Recently, we posed a question to the industry that unleashed a firestorm of feedback: Is the way we work still working? Judging by the response—more than any topic we’ve covered in 10 years—the answer is no. It’s not working.

Why are so many leaders burned out—and so many emerging leaders rethinking which ladder they want to climb? How can AEC and environmental firms evolve and thrive as the industry’s technology, generational expectations and definitions of leadership are changing?

Companies like 1,900-person architecture firm Perkins + Will, Chicago, and HDR, Omaha, which won a Nebraska Governor’s Award for its wellness program, are putting resources behind fostering a healthier staff. Yet, emerging leaders and those who manage them say physical wellness is just a start. Flexibility, life balance and more sustainable workloads loom equally large for those coming up the ranks.

Peter Warr, a researcher at the Institute of Work Psychology in Sheffield, England, identifies five keys to well-being at work: contribution, conviction, cultural fit, commitment and confidence. In some ways, the AEC industry is uniquely well suited to offer all of these, but it may require big changes to fully get there.

Walking the ‘Sustainable’ Talk

“Creative well-being is important to us—having energy and taking good care of oneself,” says Meg Brown, principal and chief talent officer at Perkins + Will. “Our profession provides design solutions that impact people’s daily lives, health and comfort. Sustainability has been critical to our clients, and a component of that is wellness.”

AEC firms offer creative, meaningful work with lasting impact, innovative problem- solving and an ownership culture. But the work is project driven, and sometimes, frenetic. As an industry, how well do we walk the sustainability talk?

Another principal we spoke to (on condition of anonymity) says it’s often those in the middle—the leaders being cultivated— who get crushed. As principals take on more communication and business development roles (focusing less on the technical work) and junior staffers work eight hours and go home, middle-level managers are faced with the greatest pressure and work loads.

“In a typical day, they have to deal with the immediate demands of email, meetings and phone calls, but then at 5:00, they still have the report that requires uninterrupted focus to write. It’s this combination of communication work piled on top of the actual production work that buries middle managers,” the principal says.

Culture Is King

“Sustainable wellness comes from cultural change, and this is particularly true at smaller firms with limited resources. As junior employees see senior leaders using vacation time, leaving work on time, and exercising at lunch, the culture is able to shift in a more sustainable direction,” says David Hewett, a new principal with 50-person environmental engineering and consulting firm Epsilon Associates in Maynard, Mass.

Studies show that when employees believe the organizational culture is a good fit for them, performance, happiness and well-being increase significantly. Yet many AEC leaders seem out of touch with the culture they’re creating, something that is increasingly becoming a deal-breaker for recruiting. One project manager we spoke to shared his surprise when an executive father of four told him the road-warrior lifestyle that kept him away from home was not so glamorous. “It floored me that he thought I would think this was glamorous,” he says.