Why your mental health matters

Kael Gillam (left) & Kaye Preston

darc sits down with Nulty’s Kael Gillam and interior designer Kaye Preston to chat about Designers Mind, a new forum aimed at raising awareness of mental health and wellbeing in the design world.

How did Designers Mind come about?

Kaye Preston – pictured right (KP): Designers Mind is a forum and community of creatives who are passionate about raising awareness around mental health and wellbeing for designers in the workplace. The idea was born last October at the Mad World Summit in London. I attended a talk by a journalist who had created a sharing platform for his industry. At the time I was also aware of a forum created for architects but knew of nothing specific for designers. Throughout the day the seeds were planted and very quickly started to grow. I co-chaired a roundtable about leveraging design in our offices to create environments that promote wellbeing. It was in that moment that I realised there was a complete disconnect in our industry. Here, I was raising awareness about using design to help other people’s wellbeing, but there was nothing in place to take care of the people actually doing the designing.

Kael Gillam – pictured left (KG): I met Kaye through our Business Development Manager Sarah Crooks, another fellow American, at a Thanksgiving dinner organised by Nulty. We immediately hit it off and Kaye was bursting with ideas about how to change the design industry for the better. Needless to say, I was ecstatic to join the effort and am delighted that there are now a handful of us supporting this vision.

What do you hope to achieve with it?

KP: Our aim is to help improve the mental health and wellbeing of designers at work by raising awareness of the challenges they face within the industry and the effect they can have. We want to change the mindset of the current working culture that doesn’t really allow the time to incorporate healthy habits into the day. Focusing on prevention and the importance of incorporating sleep, healthy eating, movement, connection with others into our days, can only make us healthier, more productive and more creative in the long run. 

How has the discussion on mental health changed over the years? 

KP: It’s definitely become more open. Stigmas are being broken and many now feel they can talk about their mental health. Charities are doing incredible work and providing much needed access to resources. There’s also a new level of understanding that prevention methods can be taken through healthier daily habits. Big names like Arianna Huffington talking about the importance of sleep for instance, has been incredibly important for raising awareness and changing mindsets.

KG: Charities are doing an impressive job of trying to raise awareness; Mind really is a household name now. Organisations like CALM and Samaritans have call lines that are helping people on a daily basis. The work they do is literally saving lives by giving vulnerable people someone to reach out to in an anonymous way.

How do you think the lighting industry and wider design community responds to mental health awareness? 

KG: I think that the lighting design community is very aware of the impacts of poor mental health, and that we are a pretty open, honest bunch of people who want to implement change in the way we work. However, the research that I did for my talk at [d]arc room last year showed me that a big roadblock for smaller firms trying to implement mental health policies is the belief they have to spend a lot of money to make their workplaces happier and healthier places. I want to debunk that misconception because there is so much that can be done for minimal or no cost.

KP: I can only speak about the interiors industry myself but I have to say that I have always felt supported by all of the firms I have worked with when it comes to my mental health. But there seems to be more policy in place for the moment when someone actually needs help, rather than practicing regular prevention along the way.

Is there any ‘normalised’ behaviour in the design sphere that you think puts more pressure or strain on your mental health?

KP: For me it’s the combination of long hours and technology not allowing us to fully switch off. I acknowledge that it’s a high-pressure, deadline-driven industry, but I also think people can feel under pressure to stay late or look at emails out of hours. We often prioritise work over wellbeing, resulting in us not being able to switch off, set healthy boundaries and say no to heavy workloads. This can all lead to overwork and exhaustion, which puts a strain on our mental health.

What steps are Designers Mind taking to promote better mental health and wellbeing?

KP: We are working on raising awareness by sharing experiences and working on holding talks and events to create a community and recruit supporting partners. We would like to create tools and resources for the industry, in addition to holding workshops to help people create their own wellbeing toolbox and understand the importance of healthy habits and how they are fundamental to mental health and wellbeing.

What has the response been since you started? 

KP: The response has been incredibly positive. I’m really grateful to the amazing designers that have joined, been willing to share their stories and help spread the word. The design team at Nulty has been extremely supportive as well. They were some of the first people that I floated the idea past and the team even invited me to speak at their London office where the concept was launched. The forum is still very much in its infancy but with the positive response we’ve received so far, we’re hopeful the momentum will build.

There’s a lot of talk in the lighting industry about the role of light on wellbeing, mostly from a technical perspective. Do you think there needs to be more discussion on the psychological effect that lighting and design can have on health and wellbeing? 

KG: I’m by no means an expert on this, but I agree that more research needs to be done into the effects of things like circadian lighting on people’s wellbeing. We had a CPD with Helen Looms last year, and unfortunately it sounds like there’s a massive lack of funding for this kind of research. A lot of the data that the lighting design community relies upon for its wellbeing hypotheses, are the afterthoughts of wider medical studies that aren’t focused on the actual qualities of light, perception and emotion. I would like to see more Master’s students looking into this aspect of lighting design, as it’s clear the industry is shifting towards the emotional, personal side of the perception of a space, as opposed to ticking boxes for lux levels.

KP: Certifications such as WELL and fitwel are addressing the effects of design on overall health and wellbeing. Biophilic design, connecting humans with nature in our environments, has also become more popular – studies show the positive effects of incorporating nature into our interiors on our mental health. Our job as designers is to raise these options with our clients so that we can use these tools when designing a space.

What advice would you give to someone who may be struggling with their mental health and wellbeing? 

KP: I would say don’t try and go it alone. It may feel incredibly daunting and even scary at first but reach out. Connect with someone you trust and start the conversation. I know from my own experience that I felt like an incredible burden to my family and friends. But I’ve since learnt that this never was and never is the case. Everyone goes through something. It’s better to be in this together.

KG: Try not to keep it all to yourself. If you’ve never spoken to someone about your mental health before, it can feel stupid and scary and not important because hey, other people have problems too, don’t they? Don’t invalidate your own feelings; own them, accept them and seek guidance on how to work with (not around!) your circumstances to feel healthier. We have a handful of resources on the website and that list will hopefully get longer and longer as time goes on.

What more can studios do to support their staff? 

KG: There’s so many things to pick from here it’s hard to boil down! Firstly, I would have to say that stopping the “always on” mentality is a must; some companies have their emails shut off after work hours so there’s no scrolling frenzy at 10pm hoping that someone may have got back to you. Providing support is my other, though quite broad, piece of advice. Offer managers Mental Health First Aid training, offer private healthcare and/or digital counselling options, provide employees with a Mental Health resource guide that shows all of your company’s policies and the resources available to them.

KP: I think focusing on prevention instead of reaction would be really helpful. For example, addressing the long hours culture instead of making time for healthier lifestyles. Whenever I’ve been in the position discussing resource the same thing is always said: “We work longer hours when we have a deadline, but this isn’t meant to be the norm.” Unfortunately, I think it has become the norm and the times in between much less. The London Practice Forum (a community of architectural practices) have signed an agreement to reduce 40+ hour work weeks. Could the design industry follow suit?

How can people get involved with Designers Mind?

KP: The easiest way to get involved and best place to start is at our website. Here they can get in touch, follow us on social media and discuss what they can do. I would also like to add that we really appreciate all of the support.

www.designers-mind.com