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Mental Health & Wellbeing in the Building Industry

Write-up of the live panel talk held on 20 March 2024 at #DesignPopUp Glasgow

A full line up of speakers, discussing all things Mental Health in the workplace

On our return to Glasgow, #DesignPopUp gathered an expert panel at Platform, Glasgow, for a presentaion on ‘Mental Health & Wellbeing in the Building Industry’ it was a poignant and powerful discussion from leaders in design that served as a rallying cry for improved welfare within the building industry.

Please be aware that the following article contains stories of severe mental struggles.

The Panel

Gillian Stewart - Panel Chair Director, Michael Laird Architects &

Chair of British Council for Offices (BCO)

Ian Hamilton

Commercial Director, Solus

Joe Madden Director, Madden Building Consultancy Ltd

Chris Hughes Associate Technical Director, Glasgow

Aurora Tallon

2023/24 Chair of Women in Property Central Scotland & Senior Architect at Baker Hicks

Chris Stewart

President of The RIAS & Architect at Collective Architecture

A responsability to be inclusive

#DesignPopUp was proud to be the platform for this vital, urgent, and heartfelt discussion on mental wellbeing in architecture and design. Our panellists spoke openly about their own experiences, and how to effectively support and serve individuals working in demanding building environments, where long hours, low pay, and high project delivery expectations can take their toll.

This incredibly thought-provoking discussion was introduced by the evening’s Chair Gillian Stewart, who announced to a full house that she would be stepping down from her role at BCO, where she had been active for over 15 years and Chair for the past five, promoting the organisation’s principles of

‘Diversity, Inclusion, Environmental and Building Performance’

As rewarding as the post has been, Stewart admitted she was “relieved” to relinquish her responsibilities, adding the task came with “a lot of pressure”. Outlining the direction of the BCO in recent years, she explained how, in 2021, a predecessor took his own life, which shocked the team, and instigated a campaign to better serve their members. Before announcing the panellists Stewart surmised: “We have a responsibility to be inclusive but also be good to our people. If we don’t have our staff, we don’t have our people.”

Panel Chair Gillian Stewart guiding our inspiring panelists at Glasgow

Payment pressures


Ian Hamilton, commercial director of Solus, started off proceedings in earnest, providing an insight into why he launched the Building Minds initiative in London last year. He said: “In 2021, 507 people in the construction industry committed suicide*, and we wanted to highlight that and give something back to people we work with that had nothing to do with the products that we sell.”

“We have a responsibility to be inclusive but also be good to our people. If we don’t have our staff, we don’t have our business.”

- Gillian Stewart, Director - Michael Laird Architects

Hamilton was rightly proud of the inaugural event that attracted 100 contractors from as far afield as Australia and the participation of two mental health charities. One of the key takeaways was the pressures of late payment. “We all take for granted that we will get paid monthly, and that money goes in our account, and we can budget,” he said. “But some contractors don't get paid for three months or six months and they've got to pay their staff.”

A captivated audience at #DesignPopUp GLasgow

Hamilton went on to reveal these personal experiences went “quite dark at times”. Yet the effect was immediate. “At the end of the evening we had three people come up to say that they were really struggling. And if the event didn't do anything, these three guys managed to speak to someone.” Hamilton isn’t stopping there and is set to host another Building Minds because “we're not moving on quick enough”.

Ian Hamilton speaking earnestly on the importance of his initiative 'Building Minds'

The female factor


Speaking from a woman’s perspective of social change in the building industry, Aurora Tallon–this year’s Chair of the Central Scotland branch of Women in Property–spoke passionately about the stories she had received. They ranged from coming up against “glass ceilings” and employee “drop off after having kids”. However, Tallon wanted to make clear it wasn’t a one-gender issue: “These struggles aren’t just happening to women, but women have an opportunity to flag it up and fight for real change.”

Women in Property Chair, Aurora Tallon covering engaging and important topics regarding women in the workplace/

Additionally, Tallon was keen to point out “the huge skill gap that COVID flagged up” which exposed how one in every five builders is above 50. “So in the next 10-20 years, there's going to be a lot of people retiring from the industry and someone's going to have to cover the gap. But younger generations will not want to join an industry they see as toxic.” The reluctance is highlighted by statistics Tallon drew on, which stated only

15% of construction workers are women, lowering to 2% on-site who are apprenticeship

One way to remedy this would be more flexible working options, which should be a right, and one that may come into effect as more females reach senior management levels, Tallon stated.

A dangerous culture


Without a doubt, the most powerful moment of the night came next when Chris Hughes, an experienced architect with over 15 years’ of experience, opened up about his struggles. He started by describing a scenario of a young architect.

“You want to make a difference, starting with drive stamina, and responsiveness,” he began. “The problem is, as you keep on pushing, it's these traits that are rewarded. The company loves it, you're doing 50 hours a week for minimum wage, but you can only carry it for so long. Then you find yourself having beta blockers at nine o'clock so that you don't freak out at your 10 o'clock meeting, you then have to have another one at lunchtime, so you don't freak out in your three o'clock meeting. Then it gets to the point where the contractor is pushing and pushing, and you faint in the office in front of all of your colleagues.”

Vital honesty from Chris Hughes regarding his own personal struggles within the workplace

For Hughes, this kind of culture took him to the very brink. He went on to promote a greater level of understanding of mental health and breakdown issues, not just communication, adding that to minimise these incidents in the building environment, more moves were needed to free individuals from risk.

Improvements & resolutions


Joseph Madden, who runs his commercial firm Madden Building Consultancy, took the microphone next, detailing how in a few short years he had attended the funerals of 14 friends, prompting him to take time out. While he pointed out these deaths were not all suicides, it pushed him to a tipping point. But Madden said: “It allowed me to reset, and it's created a part of me that's more reflective; somebody that can make decisions quite quickly, and I didn't always have that in my armoury.” Having a support network, he added, helped him move on.

Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Building Industry discussed by our panel at #DPU Glasgow

Chris Stewart, an architect at Collective Architecture and President of the RIAS, humbled by what had been discussed so far, wanted to highlight “three chinks of light”. Firstly how “employee ownership is on the increase”; second, the ideas of Passivhaus as a “no blame culture”, and thirdly, happiness or helplessness which looks less at architectural visions and more at “co-design with the public”, the latter being crucial with the public trust in architecture, post-Grenfell, at an all-time low.

Engaging audience memebers at the Glasgow talk

Times are changing


The panel then fielded questions from the audience, ranging from the positives and negatives of social media usage, which Tallon cautioned for its requirement to always “be on”, while Hamilton defended it as “a way to celebrate companies doing the right thing”. Hughes has hopes for the younger generation, who will be “more fluent” in “mental health, diversity, all of these things”.

Tallon also spoke about the value of having a mentor, someone external who could point out discrepancies in working practices more inexperienced workers may not recognise. Another actionable point was to be realistic about time management. Hughes revealed that on some big projects, as many as

50% of the team left the industry after because they had been overworked and undervalued

Hughes admitted: “I've only just had my first employment contract in which I didn't have to waive my EU working time directive [not to work more than 45 hours a week].” He continued by asking people, particularly more inexperienced workers, to be wary of companies masking exploitation with employee welfare, such as those with direct links to fast food restaurants that send meals to your desk. “It’s not a benefit, it’s a massive red flag,” he warned. Chris Stewart encouraged stronger teamwork, where people and not price, are at the heart of projects.

Jillian Love of Gardiner & Theobold posing thought provoking questions to the panel


At the end, when asked by a member of the audience about what advice the panellists would give their younger self, Gillian Stewart was emotional, telling the audience she would value herself more. “It’s changing,” she said, hopeful for a kinder, nicer workplace in the future, and concluding a discussion that will last long in the memory.


*Source: The ONS

This event took place on Wednesday 20th March, at 6 pm. You can catch up with the video recording on your YouTube channel:


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