21 June 2021
Practices must first get the fundamentals right, before expending time and money on progressive mental health strategies, says Kunle Barker
Ten years ago at the contracting company I founded, a key member of staff began to have mental health problems. It seems strange now, but back then mental wellbeing was not as openly discussed in the workplace. Despite being a close team, we were all surprised to hear that our colleague and friend had been struggling for some time.
We were a small company and so able to adapt and act quickly. We all supported our colleague as best we could both in and outside of the office. We talked about mental wellbeing openly and honestly as a group and introduced new strategies to ensure that we all received support if needed.
I realised that I had always thought that the world was split into two types of people: those who could deal with stress and those who could not. Much to my shame, I could not have been more wrong; we all have our limits. Mental health is fragile, not in the sense that we are all on the edge of breaking down, but in the sense that, if we are not observant and sensitive to how stress affects our colleagues, we may become unwitting accomplices in allowing mental ill-health to arise in the workplace.
I recently judged the AJ100 awards and was delighted to see that many architecture practices are not just talking about staff wellbeing, they are actively instituting meaningful initiatives. Mental health first-aiders, wellbeing workshops and yoga classes are now commonplace, and these practices should be applauded for their forward-thinking response to mental health concerns.
But this mustn’t become a box-ticking exercise. I remember being puzzled that I had not even noticed a key member of my staff was struggling. We were a good company to work for: we paid well; we were successful; and although we worked hard, we had fun in and out of the office, with annual trips to places like Berlin. Admittedly, we did not run yoga classes nor have mental health first-aiders, but we did do a lot to create a positive working environment.
The real challenge is that mental wellbeing is complex and in many respects unique to the individual. A person’s capacity to deal with stress depends on other factors in their life, so, while yoga classes are great, they will not always be enough.
Many architecture practices have said they won’t pay for overtime for fear of encouraging it. I have two issues with that theory: 1) not paying for overtime is not the same as staff not working overtime. For people with financial problems, paid overtime could improve their wellbeing, not harm it. 2) Eradicating pressure from the workplace is neither possible nor desirable. Working on anything worthwhile will at times demand working under pressure and long hours. The caveat is, of course, that these conditions should be temporary, infrequent and managed carefully.
Paying your staff well (and for overtime) is not a carte blanche to overload them with work and disregard their mental wellbeing. Nor does instituting good mental health wellbeing policies mean everything will be hunky-dory. It is imperative that practices pay their staff fairly for the work they do and accept that they will on occasion work overtime and to tight deadlines.
Initiatives such as fair holiday allowances, flexible working hours, paid overtime, healthy working environments, and generous maternity and paternity packages will all satisfy some of the more fundamental needs that employees have. If it is commercially possible, follow the example of companies that provide interest-free loans to their staff to help them buy or rent homes.
By satisfying the more fundamental needs, staff will be in a better state mentally. Practices must first get the fundamentals right, before expending time and money on progressive mental health strategies. Candle-lit meditation and free banana muffins will not improve your staff’s mental wellbeing if they can’t pay their rent.
Kunle Barker is a property expert, journalist and broadcaster
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