How to Prevent Employee Burnout in the A&D Industry

Before the COVID-19 pandemic and the new age of remote work, professionals in architecture and design (A&D) industries grew accustomed to working long hours at the office. Completing projects at midnight was the accepted norm in workplace culture. From meeting tight deadlines to managing unrealistic expectations, A&D professionals endure several stress-inducing challenges, not to mention inefficient workflows and processes that many firms have inherited. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that employee burnout reached new highs in creative industries last year.

To better understand the current state of burnout in the architecture industry, Monograph, a practice operations platform, surveyed 225 architects from a wide range of positions and experience levels and uncovered staggering results. According to The State of Burnout in Architecture 2021, nearly all architects, approximately 96.9 per cent, experienced burnout in the past year. Additionally, 90 per cent of respondents indicated that despite burnout being prevalent before the pandemic, it exacerbated their mental fatigue.

Credit: Monograph

As the survey reveals, the root of burnout goes deeper than just the pandemic. The leading cause of burnout for architects is working overtime along with carrying heavy workloads, working long hours (including off-the-clock hours), and having limited control over their work with numerous dependencies. Respondents described their burnout experience as “the basics get dismissed (exercise, healthy eating, sleep)” or “I can’t be around people, even people I love.” Overall, they have felt unhappy, tired, and stopped enjoying their work and personal lives.

Creative professionals, especially those in the architecture and design fields, struggle to be productive and develop fresh creative ideas while experiencing burnout. It takes a great deal of physical and mental energy for architects to thrive but working long hours in a stressful environment hinders their creativity, leading to some professionals having to put in more time to come up with inspired work. One architect explained that they felt “completely disconnected from my purpose.”

As we’ve seen from the Great Resignation, the workforce is becoming more and more disengaged from work, negatively impacting project performance and leading to higher employee turnover. Following the economic slowdown in 2020, architecture firms received more projects in 2021 and will likely earn more work in 2022. Now let’s add the fact that many A&D professionals work alone or in small teams within a remote or hybrid work environment, in which the work-life balance is tilted toward meeting constant deadlines.

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Some A&D professionals feel that remote work has made their work-life balance worse by blurring their boundaries between work and home. Others feel that their operational processes have gotten worse in a remote work environment, which causes more stress. As one architect stated in the comments portion of the survey: “Poor processes or inefficient processes made every deadline a nightmare to complete already, but working from home increased certain inefficiencies.”

But every challenge is an opportunity for change. Architecture and design firms have an opportunity to take this pivotal moment to build a new culture with less burnout and more efficient workflows. First and foremost is streamlining operations to eliminate roadblocks. According to the survey, 66 per cent of employees feel that they need more efficient workflows. To make sure that this is not a potential issue, firms should regularly assess their processes. Complicated software can lead to more stress and frustration, especially when deadlines come around. By having the right tools and processes in place, projects can run more smoothly. Firms can start investing in tools that project teams can easily use by themselves without the help of a specialist. Time spent on troubleshooting software can be billable time spent on designing and delivering.

We worked closely with Rossmann Architecture Inc., a commercial and residential design firm with various projects across the Ottawa-Gatineau region in Quebec. As the firm’s staff grew, from 10 to 26 team members, Rossman Architecture used Monograph as the practice operations platform in 2020 to streamline operations, manage the growing office and gain a greater macro perspective toward its project portfolio and client roster. Monograph collects and organizes valuable data and presents an overview of firm and project management on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis. This gives the firm the added advantage of anticipating adequate-sized teams for specific projects and appropriately delegating resources for significant milestones.

Credit: Monograph

Aside from inefficient workflow and processes, most architects agree that unrealistic deadlines and/or expectations are a leading cause of burnout; setting realistic expectations, both externally and internally, is key. While workloads may spike on occasion, establishing realistic expectations will only benefit the team. Additionally, establishing a clear roadmap on career growth is also helpful. We identified two major challenges that are causing employees to feel disengaged through the survey. Almost 55 per cent of our respondents listed lack of support and acknowledgment from leadership as one of the main reasons for their burnout and another 37.8 per cent feel that there is a lack of growth in their firm.

Support and recognition from leaders coupled with building a supportive and transparent culture would also help to combat burnout. To provide your employees with the support they need, understanding the causes of their burnout is essential. Many employees are hesitant about discussing this openly, so try conducting an anonymous survey about their workplace satisfaction and burnout levels. Ensuring anonymity shows employees that they can feel safe to offer their honest feedback.

With growing interest in attracting and retaining top talent, many architecture firms can also consider flexible working options to achieve this goal while also preventing burnout. For example, Monograph has been practicing a four-day workweek since its founding. This offers both flexibility and a chance for employees to recharge during the week. We believe that values shouldn’t be based on time. If someone can successfully tackle a sufficient workload in four days as opposed to five days, then we’d like to reward them with a day off in the middle of the week so they can relax, work on any hobbies, or side projects.

And most importantly, the concept of a work-life balance goes beyond a buzzword, it’s a real necessary change in the A&D industry. We need to offer more work-life balance initiatives for employees such as paid mental health days, wellness programs, and encouraging team members to take breaks. Approximately 59.9 per cent of respondents stated that a paid mental health day would assist them with reducing burnout. This demonstrates an increasing demand among professionals to take a well-earned step back to relax and recharge.

Burnout is not just a personal issue, it’s an organizational issue. We found that team members, managers, and firm leaders are equally susceptible to burnout. Based on our findings, many firm owners and principals have expressed their burnout experience, primarily due to the constant change of schedule and stress of finding new work. The report indicated that 93 per cent of principals oversee operations in a firm. We encourage them to continuously re-evaluate their operational processes to help reduce burnout at every level and openly share their burnout experiences with their team to help build trust. Set examples to team members on prioritizing mental health and wellness initiatives to create a healthy workplace culture.

Burnout doesn’t have to be an inevitable consequence of working in architecture. Firms have a responsibility to emphasize employee well-being on all levels. Managers need to better understand how to lead effective organizations as opposed to just overseeing effective projects. An annual review is not an effective cadence to touch base with employees; these conversations need to occur more regularly in order to better support and guide them. Communicating mental health goes both ways. Firm owners need to set positive examples of prioritizing mental health into the fabric of their workplace culture and staff must better advocate their wellness needs to help achieve an overall collective balance. As creators of built environments, architects deserve sound plans for their well-being.

Joann Lui

As a registered architect with 10 years of experience and the founder of Women Architects Collective, Joann Lui brings an influential voice and unique perspective as a Marketing Manager at Monograph, a practice operations platform for AEC professionals. Designed for architects by architects, the platform helps architects and design professionals create simple and integrated workflows to optimize performance, productivity, and profitability for firms.