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Last edited 19 Nov 2020
Mental health and wellbeing
When I became President of CIAT in 2019, the world had not heard of the coronavirus or COVID-19. The changes that have taken place in 2020 were unimaginable back in November 2019. However, in my inaugural Presidential speech, I said it was my aim to support some very real initiatives which add value to our industry and to give support to those who work in it.
It is a fantastic and exciting industry to be involved in. There are changes we can make to communities, and improvements to the lives of so many can be seen. However, we must also be aware of ourselves and ensure that our health and safety are given equal importance.
As we know, everyone working in the built environment sector is duty bound to adhere with health and safety requirements to varying amounts. As designers, our duty is to assess risks and consider safety during the construction process and in the use of the building once completed. Thankfully, identifying and mitigating against potential hazards has become second nature to most across all sectors of our industry.
It is fair to say that, over the years, whilst the ‘health’ aspect was not exactly ignored, it was not given as much attention. Following, quite rightly, years of concentrated efforts focused on improving ‘safety’, it is encouraging to see the transformation and extension of the ‘health’ element being recognised as equally important.
Health impacts now taking a priority cover issues such as:
- Use of materials. The need for a considered use of materials, including strategies to safely avoid any exposure to toxins within them, which can have short- and long-term health implications. As a result of a large body of research on materials, awareness of the potential side effects of certain components is better understood and product labelling to identify risks is now in place.
- Mental health and wellbeing. Over the last two decades, the ways in which we work and communicate have changed exponentially. Keeping up with the pace of change is challenging, regardless of age. Whilst a lot of the new communication methods are progressive, time saving and almost magical in their immediacy, the unintended consequences of stress and anxiety that constant connectivity creates has only recently been recognised as one of the issues affecting mental health and wellbeing. In this instant access environment, unreasonable demands can be made on our time, with people expecting instant responses to problems that would take some time to consider and resolve properly.
Speed of communication does not always translate to quality of content. It takes a conscious effort to step back from the unrelenting tide of communication and make a considered assessment with balance and perspective.
This can only be achieved with the added ingredient of time. This is not an easy challenge for professionals who are caught up in the middle of perceived obligations and duties. The unrelenting influx of requests and demands can itself lead to a deterioration in work life balance, which can ultimately lead to a decline in mental health.
 Reducing the stigma
Thankfully, the stigma attached to mental health has now diminished. It is no longer perceived as a weakness to be hidden. Recognising that there is an issue to be resolved is half of the solution; the other half is access to the very real help available through a number of support organisations.
An article entitled ‘Keeping your mind on the job’ (Issue 128, winter 2018) by Niall Healy MCIAT focused on the mental health of operatives on site. The article examined how stress and anxiety that cause distraction can, in themselves, be the source of a safety risk. It also gave pointers to assist in recognising those going through difficult times and provided insight into how they could be helped.
As part of a collaboration between CIAT and Ulster University, a report was published highlighting the pressures on graduate and newly qualified Architectural Technology professionals. The report provides details on a number of tools available for individuals and employers to improve their own mental health and create a supportive environment in the workplace.
 Impacts on mental health
The COVID-19 pandemic has added pressures on everyone - the importance and the very real issues impacting on practitioners (employers and employees) who are concerned about their livelihoods, and also on graduating students. Governments have provided some support mechanisms for individuals, businesses and employees, but not for all.
For example, there has been some limited support to small practices structured as limited companies where the directors are remunerated by dividend. Fellow CIAT Member, Rob Thomas MCIAT, Vice-President Practice, is a sole director of a one-person practice. He cannot access financial support to replace the majority of lost income.
It was encouraging to learn from Rob how he has been focusing his energy on his passion for cycling, where he has taken part in a 100 mile virtual race. This experience has brought Rob into a new circle of friendships which he has described as being very beneficial to both his physical and mental wellbeing.
 Methods of support
However, the experience of being in isolation and coping with the restrictions can add to fears and anxieties that impact on mental wellbeing. The first step to breaking out of this mindset is recognising if your mental health is being affected. This can be added together with how the future will unfold and the pace of economic recovery.
Understanding that you are not alone and making use of this instant access world in a positive way by seeking out the type of help that would suit you as an individual will help to gain perspective and look to the future with optimism and hope.
If you do have concerns over your mental health and wellbeing, there are a number of fantastic organisations that can offer free help and provide support mechanisms for individuals. For those with immediate concerns, the Architects Benevolent Society (ABS), through their partnership with AnxietyUK, can offer support. There is also the Architects Mental Wellbeing Forum (AMWF) along with well recognised charities such as Samaritans. For those wanting to be proactive and find out more about what can be done to improve their mental wellbeing, there are excellent resources provided on the NHS website and by organisations such as ACAS, the Mental Health Foundation, Mindwise and Rethink Mental Illness.
 Talking as therapy
Worries about the future can be eroded away by some small steps that can be taken immediately. Talking can often be the best therapy. Verbalising a concern can help put it in perspective and help focus on a more positive future.
The Construction Leadership Council have recently issued the Roadmap to Recovery which looks forward to the opportunities to ‘restart, reset and reinvent’ the construction industry. Perhaps this perspective, taking a positive view of where we are in 2020, could be a useful way to think about our own personal circumstances and how we can use this opportunity to restart, reset and reinvent our own future.
 Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki
- CIAT articles.
- Keeping your mind on the job.
- Mental health first aid.
- Mental health in the construction industry.
- Plan proposes to reinvent construction industry.
- Seasonal affective disorder SAD.
- Tackling mental health issues in construction.
- Tackling mental health - 6 point plan.
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