Well-being and working in the built environment

The moral imperative of a positive place to work

Well-being is inextricably linked with the built environment. From commercial skyscrapers to housing developments, every foundation we dig, every core we slip and every brick we lay contributes to the sense of place.

This concept of place can have a powerful effect on our collective well-being, for good or ill. Dingey, poor quality and highly polluted spaces understandably have a negative effect, whilst green, well-designed and clean spaces provide net benefits for physical and mental health.

As a company, we have a deep awareness of the developments we work on and how they’ll affect the well-being of the people who use and interact with them, and for the most part, the industry is committed to creating places that will have a positive impact as places to live, work and enjoy.

But are we looking after our teams?

For all the careful thought given to how the spaces we create affect well-being, the same probably can’t always be said about the industry’s attitude to the well-being of its people.

In general, our industry fairs worse than many others when it comes to staff well-being. This is particularly true of construction, where two workers commit suicide every day and more than a third suffer with elevated levels of anxiety.

Where engineering is concerned, the picture isn’t much different. Let’s have a look at some hard stats.

Well-being in engineering

No industry is immune from the effects of poor mental health or subpar well-being. An important distinction to make is whether the industry itself adversely contributes to the poor well-being of its people.

The data on this topic makes for difficult reading where engineering is concerned. A recent study showed mental health issues are more prevalent among engineers than in other industries. According to a report published by the American Psychological Association, nearly 40 percent of engineers suffer from depression or anxiety at some point during their career. Additionally, research conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness has found that 58% of engineers experience difficulty managing stress due to work-related pressures.

A study published by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers found that one in five engineering professionals reported feeling overworked and stressed regularly. The same study also revealed that two-thirds of engineers felt that their job negatively affected their mental health, with one-quarter feeling so overwhelmed with work-related worries that they were unable to function normally.

Let’s be real, we know the industry we work in is high pressure and if you’re at a good practice, there’s always lots of work coming through the door. All of that pressure and workload can build to create conditions upon which poor mental health and diminished well-being can thrive.

The question is, what are the effects and what can we do about it?

The effects of poor mental health on the individual

It’s undeniable that poor mental health has a huge negative impact on business. That impact is felt both financially and otherwise.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, work-related ill-health and non-fatal work-related injuries accounted for 36.8 million days of work lost in 2021-2022. A report by Deloitte Insights found that this cost employers £43-45 billion every year.

Alongside financial losses, research conducted by BMC Public Health showed that burnout and stress had a strong correlation with reduced job satisfaction and caused a decrease in the quality of care delivered. The study also found an increase in absenteeism and turnover rates among employees experiencing burnout or high levels of stress. It also reported significant drops in Productivity and higher rates of physical illness related to increased stress exposure.

What changes can we make and what practices can we put in place to improve our employee’s mental well-being?

We’ve seen the damage that poor mental health can have on your people and your businesses. Understanding the scope of the problem is the first step to creating a solution. So what can we as businesses do to support our people?

The first thing to realise is that this shouldn’t be done as a HR box-ticking exercise. It requires systemic changes. That means practices put in place to both prevent ill-health from occurring and contingency plans for when staff well-being starts to suffer.

Preventative measures

In high-pressure industries like ours, there are going to be times where the workload is high. When the pressure is on, the little things matter. These are just some of the policies that can be supportive for your people:

  • Flexible working hours – While this isn’t always possible, especially for site-based work, flexible working hours can be a great tool to support people who, for instance, have children or other care commitments.

  • Encourage regular well-being breaks – Taking regular breaks is a very simple and effective way of splitting up times of stress. Taking a little walk, getting some fresh air or a chat and a hot drink can offer some respite when the going gets tough.

  • Options for hybrid or remote working – Where it’s possible, remote working can be a powerful tool in the promotion of well-being. The morning commute alone is a potent stress aggravator. Simply having a few days a week where it’s removed reduces needless stress aggravators.  

    What’s worth adding, is that too much of a good thing can quickly turn sour. Complete remote working can be isolating and encourage feelings of loneliness and depression. Having a vibrant office environment that’s welcoming and friendly is just as important as the capacity for remote working.

  • Encourage people to take their holidays – Anyone who’s ever had a vigorous exercise regime knows that rest and recovery are a vital part of progress. If you never rest and recover, you’ll actually get weaker rather than stronger. The same is true of the mind.

    You can’t maintain high periods of stress and an unrealistic workload indefinitely. Eventually, something will crack and you’ll find yourself in poor health. Taking holidays is a way to empty the stress hormone tank, to take time for yourself and refresh your mind.

    As daft as it sounds, some people worry about taking holidays and as much as 58% don’t take their full annual leave allocation. Having a practice of encouraging your staff to take holidays and putting capacity in place to cover their work while they’re away is vital to giving them the rest and recuperation they need.

  • Positive workplace culture – Having a friendly, supportive and vibrant work culture can be a powerful bastion against poor mental health. A business with people that listen and make colleagues feel heard is a powerful thing. When colleagues can’t be honest about what they’re feeling for fear of being judged, it’s not just detrimental to their health, it’s bad business.

  • Team building and staff socials – This is closely associated with a positive work culture but worthy of its own section. A big part of this is doing things together as a team away from the business-as-usual work you do. A group hike, a day out at the races, a night out on the town, even an outward-bound course are all great ways to build camaraderie, blow off steam and stave off stress.

The bottom line

Well-being is such an overlooked element of work. With pressures to deliver for clients, we often find ourselves too busy to look out for ourselves and our friends and colleagues. What we fail to see all too often is that if we fail to look after our people, if they begin to feel the effects of mental ill health, they suffer and their work suffers.

Here at renaissance, we’re constantly thinking about the best ways to support our people and evolving our policies to reflect our growing understanding of staff well-being. We take great pride in the work we do for our clients and we couldn’t deliver that without the efforts of our fantastic team. By working diligently to develop effective staff well-being policies, we not only enable that work to continue, but we also foster a positive working environment for all.

Having a stringent and person-focused well-being policy is one of the best chances of helping your workforce to stay happy, healthy and thriving.

And at the end of the day, that’s what everyone deserves.

This piece was authored by Aleks Olszewska