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Tips for practices to support mental wellbeing

21 May 2020

The environment we now find ourselves working in is very different from that of three months ago. In a recent RIBA survey (the full findings of which will be published next week), 40% said their mental health had been affected by the coronavirus lockdown and 20% said they felt isolated.

To help practice leaders support working and furloughed staff during this time, we spoke to several members of Assael Architecture – a practice which chairs the Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Forum (AMWF). Drawing on additional guidance in the AMWF Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Toolkit, we have pulled together five areas of focus for practice leaders including ‘top tips’ to help them keep staff happy, healthy and motivated.

Demands upon staff

Practices should carefully consider and evaluate the demands they make on their employees, encouraging productive working during core hours and promoting a healthy work-life balance.

Keep in contact

Speak to all staff members regularly on a 1:1 basis to ask about their home set-up and their workload capacity. Give them the opportunity to raise any concerns. This personal connection is essential, according to Assael's HR Manager Julie Bramsdon. Regular calls with working employees have also helped practice leaders effectively manage workload across the practice.

“Everyone experiences the situation in different ways," points out Head of Wellbeing, Ben Channon. "Home and family set-ups vary, and the more practice leaders can understand about the home lives of employees the better."

Manage workloads effectively

This might mean taking a completely different approach to monitoring the productivity of your practice. Assael is hosting more regular resourcing meetings, every two weeks instead of monthly, to respond to the changing capacity of staff members and ensure nobody is overstretched. They have also introduced time off in lieu for overtime worked.

Give staff guidance

Issue basic advice on working from home to help staff create and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Assael produced a ‘Homeworking Guide’ for their staff a few days after everyone started working from home. It covers wellbeing, working with teams remotely and effective virtual meetings, while also including simple tips on how to maintain a routine.

Suggestions include: making sure you switch off at the end of the day; taking a shower when you get up; eating regular meals; and trying to exercise at the same time each day. They have also advised team members on how to create home working environments which promote wellbeing; light, bright spaces being the top recommendation.

Provide communal support

Talking about the significance of mental health and signpost resources for staff at all career stages.

Share experiences

Encourage staff members to open up about their own feelings about lockdown and personal struggles, which can help others. Assael send out newsletters two or three times a week, which include insights from practice leaders on their home set-up and how they are managing in the crisis.

Maintain an office culture

Practice leaders can help ‘normalise’ home working by continuing certain workplace activities, whether professional or social. For Assael, this means hosting familiar meetings (same time and structure) or getting together for a virtual social on a Friday afternoon.

"We have been concerned about the challenge of switching off at the end of the day," Channon explains. "So we have been hosting quiz nights, we have a Netflix movie club, a group on Strava for the runners amongst us. Show the importance of downtime as well as work time."

Provide resources for furloughed staff

Prioritise the professional growth of furloughed staff by providing them with resources while not working. A forum for furloughed staff, held every two weeks, has been set up at Assael to help them to stay connected and share ideas to help each other during this time, as well as providing access to wellbeing workshops and all social activities.

Continue to support students

The AMWF Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Toolkit emphasises the need for practices to be aware and take account of the particular pressures on students. This is more important now than ever. Assael continued to mentor Part 3 students in preparation for their recent exams, and apprentices are still meeting with their mentors regularly to ensure studies continue.

Make sure staff can get help

The Architects Benevolent Society (ABS) gives people a chance to talk about their situation and access the support they need. It has a well-established partnership with Anxiety UK that offers Mental Health Support via the charity’s UK-wide network of therapists.

Sources of help for anyone finding themselves struggling during this time are provided and updated in Assael’s newsletters every couple of days.

The fact that we are now mostly working from home makes preserving a work-life distinction all the more important

Enable your staff to exercise control

Think about the resources that staff require, whether technological or ergonomic, for staff to work productively and autonomously from home. Be as accommodating as possible.

Prioritise groups with deadline pressures

Evaluate which team members are working on projects with the most immediate deadlines to ensure they have the technology set up and are working seamlessly.

Trust your team

Recognise that team members may be less productive at first when getting to grips with new technology, navigating online meetings and relying on home wifi connections.

Head of Communications, Sarah Samuelson, confirms that trust between managers and team members enables individuals to structure their working day to take time away from their desk for a walk or exercise with no questions asked.

Assael are preserving its practice culture and ensuring staff do not feel cut off by organising regular online social meetings © Assael Architecture

Organisational change

Ensure staff are informed and involved in organisational decisions.

Request staff feedback

This could be through online surveys or direct calls with employees, but make sure staff can help inform plans. Assael provides an anonymous suggestions box which allows staff to communicate to the leadership team through their two staff trustees.

In making plans for the return to the office, Assael has consulted all staff members through a detailed survey. This identifies practical considerations but also how staff feel about coming back into work. A sense of empathy and compassion should influence all practice decisions.

"For some, returning to the workplace will be a very scary and intimidating thing," Channon states. "It is therefore really important that people feel looked after."

Keep staff engaged and positive about the future

Newsletters or all-staff meetings are useful in this regard. Assael produces regular newsletters which include: transparent information on practice-related issues; accurate digests of government updates and the impacts on the practice; as well as more light-hearted content.

Director Félicie Krikler is optimistic about the future of work.If we can get through this as a team and come back together, we can take the best aspects of practice in lockdown and devise ways of working that are happier for everyone.”

Thanks to Julie Bramsdon, Ben Channon, Félicie Krikler and Sarah Samuelson of Assael Architecture.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum Topic: Health, safety and wellbeing.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, Professional Features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD Core Curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.

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