran online in August 2021 – during a period when the pandemic was affecting both Melbourne and Sydney, from where a large proportion of our participants were drawn. We are aware that will likely have a major impact on their responses, which we are taking into account in our analysis.

We were delighted to have more than 2000 respondents overall, with a spread of geographic location, level of seniority, gender, and representation from different types of practice. We are very grateful to everyone who took the time to complete the survey, and even as we are still engaged in interpretation, the findings are already revealing, and important.

For one thing, respondents overwhelmingly agreed that, while the work can be satisfying, fulfilling, engaging and meaningful, there can be working conditions in architecture that do affect wellbeing – positively but also negatively, to varying degrees, and at various times. This is an important finding in itself since, despite widespread commentary, there has not (until now) been sufficient evidence of what the wellbeing issues in architecture were perceived to be, what was perceived to be contributing to them, and therefore also what might be done about it all. One participant summed up this general response by noting that in architecture:

“The workloads are extreme. There is an expectation of unpaid overtime. There is a lack of valuing the contributions of graduate and junior architects, or non-architectural staff. There are still entrenched gender and race biases. Directors are still overwhelmingly white and male. A more progressive environment, rather than lip service to it, would help.”

Of course, in a self-selected survey like this there is some risk of bias – people who feel passionate about wellbeing issues will be more inclined to take part. In addition, and despite our large sample size, the respondents to this survey can not necessarily be taken as representative of the profession as a whole – each individual can really only be taken to represent themselves, and the research team is cautious about the claims that can therefore be made based on this data.

Nevertheless, in this survey we have certainly the largest response to questions around wellbeing in the architecture profession ever undertaken in Australia, and one of the largest and most rigorous ever undertaken globally. It is an internationally-significant data set, which promises to offer rich insight into the profession and its people, in Australia and beyond.

It’s fair to say that some of the findings that are emerging, even at this early stage, are not all that surprising. It is clear that the link between how architecture is valued and how it is funded, between resourcing and work pressure – essentially between time, money and working conditions, each affect the wellbeing of the architectural workforce. But it is powerful to see these beliefs laid out so emphatically in the responses, and also to see what participants felt could or should be done to change working conditions for the better. For example, numerous participants emphasised that the value that architecture brings is not fully understood, respected, or considered to be vitally relevant – by the public, colleagues in the construction industry, and even architects themselves. There was a consensus that the work of architects is widely undervalued, which leads (directly and indirectly) to wellbeing issues within the profession. For example, one participant called for:

“Wider community knowledge of and respect for the overwhelmingly positive effect and worth that good architecture and architects bring to the built (and unbuilt) environment.”

While another argued that it had tangible effects within the profession, arguing for the need to:

“Improve understanding of the key role of architecture so that the profession as a whole focuses on developing relevant skills. This will lead to increased demand for architectural services, restore the centrality of architecture in the building and environment design and delivery process, improve architects’ sense of relevance, and build pride in the profession that in turn delivers enhanced wellbeing.”

Many participants saw this specifically in terms of the construction sector:

“Help build a position where architects are respected in the industry and not seen as ‘the necessary evil’. Respect would build an understanding of time and therefore cost. With decent fees, people could be more fairly remunerated and this would also allow for more staff, reducing pressure on individuals, and even more so, allow money for training, better tech, better facilities. We all want better for our staff and ourselves, but it all costs money, and our industry isn’t one that makes huge profits to allow us to throw the cash at problems – hence the stress at all levels.”

Findings – Open-ended questions

Our survey was designed to collect data relating to work-related wellbeing (social, physical and emotional); professional identity; perceptions of support; and the impact of work cultures, norms and practices on individual wellbeing. It also collected some demographic data on participants (whilst remaining strictly anonymous). While many of the questions were quantitative (and we are still in the intensive process of analysing those) we also included several qualitative, open-ended questions.

Here participants were invited to reflect on questions such as what measures they take to support their own wellbeing, what connections they see between wellbeing issues in educational and practice contexts in architecture, whether there are other factors outside the workplace which have affected their wellbeing at work, and two key open questions: ‘What do you think are the greatest challenges for the wellbeing of people in the architectural profession today?’ and ‘If you could do one thing to improve work-related wellbeing in architecture, what would it be?’

Of the respondents to the whole survey, we had 1483 individuals respond to at least one of these open-ended questions. Many of these responses were long and detailed, insightful and incisive. Analysing these responses requires a different process to the more statistical approach in the rest of the survey, and therefore we have been manually coding each question according to theme.

This article mainly focuses on the responses to the question, ‘If you could do one thing to improve work-related wellbeing in architecture, what would it be?’ This is, we believe, an important question because it reveals a hierarchy of issues (perceptions about the single most significant thing to address) as well as an orientation towards change and action towards improvement – which is the trajectory of our project as a whole. On the other hand, the question also has limitations. As one respondent observed:

“There’s no silver bullet to this. The closest thing to ‘one thing’ would be attitudinal change both at an individual and a whole-of-profession level.”

Likewise, another participant argued for the need to “start implementing a culture of wellbeing and balance at the tertiary level and see this culture continued in the workplace. The mindset and attitude of being an architect needs a big shift.” The ‘one thing’ identified by many of our respondents is both complex and thoroughgoing, cultural and systemic. It’s clear there is not a simple or single answer here. Nevertheless, the responses offer a kaleidoscope of ideas and possibilities for change.

One respondent argued that architects need to be afforded “more authority and appreciation”, so they are:

“better able to dictate payment and timeframes for projects. This will mean less workload and financial stress on each person. If I could do one thing, it would be not perpetuating the exact opposite of this by working to meet unrealistic budget and time pressures.”

So, a first major observation from all the responses is that many, if not most respondents appear to be framing issues of wellbeing in architecture in systemic rather than individualistic terms – that is, not in relation to the unique responses of individuals, but more in relation to working conditions and cultures in the profession as a whole, including conditions imposed from outside. For example, one participant specified the single thing they would do to improve wellbeing is:

“I would go back in time and make sure that our profession is valued for its long-term approach. This would mean fees, remuneration and time expectation is more balanced for the individual. Australia suffers from a myopic approach to building and this means projects are not as great as they could be. Value management is driven by short term project profit gains, but long term maintenance and material degradation become much more costly.”

These are big picture considerations, and sure enough our analysis identified a large range of themes within the responses, with a clear hierarchy between them.

Major issues

There was a distinct set of themes that emerged as the main issues – identified by large numbers of respondents as clearly being the thing they would change to improve wellbeing in architecture. They fall into four interrelated categories: financial management (fees and pay); time management (timelines, deadlines, and overtime); the valuing and recognition of the service that architecture provides; and the need for collective or structural action to address the current situation. Obviously these four categories intersect and overlap, in both philosophical as well as practical terms  – on the one hand how the ‘work’ and value of architecture can be better defined and hence financed, on the other hand why overtime is so frequently unpaid.

Many participants stated that they felt the architecture profession, and more particularly the design services it provides, are undervalued by allied professions in the built environment, and by the community more generally. It was suggested that this includes a misunderstanding of the role of the architect, and an under-appreciation of the value of design per se. As one participant phrased it, the one thing they would do to improve work-related wellbeing would be to:

“Educate clients to understand and value the complexity of design and the value of time spent in the research, conceptual and design development stages of a project […] Education about design ideally starts in kindergarten, if the whole community values the built environment and our contribution in shaping it we can thrive.”

This focus on the need to demonstrate and evidence the value and importance of design and architectural services, and the conditions required to produce good design, was echoed by other respondents:

“ [Create] greater education within and in parallel industries to really highlight how long good quality work takes. Constant unreasonable expectations and deadlines and the push to work towards that […] are breaking a lot of my colleagues (and myself) down.”

In the responses there was a strong correlation between what is perceived to be the societal under-valuing of architectural design, and corresponding financial investment, particularly in fees – the fees that architects charge, and the fees that others are willing to pay. Accordingly, one participant argued that the single thing they would do to improve wellbeing would be to:

“Increase the value placed on architectural work. So many issues stem from low fees and an expectation that complex and time-consuming work can be completed more quickly than it reasonably can. Higher fees would greatly alleviate many of the issues the industry faces.”

This was one of the most overwhelming themes, in response to the question of the one thing people would change to improve work-related wellbeing in architecture – participants argued that they would adequately resource projects, so that they can be completed to an appropriate standard, in a way that did not lead to work practices with negative wellbeing effects. One participant put it succinctly: they would change “the expectation that late nights means better work – it does not. This means proper fees for proper resourcing.”

Participants linked the charging of low fees (including the effects of fee undercutting, deregulation, and a perceived ‘race to the bottom’ in minimum fees) with architectural workers’ long hours, unrealistic deadlines, and overtime (including unpaid overtime), and also with low pay. The connection between time, money, and working conditions – or workflow, fees and wellbeing – was strongly indicated in the responses, for example as follows:

“Increase fees – time pressure would be taken off staff, business financial pressures would reduce, better work can be done as there is more time to do it, less mistakes as projects are not as rushed, less mistakes means less client complaints or risk of being sued, students and graduates can be trained properly, employees can have a better work/life balance as they are not always in the office, you get paid for the work that you do and not keep doing work for free. Architects would be more valued and not seen as the draftie.”

Other participants noted that these conditions are ultimately self-defeating and highly detrimental to the profession, given that people faced with relentless work pressure are apt to leave:

“Increase fees to reduce deadlines. I’ve had a number of friends leave the profession or have break downs due to the relentless nature of deadline after deadline.”

Mid-range issues

In the middle range, in themes identified by between 50 and 70 participants, significant numbers specified that the single thing they would change to improve wellbeing would be the ability to work flexibly, and/or work fewer hours, including increased opportunity for periods of leave. Others noted the value of career mentors and sponsors, and the opportunity to upskill and complete additional training or education. Others still argued for the absolute necessity of maintaining boundaries around work, for instance the respondent who wished to:

“genuinely and proactively engender mechanisms for employee work-life balance, rather than speaking about it and documenting it in policy manuals which amounts to mere window-dressing.”

Along these same lines, other participants identified the need for better training and skill in those who manage people within the architectural workforce. Alarmingly, a large number of respondents noted the continuing prevalence of inequity, including overt discrimination and harassment (including some very disturbing allegations). One respondent wrote that:

“I would encourage employers to respect the boundary between work and the personal time of employees. The combination of project demands (which can be over long periods), how projects are resourced, and the eagerness of employees (often younger ones) to prove their worth can be contrary to improving the overall wellbeing of those working in architecture. Over time it can often lead to losing employees, a negative office culture, and ultimately a negative impact on architecture as a profession.”

Issues with less impact on wellbeing

Of those responses at the lower end of the count, with fewer than 50 respondents, some were surprising – in the pandemic context we were curious to see that few respondents identified a lack of job security or career advancement as key issues affecting wellbeing, and that only a handful identified a lack of creative fulfilment (given that creative frustration is a factor that other international studies have identified as potentially problematic). In fact, several respondents actively rejected such ideas:

“Dispel the myth of the architect as tortured genius artist that is willing to do whatever it takes for the ‘art’ of architecture. (I know this is two things but also seriously mandate maximum work hours/number of days of work)”

We also found that relatively few respondents specified a lack of transparency or trust in their workplace as affecting their wellbeing, were concerned by excessive competitiveness, or the risk and responsibility that architects carry. In fact, a surprisingly small number identified actual workload as a problem – with far more identifying how and when the work must be completed as problematic.

Next steps

Taken altogether, we found the responses even to the long-form qualitative responses to be fascinating, insightful, highly critical, but also replete with dedication to the practice of architecture, and full of hope for the future.

We hope that the survey data we have collected thus far, and the project’s forthcoming focus groups, will create a firm evidence base from which we can develop resources, toolkits and practical advice – to help architectural practices, institutions and organisations to better support their people and create positive workplace cultures.

More information

For more information on the Wellbeing of Architects findings, there’s a special Parlour session with Naomi Stead and Byron Kinnaird on Friday 15 October. See the event notice for more information and to make a booking.

This is an update of an article originally published on ArchitectureAU. Co-authors of the original article include Naomi Stead, Julia Rodwell, Byron Kinnaird, Maryam Gusheh, Kirsten Orr, Julie Wolfram Cox, and Brian Cooper.

The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between researchers at Monash University’s Department of Architecture and Department of Management, and includes numerous industry-based research partners including: BVN, DesignInc, Elenberg Fraser, TheFulcrum.Agency, Hassell and SJB, as well as the NSW Architects Registration Board, the Australian Institute of Architects (national) and the Association of Consulting Architects (ACA), as well as the peak body representing architecture schools in Australia and New Zealand – the Association of Australasian Schools of Architecture (AASA).