Last edited 14 May 2021

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Changing attitudes towards the mental wellbeing of early career Architectural Technology professionals

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Contents

[edit] Introduction

Architectural Technologists by nature think holistically, considering the health and wellbeing of those occupying the spaces they design. This can include investigating concepts such as biophilic design and benchmarking schemes against the WELL Building Standard.

However, it is sadly ironic that the health and mental wellbeing of young or early career Architectural Technology professionals new into the industry, and often tasked with designing such spaces, is sometimes neglected. I undertook a review of literature for a new report that I have authored entitled Changing attitudes towards the mental wellbeing of early career Architectural Technology professionals which has identified graduates of 2020 as being of a generation which have a high potential for mental health issues.

The report was written to help fill the void around the needs and expectations of young and early career professionals, to provide advice to employers on good practice in relation to mental wellbeing and to act as a mechanism to begin conversations with the aim of promoting a healthy and happy workforce and workplace.

[edit] Mental health trends for UK students

The area of mental wellbeing has been brought into sharp focus due to the levels of reported mental illness and wellbeing issues among UK students (The Insight Network, 2019). The 2018 national University Mental Health Survey, which had over 37,500 responses, presented some sobering statistics:

  • 33.9% had experienced a serious personal, emotional, behavioural or mental health problem for which they needed professional help.
  • 21.5% had received a mental health diagnosis.
  • 42.8% outlined they were often or always worried.
  • 50.3% reported some thoughts of self-harm.
  • 75.6% concealed their symptoms for fear of stigmatisation.

In addition, research undertaken at Ulster University identified over 50% of new entry students participating in a survey stating they had experienced a mental health issue at some point in their life. Almost a quarter of students screened positively for a mood disorder, and over a fifth of students had an anxiety disorder (McLafferty et al. 2017). Nearly a third of students reported having suicidal thoughts, whilst almost 20% of students said that they had made a suicide plan and a similar percentage engaged in self-harm (O’Neill et al. 2018).

[edit] Mental health trends for new Architectural Technologists

Focusing on the Architectural Technology discipline, its diverse nature, coupled with an acknowledgement that the design of built assets has become more complex, has meant that the Architectural Technology education sector has had to reinvent itself to produce well rounded young professionals who are competent and have a skillset that allows them to flourish in whichever area they choose to specialise. Whilst this change is exciting, it does mean that the content and delivery of Architectural Technology programmes is very different to what would have been experienced previously, and very different to what many in industry would have experienced.

As well as the core competencies of technical design and detailing, designing sustainably and with inclusivity in mind and having an awareness of relevant building control and planning legislation, graduates are generally expected to have an understanding of:

They are expected to be innovators, model makers, problem solvers, researchers writing with academic rigour and effective communicators.

Additionally, employers are now explicitly highlighting the importance of soft skills which include resilience, adaptability, organisation, good interpersonal skills and the ability to work in a team (QS, 2020). In short, successfully completing a degree in Architectural Technology is challenging in terms of workload and the time commitment expected.

[edit] Professional and personal pressure

This academic challenge is faced alongside growing external and social pressures. Rising tuition fees, accommodation costs and general subsistence mean many need to work more hours than they study just to maintain their existence, leading to an unhealthy work/life balance which can result in stress and illness.

Increasing tuition fees have made students more aware of the value of their degree, with added pressure from parents and employers to achieve a high award classification. More and more have caring responsibilities to consider outside of their studies, for parents and grandparents; this is now more prevalent than ever due to an ageing population (ONS, 2019).

Many young and early career professionals juggle their academic studies with fledgling sporting careers, the time commitments of which, due to increased levels of professionalism, have increased exponentially in recent years. The age of social media has also brought about its own pressures to conform, as well as the endeavours to live up to the perception of ‘student life’ which can impact on mental health.

As described in an article, “This is a generation born with a phone in their hand. Bombarded with filtered images, pretend lives…and it’s 24/7, there is no day off, no relief from it.” (Morris, 2020).

[edit] Moving away from academic to professional settings

In the architecture discipline, 33% of students responding to a survey believed they had a mental health problem, higher than the rate within the UK general population, with students studying this discipline more likely to experience mental distress when compared to the ‘typical’ student (Kirkpatrick, 2018 citing other studies). In summary, students of 2020 are different from those who have gone before and are a community with complex needs. All of this can have an impact on young professionals as they move into professional roles post-graduation.

More generally, this must be considered against the backdrop of the construction sector already having a poor track record when it comes to mental health and wellbeing. Whilst there are excellent initiatives aimed at raising awareness and providing support, such as Mates in Mind and the Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Toolkit, there has tended to be a focus on those already established within the industry as opposed to young and early career professionals recently making the transition from the university environment. The workload outlined, combined with the stresses of everyday student life, needs to be considered from the perspective of mental health and wellbeing as everyone has different stress holding capacities.

To be clear on what is meant by mental health, The World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”.

[edit] Supportive guidance

The pressures faced by young and early career professionals of 2020, both during and after university, coupled with social and personal pressures, means that more and more are struggling to cope with the “normal stresses of life” as per the definition. This does not mean that young professionals should be treated differently in practice or given less responsibility. Rather, the guidance provided in the report is simply suggesting that there is an awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing within the workplace and a supportive culture where individuals feel they will not be stigmatised if they face such personal challenges.

To bring about meaningful change both bottom-up and top-down approaches are required to ensure those entering the industry have an awareness of - and know how to deal with - mental health and wellbeing issues. Likewise, there is a responsibility on employers to nurture a supporting environment.

To support this process, the report presents a mindfulness PatHWAY (Promoting Health & Wellbeing Among Young & early career Architectural Technology professionals), which provides guidance and good practice examples. It also invites employers to reduce the stigma around mental health by implementing three of the suggested changes in their workplace practice.

The suggestions are not ground-breaking; indeed, many will already be routinely undertaking such practice. The guidance provided is simply acting as a reminder of good workplace practice which should make for a happy working environment.


This article originally appeared in the Architectural Technology Journal (at) issue 134 published by CIAT in Summer 2020. It was written by David Comiskey BSC (Hons) MCIAT, Chartered Architectural Technologist, University of Ulster.

--CIAT

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