Mental Health Awareness Month: Lessons learned from the past year

During Mental Health Awareness Month, we have been reflecting on the past year and the many challenges we’ve overcome.

Since the world locked down to fight the Covid-19 virus in March 2020, many of us, at some point, have felt a sense of isolation, loss and uncertainty, which took a toll on our mental health and wellbeing. 

Championing mental health has always been part of Assael’s culture. Over the years, we’ve encouraged staff to talk openly about professional and personal struggles, and in turn, reduce the stigma around mental health.

Sharing resources, hosting staff seminars, establishing wellbeing research groups and fundraising for charities such as Mind, Heads Together and the Mental Health Foundation have all been integral to championing mental health and best practice. 

However, being forced to stay home and being physically away from one another posed new challenges for supporting mental health. During this time, with the help of digital tools, we worked collaboratively as a practice to face and overcome these hurdles together.

What we’ve learned is that everyone’s experience is unique and should be addressed in different ways. Rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach to tackling mental health issues, we’ve understood the importance of working around people’s priorities, schedules and commitments.

As part of the broader efforts to help practice leaders support mental health and wellbeing through the Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Forum, we helped create a Covid-19 Toolkit, which offered guidance and tips to creating a productive work environment and promote a healthy work-life balance. By sharing knowledge and ideas between practices through a number of different forums this year, we’ve learned that there is often a wide range of views on many issues, illustrating that the best solution is often unique to the individual circumstance.

At Assael, we’ve created several initiatives to provide mental wellbeing support to staff and create a positive and productive environment that helps keeps the team happy, healthy and motivated, whether in the office or working from home.

Our now-weekly newsletter was originally a tri-weekly newsletter during the first lockdown, with features such as memes, quizzes and ‘desert island disc’-style interviews. Our directors often included messages or funny anecdotes and insight into their own lockdown life and home-set up – something that made us realise that we weren’t alone at that weird time – who could forget director Loren Thanyakittikul’s working from home picture amongst her children’s toys? We also encouraged other staff members to share their lockdown experiences and struggles through written submissions.

As part of our Giving Something Back scheme, we’ve been hosting ‘Tea and Talks’ – a Friday afternoon casual chat with members outside of our teams, encouraging people to talk about anything from weekend plans to mental health issues. Before our day-to-day lives become unrecognisable last year, these sessions ran on a biannual basis, but we now finish early once a month to make the time for these important, informal catch-ups while working from home.

Initiatives that have encouraged exercise and charitable activities have also been hugely successful, and both proven methods to support healthy mental wellbeing. In January, we beat the winter blues by taking part in RED January (Run Every Day) to raise money for two charities, and in November, we held ‘Battle of the Studios’ with points awarded for charitable deeds and kilometres run, walked or cycled.

Above all, we’ve learned that the most significant defence against the consequences of the pandemic is the kindness we can show to others and to ourselves. Through compassion and understanding, we’ve been able to better cope with the unique challenges we faced. Small acts of kindness help lift the spirits of others and make us feel good about ourselves too.

Social distancing made this a challenge of course, but throughout the various lockdowns, we’ve encouraged communication with HR and provided constant support and check-ins while we’ve been working from home.

For some of us, working from home came as a blessing; we’ve been able to spend more time with our families and – without the daily commute – more time for exercise, rest and hobbies. Others have missed the work environment and have been keen to get back to the office, even if part-time. What is clear is that everyone has different circumstances, and a tailored approach makes for a happy and productive team.

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. Félicie Krikler / Director

Going forward, we want to continue to provide solutions to everyone’s individual circumstances, as we know this will ultimately benefit the entire team. Initiatives like group exercise and ‘Tea and Talks’, which have proven hugely beneficial to the team, will continue to be a focus for us as we emerge from the pandemic into a new way of working. Now, more than ever, we want the focus to remain on the team’s wellbeing and keep mental health our number one priority.


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