Mental Health in the Built Environment Sector: A blog by Simeon

In this guest blog, Simeon Shtebunaev shares his personal experiences of the stresses and strains of working in architecture and what you can do on both a personal and organisational level, to manage mental health at work.

Hi! My name is Simeon and I am currently a PhD student in architecture and urban planning at Birmingham City University. Most of this blog was written before the pandemic, however, now more than ever we need to think about our mental health. There is an enormous opportunity to rethink how we work and what we prioritise. I hope my reflections are useful to all working in the built environment.

I have studied and worked in architecture and planning since 2010. I served as a trustee of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) between 2016 and 2019, co-founding the RIBA Future Architects network with the aim to create a community to support Students and Associate members of the institute. In this blog, I will summarise my own experience and put across why for me, talking about mental health in architecture is incredibly important. I have written in the Architectural Press about my own experience of stress and anxiety and have tried to normalise the debate. Admitting that we have a problem is the first step to solving it. I have also organised LGBTQ+ events in Birmingham, joining the pride parade with the BAA last year, trying to show that architecture is a friendly profession both externally and internally.

I found out about Altruist Enterprises through the Birmingham Architectural Association. The Altruist workshop the association organised in October 2019 led by Katie Buckingham was really helpful. Not least because of the number of people who turned out, shared their stories and thus normalised the issues around mental health in the Birmingham architectural community. Overcoming the stigma to talk about mental health issues is the first step in healing. Especially in the current circumstances, it is important to take a pause and reassess our thinking.

I have experienced workplace stress both in practice and education, however, the real issues only became apparent after completing my Part I placement. I spent two years in practice between my bachelor and master’s degree. But it was the second year that unlocked some feelings of anxiety, largely to do with the amount of time I was spending in work. As a politically conscious European citizen, the Brexit referendum and the years of uncertainty between 2016 and 2019 definitely exacerbated feelings of pre-existing work stress. As a gay man, at work I sometimes felt subconsciously that I should try and appear more masculine in team meetings and in front of clients. Suddenly, I felt that my career aspirations, my identity that I had built as an openly gay man at university and my future country of residence were all under question. I was swept into the work and tried not to think too much about it.

Architecture is a very time demanding profession, however, sometimes there is lack of self-awareness that you can take the time off and that taking a break is not a sign of weakness.

At work, I was very reluctant to be open about my feelings. However, as a rather transparent and sociable person it was inevitable that people would see through me immediately. In my Part II practice experience, I managed to sign up to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy sessions (CBT) from Birmingham Healthy minds. My practice was incredibly patient and understanding. They allowed me to take the time off on Friday mornings to be able to attend the therapy. It helped me feel welcome and understood at work, even though we didn’t discuss the issue in great detail. Stress and anxiety definitely impacted my own confidence in my master’s degree, leading me to be very unproductive in certain projects. I definitely felt that throughout education it was more difficult to pause and seek help, than in practice, not least because of financial and time constraints.

Architecture, I feel, is like a straight-jacket. It doesn’t necessarily cause the anxiety or stress on its own, however, it amplifies them and restricts your ability to reflect on your own physical and mental health. In my case the biggest drivers of stress probably are identity, financial and immigration issues. However, the excessive hours put into architecture, the restricted financial gain, the constant information overload and the culture of the ‘misunderstood artist’ did very little to help me take a step back and deal with the root causes of my panic attacks. Architects tend to develop a ‘hero’ mentality, which is a very restrictive way of thinking about the world and one that obliviates any mental health issues into a sign of weakness.

If you are struggling with mental well-being issues and you feel like you can’t speak with anyone at work, then my first point of call would be to pick up the phone and call the Architects Benevolent Society (ABS). They are an organisation that will be able to guide you through this tough time. Inside your organisation, I would suggest that you need to speak to one of the senior architects, somebody who might not be your immediate manager but who will understand your position as not all practices have a HR department. Approach it like a normal health issue, as if you have broken your arm. Seek medical help in the same manner. Everyone is at risk of suffering with mental health problems and you should never be apologetic about it.

If you are on the other side of the divide and you feel your staff aren’t confident in approaching you with their personal issues, the easiest thing to do is to open up. Talk about your past experiences of stress and current strategies to cope with it at a team meeting.

Take an opportunity Host a Mental Well-being Breakfast, join some of ABS’s initiatives, put a poster on the notice board at work. Break the barrier of formality and set the tone. Hire Altruist Enterprises to run a mental health for managers workshop, or online mental health for managers workshop. One of the initiatives I have always wanted to see in place in my own workplace has been a weekly common lunch / breakfast where everyone can feel a part of a team and discuss their future goals and ambitions. Developing friendly relationships with the rest of my colleagues, shared lunches, games after work, and an environment where I can be honest about my health are all strategies that helped me to have a much better experience at work.

The Architects Benevolent Society have been wonderful and have set up a partnership with Anxiety UK to support architectural professionals. Solutions are out there, and practices can take a charge to increase their staff’s experience at work.

Having taken a step sideways into academia, I feel I have a more holistic view of the architectural professional sector. We need to stop repeating the same mantras, recognise that some working practices aren’t healthy and start changing them. The profession is an exciting and creative endeavour, we need to be recognising and celebrate those features.

Take a step back, rest and recharge!

I am currently a PhD student in architecture and urban planning and I have studied and worked in the built environment sector since 2010. I served as a trustee of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) between 2016 and 2019, co-founding the RIBA Future Architects network. I have written about my own experience of stress and anxiety and have tried to normalise the debate. I have also organised LGBTQ+ events in Birmingham, joining the pride parade with the Birmingham Architectural Association last year. I also recently became an Ambassador for the Architects Benevolent Society.

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