Phil tells us how learning about self-care led to the creation of a workplace well-being group to encourage life beyond the desk…

As a mountain rescue volunteer, Phil Macdonald has had plenty of experience in assisting people with ill mental health.

However, when lockdown hit the country, he knew that looking after the well-being of his team at Oberlanders Architects was going to be a business priority. As such, he and several other colleagues decided to do the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training.

Here, he tells us about learning about the importance of self-care, the need for companies to have a well-being strategy to avoid a mental health ‘time bomb’ and the benefits of doing the training with someone with authentic lived experience…

Why did you want to do MHFA training in your workplace?

I’m a managing partner of an 80-strong practice of architects with offices all around Scotland and one in Oxford.

Throughout the pandemic our business has grown by over 150% and, like a lot of companies, we’ve had to manage a lot of change. I know that a lot of people have struggled through lockdown, and as a manager of a large team it’s important to be aware of that.

I had been keen to do the MHFA training for a while and discussed it with a few colleagues but going through the lockdown really prompted me to reach out to Andy about doing the course.

Nine members of our organisation did the course in early 2021. We’re all now mental health first aiders and we’ve set up a well-being group which is aimed at giving our teams more resources and making sure they know that if they’re struggling, we’re sympathetic to that and will do all we can to help.

Nine team members at Oberlanders Architects, including Managing Partner Phil Macdonald, are now Mental Health First Aiders.

Did you have personal reasons for wanting to do the training?

I’ve had some experience within the family of people suffering from ill mental health from time to time and I’m a member of a voluntary mountain rescue team, so I’ve gone to my fair share of incidents relating to poor mental health and crises because of that. It’s something that’s very much on my radar.

How did you find the training?

We did it online, which we’ve all become accustomed to over the past 18 months! But it was very good and informative. My colleagues gave me positive feedback about the training and say they feel more empowered and confident about speaking about mental health or dealing with any kind of situation.

I do a lot of physical first aid training through volunteering with mountain rescue, and the manual for the MHFA training is 10 times thicker than the physical first aid one – which gives some idea of just how comprehensive it is.

Phil Macdonald went from physical first aid training as a mountain rescue volunteer to mental health first aid training as an architect. Credit: Tweed Valley MRT.

There’s a lot of information and data to absorb. With physical first aid, it’s very mechanical and prescriptive, but with mental health first aid there are many more shades of grey.

How did you find Andy as a trainer?

He’s just great. I found, and a lot of my colleagues said the same thing, that he comes to the training from a position of authenticity because he’s lived and breathed it. He’s not just gone away and studied it, and that really comes across.

He’s so open and honest about his own experience and mental health and that’s very relatable when he’s talking about these subjects.

Did anything particularly stand out to you on the course?

Due to my work with the mountain rescue, I’ve dealt with a variety of incidents related to poor mental health so I felt as though I already had some awareness of the sort of issues that could arise

Despite having experience dealing with incidents related to poor mental health, Phil still found lots to learn on the MHFA training. Credit: Scottish Mountain Rescue.

However, what I did find interesting was the greater awareness around self-care. There’s a big emphasis on looking after yourself and being kind to yourself.

When you get into the position of becoming a mental health first aider, it probably forces you to look at yourself a bit more and to ask whether you’re doing enough of this or that to take care of yourself.

The job I have is very pressured and I’m often my own worst critic, so one of the things I learned was not to be so harsh on myself and that it’s okay not to know all the answers.

It’s all about helping people to remember there’s life beyond their computer and I have definitely been more aware, not only about the importance of self-care but also encouraging others to look at how they are looking after themselves.  We have recently created a well-being group and took part in Mental Health Awareness week, raising money through a practice-wide activity challenge. 

Now more than ever, I am really aware of the importance of connection, and I do as much as I can to share what I am doing with our staff, so that they feel comfortable sharing their own experiences. 

Sounds like a great idea. How important do you think it is for companies to have a well-being element in their strategy?

I think it’s absolutely vital and any company that doesn’t see the value in this is missing a trick.

All of us are different, but architecture is a highly stressful profession. There are non-stop competing deadlines, high demands from clients and a huge amount of liability.

In terms of people being stressed, I think the architecture profession  is a time bombs waiting to go off.

At Oberlanders, we’re trying to tackle this and raising awareness about mental health and training Mental Health First Aiders is a big part of our strategy. We have a really high staff retention rate and while we sometimes have to work long hours it is important that we try not to make this the norm. We encourage people to have a good work/life balance and I want people to have a life away from architecture, to have hobbies and interests that provide an immersive environment away from work.

The whole mental health piece is hugely important because you need good mental health to do the job.

Would you recommend doing the MHFA training?

I would definitely recommend it – it’s very hands-on, even when you do it online.

Andy handles the subject matter very well. He doesn’t sensationalise it, whether it’s sad or life-affirming or people having dark thoughts, he just says it as it is without skirting around the topic.

These things happen day in and day out, and Andy’s approach helps to take away the taboo of talking about them. He strikes the right tone so he’s not hiding away from it or sensationalising it, and encourages everyone to talk openly. That’s always struck me as the right way to do it.

That sounds great, does that mean you would also recommend doing the training with Andy?

I would recommend the training with Andy, he’s a very good teacher; he has a human approach that’s very relatable. My colleagues were also highly complementary, describing Andy as professional, personable and credible at all times.

I’ve done similar training through my volunteering work with the mountain rescue, which, had I not done the training with Andy, I thought was perfectly fine, but it was acquired knowledge rather than a lived knowledge, which is what you get with Andy.

That authenticity is a real value add that Andy has.

If you’d like to put well-being at the heart of your company, or simply undertake the training yourself, get in touch.

You can find out more about the training and when the next course is here, or just drop me an email if you’d like to know a little more: