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Do architects feel well at work? The answer may surprise you

Did you know, people working in architecture have a significantly lower-than-average quality of life compared with Australian norms? Byron Kinnaird, a research fellow at Monash University for The Wellbeing of Architects project, reports on some the project’s most startling findings.

Do architects feel well at work? The answer may surprise you

Seven years ago, I published a personal account of my poor mental health having endured architecture school and a decade of insecure work. I was burnt out, exasperated, and uneasily complicit. I ripped into the architectural education system and a profession that I held largely responsible for the decline in my wellbeing, and resented having to resource my own recovery.

Mine wasn’t an isolated story, and I’m grateful many others were open to sharing theirs, and importantly, many others wanted to help things get better.

There has been a lot of concern about the effects that studying and working in architecture has on the wellbeing of people. Until now, however, there has been a glaring lack of large-scale, rigorous research that sought to examine if these concerns had any substance; if so, what might be contributing to them; and what can be done to engage with and improve the situation.

The Wellbeing of Architects project is formed

Building on research produced in the UK and Canada, and a literature review of mental health in architecture commissioned by the NSW Architects Registration Board, an interdisciplinary team of researchers formed The Wellbeing of Architects project, which has been funded by the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Scheme and numerous industry partners.

The project is a comprehensive three-year study, one of the first to use interdisciplinary, qualitative and quantitative methods to address the question of how workplace cultures and professional identity affect wellbeing in architecture, and to develop practical, applied interventions to address and improve wellbeing outcomes.

A project of this depth and design with wide-ranging industry support has not been seen before anywhere, and will have a transformative impact on the Australian profession, and we hope, the global community of architecture. It’s important to say that we are not medical researchers, and our goal is not to diagnose the profession – but to understand the complex and interwoven issues of identity, culture and work related wellbeing.

What does “wellbeing” mean?

When we talk about wellbeing, the State Government of Victoria’s Department of Health provides a useful definition: “A complex combination of a person’s physical, mental emotional and social health factors… In short, wellbeing could be described as how you feel about yourself and your life.”

To date, we have conducted our first major surveys of architectural practitioners and students, and are now undertaking a series of focus groups to investigate emerging themes. Follow-up surveys will be conducted in 2023, informing the development of tailored toolkits and resources.

What has The Wellbeing of Architects project taught us, so far?

Most startling was this:

People working in architecture have a significantly lower than-average quality of life compared with Australian norms. Not to mention surprisingly low personal wellbeing scores, elevated levels of psychological distress, and higher-than-average levels of burnout. Reading back on my own experience, it’s all there.

We were wary that our surveys had taken place during a devastating pandemic, with Victoria and New South Wales both in lockdowns at the time – weren’t we all distressed and burnt out? Surprisingly our data revealed that this wasn’t necessarily the case, some respondents reported their quality of life had improved since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Concerningly though, those whose quality of life had worsened since the outbreak were more likely to have even lower personal wellbeing scores.

If it wasn’t just the pandemic, what factors were responsible for these low scores? Further analysis found several recurring themes; put simply, it’s about healthy business, and a healthy profession.

Four spheres of architecture practice that impact wellbeing

We grouped these findings into four interconnected spheres of practice that were impacting wellbeing in architecture: time management, financial management, the value of architectural services, and a need for leadership and representation.

When we asked respondents to rank the top three industry factors that had a negative impact on wellbeing, “timelines or deadlines” was by far the most common response, selected by over half of our respondents. The second most common factor was “fees”.

These issues of time and fees were reflected elsewhere in our data. A substantial percentage of respondents reported working more hours than they were contracted to work, nearly a quarter (23 per cent) on a weekly basis, and a further 14 per cent said it was on a daily basis. How is this sustainable? When we looked at personal wellbeing scores based on satisfaction with remuneration, we saw a clear linear correlation as well. Those who were “very satisfied” with their pay were one of the only groups in our survey whose scores exceeded – only just – the Australian norm for personal wellbeing.

Work-related wellbeing is a complex equation

The complexity of work-related wellbeing can’t be simplified to these issues alone; remember that these correlations are not necessarily causal. Indeed, many expressed the delicate relationship between positive and negative experiences studying and working in architecture – we care, and so we are happy to work more, to let a few things slide – I’m sure it resonates.

These findings point to real challenges in working conditions and existing cultures of architectural practice, but the scope and nuance of these issues goes beyond our businesses and employers. We should be particularly cautious of this self-criticism.

There are many factors impacting wellbeing that are external to the profession – a lot of our respondents spoke of a need for more valuing and appreciation of architectural work in the wider industry and public – and this will require leadership, representation and advocacy. The call for cultural and organisational change was ever-present.

Our work continues as we now shift our focus to translate our findings into practical resources and toolkits to support the architectural community, so that we can be a small part of cultivating healthier businesses, and a healthier profession.

About the Byron and The Wellbeing of Architects project

Byron Kinnaird is a research fellow at Monash University for The Wellbeing of Architects project. The Wellbeing of Architects project is a collaboration between researchers at Monash University’s Department of Architecture (Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture) and Department of Management (Faculty of Business and Economics); and partnered with the New South Wales Architects Registration Board, Australian Institute of Architects, Association of Consulting Architects, and the Association of Australasian Schools of Architecture.

The Wellbeing of Architects project

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