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The Coach: ‘I worry about the mental health of our employees’

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Careers expert Matthew Turner advises an associate architect concerned about the levels of stress in his office

I am an associate in a practice where, at times, there is quite a lot of tension. I worry there are some in the office who are not in a brilliant place in terms of mental health, but I am not sure it is a good idea to single them out. I really want to improve the culture of the office generally. How can I do this?

Matthew turner

Your approach is welcome, and a sign that the stigma surrounding mental health issues is on the decline. Generally, work is good for our mental health. It provides structure, can keep us mentally and physically active, presents opportunities for learning and socialising, and gives us identity and social status. 

But work’s influence on our lives isn’t always positive. Stress, social isolation, trauma, bullying and even violence can take place, and cause mental health issues. Also, pre-existing mental illness can be exacerbated by an unsupportive work culture.

Practices are increasingly providing health and wellbeing programmes and access to support services, though this does depend on the size of practice. 

Support lines and counselling apart, the litmus test for a mentally healthy workplace is whether people feel able to tell their boss about a mental health condition. Are they confident they would be well supported?

People at associate level and above are key to creating the right environment. With a good employer, managers will proactively initiate conversations with anyone they worry is at risk. It’s not about them becoming a counsellor; it’s about steering that employee towards help – the first port of call should be a GP. 

The litmus test for a mentally healthy workplace is whether people feel able to tell their boss about a mental health condition

More generally, practices of any size can softly promote a ‘self-help’ context for good mental health; there are plenty of behaviours that can tacitly improve people’s state of mind. 

One of the most important is getting active. The mental health benefits of exercise are clear, so the yoga class or lunchtime running group should be encouraged. Switching off and letting the mind rest is also important, especially outside of work. Limiting time on screens, particularly at night, helps us to get a good night’s sleep (an important factor in mental health), and maintain a healthy work-life balance. 

Expressing gratitude is also a good habit. Psychologists say people who are grateful for what they’ve got tend to report higher levels of happiness. 

But what if the state of your fee income, Brexit, or the failings of your window detailing leave you struggling to find anything to be grateful about? At least try to see the funny side of things – which, generally speaking, is a pretty useful approach if you want to be happy at work. Laughing lowers cortisol levels and increases endorphins. So allow the office wits to shine –  a hearty laugh really is good for you. 

AJ coach Matthew Turner is an architect and careers consultant who runs the Building on Architecture consultancy. To contact him with your questions, tweet @TheAJcoach or email him in confidence at hello@buildingonarchitecture.com

Information about the Architects Benevolent Society’s mental health support network can be found here

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