Ben is an architect, author, TEDx speaker and mental wellbeing advocate, and is currently a Director at Ekkist.
My story begins around 2014, when I was working as a young and newly qualified architect. I had many traits common to architects when starting out in the industry - perfectionism, a desire to impress those above me, and a belief that the best way to do this was through sheer volume of work and energy.
Unfortunately, for me (and, I have since discovered, many others) this created a perfect storm. I was working very long hours fairly consistently in an effort to make a good impression, and putting a huge amount of pressure on myself to perform at my best. This was combined with almost no understanding of mental health - as a young boy from Devon, growing up at a time when mental health wasn’t something that was really discussed or taught in schools, my only knowledge of the topic came from films or books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
As a result, when the inevitable happened and burnout began to creep up on me, I was almost completely unaware that it was happening. What I did notice were the physical symptoms. I had a lot of low-level but quite unpleasant illnesses, ranging from shingles to a tonsillitis infection that no antibiotics seemed to be able to cure. I was also suffering with racing thoughts and a real inability to switch off. My sleep was erratic, and looking back so were my moods. Unsurprising really in hindsight, given that I was loading incredibly unhealthy and unsustainable levels of stress onto myself every single day.
Thankfully, a GP eventually joined the dots for me and suggested I might be suffering with an anxiety problem. She asked me a series of questions (the PHQ-9 form for low mood and depression, and the GAD-7 form for anxiety), and even as I was answering them, I knew my responses weren’t good. The doctor recommended a series of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) sessions, and fortunately I was able to see a therapist very quickly - something I have since learnt is sadly not always the case with the NHS in its current state.
Alongside the CBT, I also discovered that I had to take a really good look at my approach to work and my mindset around it. The idea that you have a ‘moment of clarity’ where you suddenly rethink everything is probably a bit of a cliché, but it really happened to me. Almost overnight, I understood that the way I had been working was completely unsustainable, and that I needed to change.
More than that however - it also led me to take a fresh look at the way much of the architecture industry operates, and I realised that this too is probably not the model you would create if you were to set out an efficient, healthy way of working from scratch. From university, our profession is based around a culture of extreme (often moving) deadlines, working late into the night, and competing against one another for reputation and success. Of course, I need to caveat this by saying there are many practices out there who do challenge these norms, but unfortunately from my conversations across the industry, they sadly still seem to be the exception rather than the standard.
I would love for my story to serve as a message of hope for people who are struggling right now: that difficult times can be overcome with the right help and the support of people around us - and they can even help to make us stronger.
Fortunately, through this introspection, a change in habits, and the influence of CBT and mindfulness (something that ironically I never thought I would become interested in), I was able to recover and recalibrate - but the lessons stayed with me. If we are to create truly brilliant buildings that support people, we must first take care of ourselves.
These experiences led me to co-found the Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Forum in 2017, in an effort to share some of my learnings with the profession, alongside those of some of the best architectural employers out there, in the hope that we could encourage a change in both the mindset and the working practices of our industry. Nearly 6 years later I believe we have succeeded in some of those challenges, but I am sure that Grimshaw’s new role leading the group for the next two years will help us to gain even more momentum on this journey.
Personally, my own mental health journey - while certainly not as difficult as many other people’s - inspired me to learn more about the relationship between our environment and our mental health. This led me to take a deep dive into the world of environmental psychology, and try to better understand how my design decisions as an architect were affecting the mental wellbeing of the people using our buildings.
Strangely enough therefore, as a result of my experiences I have ended up specialising in an area of architecture I had previously not even really considered. I have now written two books on designing for mental wellbeing, and have been fortunate enough to be asked to give a TEDx talk on the subject, as well as lecture on it to universities and businesses around the world. In 2020, I took the leap and started working full-time on this passion, joining a consultancy called Ekkist who focus entirely on helping architects and developers to create healthy buildings.
I only include this information to make the point that although I have had my own difficult times with my mental health, these have ironically gone on to be incredibly valuable and formative experiences for me, which have shaped both my career path and the person I have become. I would love for my story to serve as a message of hope for people who are struggling right now: that difficult times can be overcome with the right help and the support of people around us - and they can even help to make us stronger.