On this year’s RUOK Day, SJB architecture graduate Leanne Haidar reflects on takeaways from recent training in first responders to mental health and her telling research on the wellbeing of architects and students of architecture. SJB is not only an Australian Design Review 30UNDER30 practice partner, yet a proud advocate for supporting the mental health and wellbeing of those in the built environment.
SJB graduate of architecture Leanne Haidar laments on the trope all-too-familiar to architects and students of architecture – a crippling work-life balance, arduous work days and insane amounts of pressure to perform to a high and perfectionistic standard.
However, as she shares below, she is determined to continue having life-changing conversations and create a culture in the built environment grounded in care, compassion and empathy.
When I began my architecture career at university I was aware of the issues of wellbeing in the profession. I anticipated a long work-hour culture and high-stress environment but assumed it would be overcome by the passion we practitioners would carry in our work.
It’s a rite of passage to get all the way through your university degree, as many succumb to the pressures and drop out. Once you finish your undergraduate degree and you begin to practice, the pressure mounts.
Real people (clients, consultants, councils, peers), and real projects (budgets, timelines, construction documents) can quickly overwhelm you on top of the expectation that you should start your master’s degree and complete registration all the while now balancing full-time work.
Take a big inhale through your nose with me. one… two… three… Now out through your mouth. one… two… three…
My interest in wellbeing in the profession began when I was National President of SONA (Student Organised Network for Architecture) and led a research project into the Mental Well-being of Architecture Students.
There I met Naomi Stead and the team who were concurrently leading the Wellbeing of Architects research project – the largest research project of its kind investigating our culture, identity and practice.
Together, we shared our findings at the 2022 Institute Symposium – Lost Opportunities. In my research and exposure I understood the scale of burnout, the stigma of asking for help, and the associations we make between our work and our self-worth.
Most recently to continue my interest in this space, I completed first aid training specifically focussing on mental health. There, I learnt the symptoms of suffering, how to approach, what to say, what not to say, and ways to encourage a positive discourse in our broader office culture.
One in five Australians suffers from mental health problems every year but only half will get professional help. Our common understanding of depression, anxiety and substance abuse, while improving, is still shrouded in shame and secrecy.
In the workplace, mental health problems can show up in behaviour like unplanned absences, not getting things done, or loss of confidence. Unfortunately, these symptoms are often seen as someone who just isn’t cut out for it.
There is a misconception that good mental health comes at the cost of quality work and that working overtime to meet unrealistic expectations is the behaviour of a successful and passionate architect.
Stigma and fear of judgement are barriers to accessing help. One of the key findings in the SONA project was that although students were mostly aware of the mental health resources available to them, there were barriers towards accessing them.
Ways to break open this barrier is to have a conservation as a collective, and for leaders to speak with vulnerability and openness on the topic.
When it comes to our practice and its relation to the built environment – it’s about quality over quantity. In the Wellbeing of Architects preliminary findings, when we were asked about what needed to change, many of us spoke about improving the perceived value of our work, and improving expectations around the fees and time required to complete quality work.
In the SONA work, we found that students are questioning the value of their education and are linking it to their sense of worth and confidence in their ability to secure a job.
Where to start for someone you think is struggling is deftly simple. Are you ok? But that can feel loaded even to your closest allies so the nuance in delivery is key and the culture of care in your environment makes a tremendous difference.
Initiatives like R U OK? Day and Mental Health Month teach us that a conversation can change a life, but our culture can change the profession. We can first value ourselves and those around us, to see our work be valued in the greater community. We can support one another through mental health and mental illness, and we can contribute to a culture that allows for life-changing conversations to take place.
Photography supplied by SJB.
Leanne Haidar is a graduate of architecture in SJB’s Melbourne studio.
Read about the recent appointments at SJB’s Sydney studio in line with facilitating meaningful connections to Country and cultural sensitivity.