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Mental Health in the Technology Sector: Your Questions Answered

Duncan MacRae

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mental health technology industry

Tech industry professionals, as featured in DIGIT Expo 2019’s ‘Mental Health and Burnout in the Tech Industry’ panel discussion, tackle some of your most pressing mental health-related questions.

In 2019, DIGIT Expo hosted an important discussion around mental health in the technology sector.

Titled ‘Mental Health and Burnout in the Tech Industry’, the conversation involved a number of experienced tech industry professionals, including Stu Hirst, Cloud Security Engineer, Just Eat; Harry McLaren, Managing Consultant, Adarma; Sophie Lanc, Chief Creative Technologies Officer, Cyborn; Prof Chris Williams, Professor of Psychosocial Psychiatry, University of Glasgow; Sean Wright, Lead Software Security Engineer; Rory Alsop, Executive Board Member, ISF; and Calum Jarvie, Senior HR Advisor, CJ Cyber Ltd.

Such was the popularity of the panel discussion, there were far more questions put to the panel than there were enough minutes to cover them all. But here, we’ve compiled a list of your questions, and answers from the panel members.

Q: What do the panel think are the most successful strategies for line managers to ideally prevent or certainly reduce the likelihood of burnout in their teams?
A: Rory and Sophie
Be there for your team. Be involved. For regular one-to-ones include personal support along with work or project updates. Don’t overload your team.

Q: Do you think that all developers should become mental first aiders, so we increase the prevention rate within teams?
A: Sean
I don’t think all should, but certainly some should. This should be a volunteer-based role/responsibility. If it is forced upon people you may get the opposite results. I feel another avenue to increase prevention rates would be raising awareness, especially with some of the warning signs. Make sure that managers are aware of them, what to look out for and some actions they can take (as the employee’s manager) to help. So one might even say managers should take mandatory mental first aid training.

first aid

Q: How can founders or tech leads help prevent burnout/impact of stress within their teams?
A: Sean
Some common warning signs is a fantastic means of preventing burnout (prevention is better than cure). Managers/leads are perhaps the best suited to this since they work closely with the employee and are in a position to perhaps do something about it, such as suggest taking some leave, lighten their work load, etc.

Q: Are we not fighting a losing battle in the IT industry, with employers pushing to get things done faster and cheaper, so people work harder and longer?
A: Rory
This varies by country and culture, but I have seen more and more larger companies begin to understand the value of their workforce. Much more so in service companies, consultancies etc where the people are the value, but this is also beginning to be seen in other industries.

Q: Is the term ‘burnout’ specific to tech – do other industries have the same phenomenon in their workforces?
A: Calum
Having worked across the legal and property industries I can confirm that, unfortunately, burnout is a problem faced across many sectors. When an individual is placed under uncontrolled pressure for a sustained period of time, irrespective of whether it comes from employers or clients, you inevitably run the risk of that person burning out if they don’t get help in time. I believe it’s best to think of burnout as a human issue as opposed to a sector-specific issue. The best counter for burnout is to try and ensure all individuals know what support is available and how to get help before they reach burnout. Mental health support is best as a preventative measure as opposed to a cure once breaking point has been reached.

Q: What are your options on taking a mental health day? Consequently how do you ensure people aren’t abusing them?
A: Calum
Attendance management is tricky because of the wide range of illnesses out there and how varied individual reactions to the illnesses can be. Unfortunately, all types of sickness absence allowances are open to interpretation and can be abused if not managed effectively. My personal opinion is that absence due to mental health should be factored into the company’s mental health policy and not separated as ‘mental health’ or ‘duvet’ days because the interpretation of what is or isn’t acceptable is so broad it would be hard to decide consistently whether or not people are taking duvet days for ‘acceptable reasons’ e.g. is it okay for someone to take a duvet day on a Monday who has a long track record of depression, but not okay for someone suffering from alcoholism to take a Monday off after a heavy weekend? It would be hard to manage this fairly, so I believe an Absence Policy stance that encompasses physical and mental illness is really important.

Q: How do we make these conversations more common in the workplace so that an individual doesn’t have to brave an uncomfortable conversation in a vulnerable moment?
A: Rory
By example from management. We need to make it obvious to our teams that they can approach us to have a discussion about mental health like they would if they had a broken rib, for example. We have to be the ones pointing them to resources, and letting them know they can approach us if need be, or a mental health first aider outside the team if that feels easier in the first instance.

conversation

Q: What as managers do you think we can do to help prevent burnout in our teams and identify those at risk?
A: Stu
Looking after the mental health of your team starts with knowing your team. In order for someone to accept help they need to trust you. Someone’s mental health is literally one of the most personal and private things they own, and because people are so keen to protect their professional reputation (particularly where their manager is concerned) they are not going to come forward freely and discuss any topic they believe could cast them in a negative light. To counteract that you need to focus on building a trusting environment on both a personal and team level through conversations. As a manager you have to lead by example on this by sharing personal discussions with team members on their professional and personal lives and ensuring you never divulge their private details within the team. You need to take an individualised approach for each of your team members, the same method will not produce positive results with every colleague and building these relationships takes time. You should be prepared to be open with them and give them time to feel comfortable opening up to you. They may never take you up on this but it is important that they know and feel like it is an acceptable conversation to have if they are comfortable doing so. Aside from personal conversations you can also build in mental health to your monthly/weekly one-to-ones, ask open questions like “how are things going at the moment?”, “what’s keeping you busy?”, “how does your workload feel right now? is it manageable?”

Q: What would be your advice to a well motivated junior developer to help them avoid burnout during their career?
A: Sean
One thing we often see is the desire of junior employees to strive to prove themselves. While this is often fantastic to see, it can lead to burnout. The very first thing I would recommend is teaching them when to say “no”. Taking on additional things may help them look good, but there comes a point where, if they take on too much, it could actually negatively impact their performance and they risk burning out.

Q: What does the training to become a mental health first aider involve?
A: Calum
There are a variety of options for mental health First Aid training, but to become fully qualified it takes a two-day course that focuses on various mental health conditions in detail, including Anxiety, Depression and Suicide Prevention. It is very insightful and helpful to understand the background to these conditions and I certainly put the training to good use on an everyday basis. The specific format of the training will vary depending on the trainer but for the most part it is classroom-based learning, featuring case studies and tips and tools for navigating challenging/emotional conversations. A lot of the skill to be being an effective mental health first aider is in showing empathy and compassion to those around you.

Q: How important is is to recognise that different people work in different ways, and how can we make a workplace for everyone? (Intro/extrovert etc)
A: Calum
Mental health is completely unique to each individual and you have to understand if you are hoping to help those around you with their own experiences of poor mental health. Workplace dynamics are set by the example of leaders and managers. If not handled appropriately environments can quickly become toxic. I would recommend focusing on a consistence campaign of mental health support and guidance for managers and team members. It is imperative that you don’t lose sight of the managers in the support programme because they can be under the most pressure at times and can therefore be the most at risk of burnout. Presenting consistent ideas, tools and tips to staff and having absolute buy in from leaders gets you over the first hurdle. You then need to ensure that deadlines, workloads and expectations are set at a realistic level to not push individuals to the point of burnout… easier said than done.

Q: Are some industries considerably more at risk than the rest? e.g. Health, financial, sales, technology
A: Sean
I think that technology is especially at risk. A doctor for instance, works in their practice. When they come home, they are typically away from their work and can “switch off”. Technology has become such a part of our daily lives, that for those of us working in it, we never really can get away from it. Heck, it’s even in our cars now!

Q: How can companies help staff who work in ‘hidden’ areas such as security or operations where failures are public, but successes often goes unnoticed by most?
A: Sean
This is one of the big stresses of working in these. They are often thankless and you immediately get the visibility when something goes wrong. My suggestion is to have management publicly recognise some accomplishments with these teams. Often a simple public pat on the back can go a long way

Q: How do you manage external factors reflecting on to your work?
A: Sean
They have a massive impact. Personally, I have been impacted tremendously by family-related matters. This adds tremendous stress to an already stressful environment. There are also other factors, such as depression and anxiety. My recommendation is firstly speak to your manager/leader and let them know your situation. Work with them to see if there is anything the company can actually do to help (often they can in terms of counselling). Also speak to your GP and see if they can refer you to a professional for further help.

Q: When you hit that burnout, I know I need to eat well, get out etc. But I often just hit a wall. What would you suggest doing at that point?
A: Sean
Start looking to get some timeout, get some time to do things which make you happy and which you enjoy. And, depending how severe, also look to getting professional medical help.

Q: Do remote teams that work flexibly have a better chance in avoiding burnout?
A: Sean
I think they face a greater risk. Firstly, there is less visibility so there is less chance that this will be picked upon (isolation becomes easier). Also it’s a lot harder to switch off, differentiating between home and work. Also the lack of human interaction (while ideal for some) can become a factor. Humans are by in large sociable, so missing this can impact mental health.

running

Q: How beneficial do you think physical exercise is as a tool to combat the onset of depression/stress?
A: Stu
Absolutely key. I box and cycle and have always used exercise as a way to combat stress and low mood. Sometimes it takes real effort, especially to fit in with busy lives, but the impact can be significant. Whilst I am not formally educated to give answers to the medical benefits of exercise (although should be widely understood!), I can absolutely attest to the personal benefits it has brought me. I am fundamentally a happier and more content person when I have the time to train. I even moved my spin bike into my office so that I could cycle during some audio-participation-only meetings.
A: Rory
I use the gym and playing guitar as part of my relaxation. My endorphin/dopamine high I get from both of these can turn around any negative feelings from a bad day.

Q: How can we best manage the right to disconnect with an increasingly flexible working world/week?
A: Sean
Firstly if you can, have a work dedicated mobile. This makes it easier to leave it behind and become uncontactable. Leave your personal number with your manager and let them know only to use it as a last resort. Do NOT check emails while on leave, this is something which many do (myself included), and something which doesn’t help in taking some time out. Also make sure that you spend time doing things which you enjoy and make you happy, if possible dedicate a portion of a week to doing that.

  • Join DIGIT at Scot-Secure 2020 in Edinburgh’s Dynamic Earth on the 20th of February, where Richard Grey, head of information security at FreeAgent, will host an interactive workshop on mental health and burnout. For full details, visit: scot-secure.com

Duncan MacRae

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