The State of Burnout in Architecture (2021)

by
Rebecca Hey
Architecture Industry report that analyzes the State of Burnout. Here’s why architects are experiencing burnout in 2021.
The State of Burnout in Architecture (2021)

We surveyed 225 architects to better understand the current state of burnout in architecture. 

We wanted to find out whether they felt burnt out in 2021 and what we can do to prevent it.

As we all know, the root of burnout goes deeper than just the pandemic.

As one person put it in the survey,

“The question is, when am I not burnt out?”

In this report, you’ll learn:

  • How many architects experienced burnout in 2021.
  • What caused their burnout.
  • What measures can help alleviate burnout.
  • Plus more.

Let’s dive right in.

Here’s a Quick Summary of Our Key Findings:

  • Nearly all architects (96.9%) experienced burnout in 2021. 
  • The Coronavirus pandemic didn’t cause burnout for architects, but it made it worse for 90% of respondents.
  • Working overtime is the leading cause of burnout for architects. 
  • Efficient workflow and processes can alleviate burnout in architecture.
  • A paid mental health day would assist with reducing burnout, which is worth considering.
  • Flexible working options and mental health days are things Employers should look into to improve burnout 
  • Support and recognition from leaders would combat burnout. 
  • Burnout impacts creativity and the quality of work, according to the architects who felt that “bad behaviors” were more often rewarded than good ones. 
  • Mental and physical health was impacted due to burnout.

96.9% of Architects Experienced Burnout in 2021

96.9% or almost all of the architects we surveyed said they experienced burnout in 2021.

Architects have...

  • A heavy workload
  • Work long hours (including off-the-clock hours) 
  • Limited control over their work with numerous dependencies 
96.9% of architects experienced burnout in 2021

Burnout isn't a medical diagnosis (Mayo Clinic). It is a feeling of:

  • depression
  • lack of well-being
  • and even physical symptoms like shortness of breath

Our respondents agree and here’s how they described the experience:

“The basics get dismissed (exercise, healthy eating, sleep).”
“Simple tasks become unbearable. I’ll pay $25 to park to avoid walking two blocks from where it’s free.”
“I can’t be around people, even people I love.” 

In short, they felt unhappy, tired and stopped enjoying their work altogether.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that creative professionals, including architects and designers, often feel burned out (Architectural Digest). 

It takes a great deal of physical and mental energy to work in a creative field.

When you work long hours in a stressful competitive environment, developing fresh creative ideas is hard.

“Creativity and opportunity feel like a burden. I copy solutions.” 

You feel like you aren’t doing your job well, which leads you to put in more time, and more burnout.

One architect explained they felt “completely disconnected from my purpose”. The result is they end up quitting because it feels like the only way to break the cycle.

Takeaway

Almost all architects have experience in 2021, but it doesn’t just stop at architecture.

Engineering is also known for breeding burnout. H+O wants to stop that by aligning their work with their mission and values.

“We're poking at the industry norm of burnout and people that are leaving because they see a career ceiling at 10 or 15 years. Working too much or not feeling appreciated, unclear on how to grow their career. We want to create a better experience for them with a positive work environment. You don't have enough time in the day to think about something new or do something different.”

- Rens Hayes, Founder of H+O Structural Engineering on How to Run an Operationally Efficient Organization

COVID-19 is Increasing Burnout

Nearly 90% of everyone we spoke to felt that the pandemic was impacting their level of burnout.

87.1% of architects say their burnout increased due to the pandemic

This statistic closely matches the Stress in America survey, which found 84% of individuals had experienced their highest stress levels since April 2020 (APA).

But we found that for most their burnout started way long before the pandemic happened.

“Like many of my mid-senior level friends and colleagues, I was burnt to a crisp *before* COVID. These past 18 months have been a series of straws atop the camel's back.”
“It was bad enough before the pandemic, and now it feels worse. Everyone is flat out all the time, and management everywhere seems to be reluctant to hire more people to cover. Clients are even more impatient than they were before. It's a perfect storm.” 

It’s a culture that seems to start early on, even at college level. 

In an open letter written to the industry at large by one student in the RIBA wrote: 

"People say they care about mental health, and they want to tackle the stigma, then cause your poor mental health and tell you it's perfectly normal at your stage."

Takeaway

The additional stress of the pandemic added to an already stressful job pushes many of us to our breaking point.

But when changes are happening because of the economy or global events like COVID, it’s a good time for firms to shift in other ways. 

Architect, author, and professor Randy Deutsch see this as an opportunity for architects to change culturally:

“Anytime there's been an economic downturn, it's a huge opportunity within the professional field and markets to actually make a cultural change. Because we're working remotely now and that's a cultural change. That's something intellectually, nobody agreed to, but now we're actually doing it, and we're all benefiting from it.”

- Randy Deutsch, FAIA on How to Think and Adapt like an Architect

Overtime is the Main Cause of Burnout for Architects

Our survey found that the biggest reason for burnout in architecture is working overtime or having too much workload.

In fact, 67.6% of our surveyed architects said they felt overworked and overloaded.

Working overtime/overload is the leading cause of burnout for architects

While the pandemic’s made matters worse, even before COVID-19, architects operated in a high-pressure environment.

Professional and trainee architects have said that they experienced (Architectural Journal):

  • High levels of stress
  • Work well beyond the legal limits of overtime (often unpaid)
  • Experience a significant gender-based disparity in compensation

According to some architects in our survey, the “all-nighter trend begins in college” and carries over to their professional working life. 

The creative nature of our job also has an impact.

As one person said,

“We have faster tools but creativity and thought still take time.” 
“By nature, design is subjective and will never be done.”

Alarmingly, one student claimed to have worked more than 200 hours of overtime without compensation (Architectural Journal).

An architectural blogger says he often finds that architects routinely work 60-hour weeks.

Takeaway

The main cause of burnout in architecture is due to overtime and overwork.

This is why tracking time is so important. It lets you see who is over working and might need a day off.

At Snow Kreilich Architects, they’re adamant about enforcing their team to track time every single week for this exact reason. 

“I am the person that yells at them to get their time in, passive-aggressively, and monitor who's putting in the hours that they are. When I see situations where there are clearly far too many hours being put in above and beyond the standard 40 hour work week, I will flag it and communicate it directly to Matt and Julie. And they will have one-on-one conversations with those individuals. Because it does matter.”

- Sarah Hughes, Director Of Finance + Operations at Snow Kreilich Architects on How to Run Operations at a Mid-size Firm

Efficient Workflow can Alleviate Burnout in Architecture

The impact of these long hours only gets worse with poor planning and workflow management.

64.4% of architects said that inefficient workflow is a major contributor to their burnout.

64.4% of architects said that inefficient workflow is a major contributor to their burnout.

We love what we do - this also means we tend to focus on design solutions while forgetting about the business and operational side.

As one architect said,

“We need to spend more time designing & creating functioning work environments and processes before we can design the built environment.”

But by having the right tools and processes in place, your projects can run smoothly, especially during a deadline - which is often another cause of burnout.

“Poor processes or inefficient processes made every deadline a nightmare to complete already, but working from home increased certain inefficiencies.”

This doesn’t stop at the employee level. Firm owners or managers can also feel burned out due to inconsistency in workflow.

“I am a solo practitioner. [Burnout] is not normally a problem, but there's no consistency to the workflow when schedules are unpredictable. Projects tend to all be vying for the same deadlines.”

Takeaway

Workflow and processes are top of mind for a lot of architects. Without the right processes in place, your team can spend valuable time just searching for a single spreadsheet.

Here are a few things you can do to improve your workflow:

Have a Single Source of Truth - So you can store all your data in one place and ensure data across your project teams is always up to date.

Build a Clear Resource Plan - Create a staffing plan in real-time so your team knows exactly what they need to do every day

Keep Track of Your Time
 - Use an easy-to-use time tracking software so you can see who is overworked to prevent employee burnout.

If you want the right project management tool to set your team up for success, start a 10-day free trial or book a demo with Monograph today.

Architects Need Time off for Mental Health

Mental health support ranked only slightly lower than process improvement on the list of “asks” from the architects we spoke to. 

59.9% of respondents stated that a paid mental health day would assist them with reducing burnout, which is worth considering. 

59.9% of architects want a paid mental health day

There are many benefits to taking a mental health day (Garden State Treatment Center) such as:

  • Resting to recoup your energy
  • Understanding your emotions
  • Gaining a new perspective on issues at work

At Monograph, we adopt a 4-day workweek, so every team member can have a midweek weekend off to recharge.

We found that working only 32 hours a week allows us to be:

  • More productive during the work days
  • More intentional about priorities
  • More open in our communication to get stuff done fast

Takeaway

About 60% of architects want a paid day off for mental health to help with burnout.

One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to allow your team to take comp time off when they work overtime that week, especially after an intense deadline.

Sometimes just respecting that max 40-hour work week can help maintain work-life balance. 

Expecting teams to work their 40 hours and do overhead non-billable work on top of that is a recipe to burnout.

This is why Sarah Hughes keeps close tabs on employee hours. If employees are working overtime consistently, she flags it so work-life balance can be restored.

“We do not want people frying out. We do not want the idea that we expect you to be available 40 hours a week, and then do all the other overhead non-billable work on top of it.”

- Sarah Hughes, Director Of Finance + Operations at Snow Kreilich Architects on How to Run Operations at a Mid-size Firm

Does Remote Work Reduce Burnout? The Answer Isn’t Clear

40.9% of the people we surveyed said that flexible work hours would help alleviate their burnout. 

38.9% asked for remote or hybrid working options.

40% of architects asked for flexible & remote or hybrid work mode

Since the pandemic, most firms already have set up cloud-based project management tools and can work from home. 

In our 2020 Architecture Industry Trend and Statistics Report, 74% of architecture firms worked either remotely or in hybrid mode.

74% of architecture firms worked either remotely or in hybrid mode in 2020

More employees are working remotely than ever before, and the advantages in the overall workplace seem to be clear (Findstack):

77% of remote workers say they are more productive when working from home.

77% say they are more productive when working from home.

74% of remote workers say that by working remotely, the likelihood of leaving the company decreases.

74% say the likelihood of leaving the company decreases by working remotely.

But the debate about remote work continues in our industry.

Some in the survey think that a hybrid work schedule helped them reduce burnout a lot.

“I feel less burned out in 2021 than in previous years. I think having a hybrid work schedule has helped a lot. I also think it’s important to find more balance with work and life and find growth opportunities.”

But some architects feel that remote work has made their work-life balance worse by blurring their boundaries between work and home.

“Without having kids at home or other (higher) priorities than work to keep my focus, working from home and remotely in response to covid just led to much longer work hours, and no real boundaries between 'work' and 'home' or personal life.”

While others feel that their operational processes have gotten worse in a remote work environment, which causes more stress.

“We are totally disorganized in our accounting, project management and staffing, and this has been made worse by being remote.”

One architect feels strongly that flexible work hours and remote work don’t help with the root problem if you’re constantly overworked with no time to take advantage of the benefits.

“My firm provides all the “fixes” - a health management plan and therapist finder hotline. Sick pay can be used for mental health days, remote and flexible work time. But it does nothing to try to alleviate the root problem - overwork. If you don’t have time to use any of the “fixes”, then the root problem still exists, and the fixes don’t fix.”

In most instances, communication is key between leadership and team members to set a realistic work/life balance.

“My office is already office-optional, and I have worked from home for three years. Not having a reasonable work/home balance contributed to my burnout. After telling my boss my problem, they worked to help me solve the issues leading to my burnout. Communication is a big key as well as understanding.”

Takeaway

While some might feel that working from home drives more stress in their life, 40% of architects felt that remote work can be helpful in alleviating burnout.

Remote work can also, surprisingly, increase transparency in a firm.

Architects FORA have been operating remotely even before the pandemic.

Their President, Leah Bayer, believed that remote work, with the right technology, can give everyone access to the conversations happening across the firm.

“We can observe what people are doing more frequently and have better dialogue about that than in person. Everything that we do is transparent. Everything's hosted in a Google Drive that everyone can access. Everyone has conversations in Slack that are transparent....So you get that sort of eavesdropping opportunity when it works for you and not necessarily exactly when it's happening in an office.”

- Leah Bayer, CEO of Architects FORA on How To Transition Firm Ownership

Architects Feel Unsupported at Work

We identified 2 major challenges that are causing employees to feel disengaged from their job:

  • Lack of recognition
  • Unclear career paths

54.7% of architects feel that lack of support and acknowledgement from leadership led to their burnout.

54.7% of architects feel that lack of support and acknowledgement led to their burnout.

Employee recognition doesn’t just help with burnout; it helps with team morale and relationship building.

50% of employees believe a simple thank you from their managers helped them build a trusting relationship with their leadership.

50% believe a thank you from their managers can help build trust

When staff sees that their work and effort are acknowledged, they are more engaged and likely to repeat their actions. 

Coupling employee acknowledgement with a clear career path - then you have a golden engagement strategy.

With 34.7% of architects lacking a clear career path, firms need to build a more transparent culture.

34.7% of architects lack a clear career path

If you don’t know where you are going in your already-difficult architecture careers, staying motivated is hard because the rewards aren’t clear.

Takeaway

You can start by setting a policy that outlines employees’ career paths and how it relates to your firms’ goal and profit.

What does someone need to do at each promotional level to climb the ladder?

Having a roadmap can help connect the dots between work and recognition, encouraging them to stay on track.

Evelyn Lee, FAIA, discussed how having a clear career path can provide greater transparency - especially when we move into a hybrid practice.

“Another thing that I think needs greater transparency as we move to the hybrid model is really looking at developing a 360-degree review process, and then establishing career paths. And this can even happen at smaller firms. Just make sure that you are having conversations outside of the annual review, talking about where people would like to grow and how your firm can support their growth.”

- Evelyn Lee, FAIA on How To Empower Your Team Beyond Projects

44.4% of Architects Felt Disengaged From Their Jobs

44.4% of the architects we spoke to felt disengaged from their jobs. 

The impact this has on the quality of their work is evident.

44.4% of the architects we spoke to felt disengaged from their jobs. 

The feedback we got from architects about the impact of burnout on their work includes:

“You are celebrating completion, not quality or creativity.”
“Work is compromised and messy.”
“Your self-worth plummets because it’s never enough and not good enough.”

Many of them felt that they needed a slower, more thoughtful creative process to do their work.

But this is at odds with the fast-paced nature and client demands they experienced in the field. 

As one respondent put it,

"You build a world of paradox, selling healthy environments to others and then ignoring it yourself."

Takeaway

44.4% of architects feel disengaged from their job, which can impact the quality of our work. A slower creative process can help reduce burnout and increase engagement.

To start, we can try adopting a design crit culture from Olson Kundig to set a collaborative and creative environment.

Their Principal Alan Maskin said that since he’s been with Olson Kundig, there has been a weekly all-hands and a weekly design crit gathering where everyone, regardless of position, discusses a design.

“This is the most important thing that we do as a culture, which is every Thursday at 4:30, we close computers. We put pencils down. We join in that piazza space I told you about, and one or two projects will be presented or a theme or a concept. And the entire office gets to chime in...It improves thinking. It pushes everybody. It is the most critical sort of ritual that we have, and we are religious about it.”

- Alan Maskin, Principal of Olson Kundig on How to Foster Design Culture in the Firm

Burnout Happens to All Experience Levels

While most of our respondents were between the age of 25-39, we recognized that burnout could happen to architects in all experience levels.

Team members, managers, and firm leaders are equally susceptible to burnout.

68% of respondents are between age of 25-39

From the survey, many firm owners and principals have expressed their burnout experience - primarily due to the constant change of schedule and stress of finding new work.

“Firm owners have the same stresses and more. We have to figure it all out for our staff and office.”
“As a Principal, I worked most weekends since JAN 2021, & have taken four partial or full weekends this year. First, we didn’t have enough work, and then we had too much, then the projects went on hold. It’s stressful trying to find consistency and find the work.”

Some think burnout can be more severe when you’re your own boss.

“I am my own boss, and I still experience burnout, potentially even more dramatically than I did when I worked for other people!”

We can create a healthy culture by demonstrating good examples like taking a mental health day and asking for help when we need to.

Sharing openly about your own burnout experiences with your team can help build trust and you can work together to address the issue.

Takeaway

In our 2021 Best Practice Report, we found that 93% of Principals are in charge of operations in a firm. Continuously to re-evaluate your operational processes become absolutely essential to help reduce burnout at the leadership level.

When you make up processes as you go and don’t go back to re-examine them later, you run the risk of digging yourself into a complicated hole that’s hard to get out of.

“We tend to MacGyver things, especially when we're up running against a deadline. And then we never go back and reevaluate if there was a better way to do it. This is what we tend to do with tools. And in tech, there's a term for it. It's literally called technical debt...But you're actually losing productivity, because you haven't taken the time to re-look at that process.”

- Evelyn Lee, FAIA on How To Empower Your Team Beyond Projects

Don’t Stop Here

Burnout doesn’t have to be an inevitable consequence of working in architecture.

Avoiding employee burnout and creating a healthy culture can lead to quality design and a profitable firm.

Have you experienced burnout as an architect?

What do you think can help with your burnout?

Let us know in the comments below.

Survey Methodology

The State of Burnout in Architecture Report articulates the perspectives of hundreds of architects from a wide range of positions. From August 26 to September 19, 2021, we invited design professionals to complete a survey that explored topics around burnout in 2021. We asked them what have caused their burnout and what can help alleviate that. We received 255 completed responses from respondents across all job levels, from designers to firm owners. After the survey was closed, results were documented and analyzed. From there, our team identified the main causes of burnout and potential takeaways that can help prevent burnout in our industry.

About the Author
Rebecca Hey Photo

Rebecca Hey is a content writer specializing in SaaS, digital marketing, eCommerce, lead generation, SEO, website hosting and website development. Rebecca has proudly written thousands of articles for clients like AB Tasty, authority website hosting review blog, WebsitePlanet.com, Gmelius and London-based SEO agency, Bubblegum SEO, and AdScale.

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