Mental health and the road to leadership

Do we have to accept that “long hours are just part of the job”? Is it possible to succeed in architecture and design without working excessive overtime?

For the first time in Australia, a top law firm has recently been reported to Worksafe for overworking employees, “A source said KWM graduates were subjected to grueling conditions, with some employees choosing to sleep at the firm’s Melbourne office rather than return home. Day and night shifts were allocated so work could continue around the clock.” This probably sounds familiar to a lot of architects and designers – except we might be thinking “They got to sleep though?” and “so if there were shifts…that means individuals were not working round the clock”.  Whilst law is renowned for its long hours, architecture is frequently worse – and far more poorly paid.  Even if we haven’t worked all night lately ourselves, we all know practices where it is common place.  It will be interesting to see the outcomes of this case and what impact it might have on architecture as well as law.  There is no doubt that the long hours culture of architecture takes its toll on many individuals in different ways.

Around the same time as I came across this article, I attended two separate events on the same day – Sustainability Live and a WIDAC networking event.  Through a session “Mental Health in the Building Industry” the topic of the long hours culture of architecture was part of the discussion.  Mental health is an issue that the NSW Architects Registration Board is currently focusing on – and Registrar Tim Horton was part of the panel.  The NSW ARB is concerned about the mental health of architects and commissioning further research to learn more about this important topic.  However it does seem that their focus is on the risk of sole practitioners suffering mental health issues and the resultant risk to the public, than necessarily on the impacts of those working within practice and subject to long hours and bullying cultures.  We have to remember that the job of the Boards is primarily consumer protection rather than protection of the architects – that’s where the AIA and ACA need to be involved.

Personally I do believe that part of the prevalence of sole practitioners and small practices is due to the desire of many mid career architects to escape the hours and bullying and to gain control over their own lives, and not just their own designs.  But the problem we have is that often the long hours have been so well trained into us, and  then you add the pressure of small business, and many architects still can’t get away.  I’m not sure if its funny or scary that some of the young architects I spoke to after the session (and since) had thought the previous session on “Modern Slavery” was going to be about Australian architectural practices and their working cultures…

That evening I attended my first WIDAC (Women in Design and Construction) event – and I was very impressed.  Outstanding speakers and well organised – I’ve already joined! The topic for the evening was “The Road to Leadership” and there were three speakers, an architectural director, a partner in a law firm and a HR executive (the selection of which somewhat seems to match the topics of this post!) Alex Wessling, Sara Haslinger LLB MPP and Kate Evans shared their fantastic and individual stories of their own roads to leadership.  One of the things that all three had in common, and I think probably underpins many successful people, but perhaps even more particularly women, is that while working long hours can sometime seem to contribute to success, working long hours usually lead to problems in your life (be they mental, physical or both) and that ultimately this is not a sustainable path to continue along. The other common lesson is that the path to leadership is windy even if at an outside glance it might not always seem to be so.

My own story also has these threads in common. Initial career success stalled with the combination of a slowdown (GFC) and a psychopathic boss. Years of overwork – sometimes due to deadlines and those around me, and sometimes due to the pressure I placed on myself – combined with the pressure of workplace bullying eventually lead to repetitive strain injury and chronic pain.   Physio, personal trainers, acupuncture, feldenkrais and a dozen different medical specialists and surgery didn’t solve it – for the first few years it got worse.  Starting with my left shoulder, then my right arm, both wrists, my neck, both hands.  Imagine the fear of not being able to use your hands.  To the point where I almost couldn’t work at all.  Then in the middle of all of that I was made redundant from the job that caused it.  All of this defines my story from this point on.  Almost 10 years later, I still have chronic pain in my neck but I am much recovered and can now manage and live with the pain and its impacts on my mental health.

Part of the way I have improved my health is to work part time.  People assume I work part time because I have a small child.  While this is partially true – I dropped my hours to part time after she was born – I’ve found its really helped my health, and I know I certainly can’t work more than 40 hours a week.  I can’t take a job in a practice that might expect me to work excessive overtime.  My symptoms would flare up and it’s just not worth it.  This is one reason why I am passionate about hours and working culture – I don’t want to see more people face these kinds of problems – and the more time we spend crunching over computers the more common it is becoming.  Already almost every architect and designer I know has some kind of neck, back, shoulder or arm pain that flares up from time to time.

At the same time, I have been determined not to let my injuries or my working hours define my role or opportunities within design practice.  Whilst it has meant that I am careful about choosing where and with whom I work (unfortunately for me not always clear at the interview stage), my commitment to my own work life balance or integration has had a positive side effect.  Bullies usually also seem to inhabit the long hours cultures in higher proportions…coincidence?

Now I am lucky enough to work at Custance Associates, a boutique practice where I have a senior client facing role and input to the practice direction, with directors who are supportive and who actually care about the staff who work for them – a team who are a friendly and incredibly talented bunch.  I work flexibly from Tuesday to Friday working at 70% of full time, with some of that time being from home.  Occasionally I work some extra hours to meet deadlines, but its pretty rare.  Nor do my team work overtime regularly.  I have time for my blog, being a part of the BILT ANZ committee, to exercise (which is actually essential for my pain), occasionally to meditate and always to spend with my family.  I am happy.  I think this is something we sometimes forget is even possible in our industry.

So many people I know have continued working in unhealthy environments on the premise that everywhere else is the same.  Maybe a lot of practices are – but not everywhere.  Take the time to define what you want and expect – and then demand that – and if where you are can’t provide it, you can probably find somewhere else that can.  Maybe not so quickly and easily as just any job, but I believe for most of us, it is possible.  If more staff expect that a reasonable work life balance and working hours is possible, and that bullying is unacceptable, then companies will be forced to change – both in architecture and law.  Do you want things to change? Do you believe cultural change is possible? Will you be part of the problem or part of the solution?

Ceilidh Higgins

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4 Responses to Mental health and the road to leadership

  1. I don’t understand this mentality. Life and work is about choices. If you don’t won’t to work long hours, then leave. If your desire is to learn as much as you can as fast as you can, then long hours is apart of the process.

    If you don’t like something, make a change. Move on.

    • I wonder if we do actually learn more by working more – there is certainly a point where the extra hours start to have performance impacts, and my recollection is this is much lower than most of us would think.
      Part of the issue is that many in our industry feel like they don’t have a choice at all. They have been trained to believe that long hours is the only option and that any other job will be just the same.

  2. …I think blind ambition is to blame. For those who are ambitious, but lack talent and inspiration, putting in long hours is the only way to the top. This traps everyone else, because to some extent they are obliged to follow this behaviour, even when their productivity is greater and of higher quality when working fewer hours.

    • This becomes even more interesting when you start to look at using technology for process improvements and doing things faster. If I can automate something in a couple of hours that would otherwise take days should I get paid more? Or be able to work less?

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