Mental health awareness is a topic upon which great focus is now placed throughout society. Gone are the days of keeping a ‘stiff upper lip’ or simply ‘manning up’. Instead, today we find more serious, open discussions about the causes and subsequent impact of mental health issues upon individuals, and, in a broader sense, society.
While the fact these discussions are taking place at all indicates society is becoming increasingly more aware and open to the topic of mental health, there are still significant challenges ahead. People still contend with the stigmas attached to mental health problems and what it means to live with anxiety, depression or any mental health problem.
Parochial misconceptions about mental health issues are, sadly, still commonplace. Additionally, those who live with anxiety or depression often struggle to disclose their struggles amid fears over how they will be perceived among peers, colleagues or family members, says Professor Chris Williams.
Williams is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, Director of Five Areas Ltd and author of the widely-recommended Living Life to the Full (LLTTF) website. Glancing around your workplace on World Mental Health Day, he says you would be wise to consider that mental health issues are often hidden.
“Depression and anxiety are often hidden. When you look at your workforce and your colleagues, there’s going to be more people around who are struggling with mental health than perhaps anyone would suspect,” he asserts.
“It’s often hidden because of stigma. Not just the stigma of how others respond, but also people often don’t like to think of themselves as struggling with things like anxiety or depression,” Prof Williams adds. “They often think it’s a sense of failure or weakness if people end up with anxiety or depression – which of course is nonsense.”
The Elephant in the Room
Mental health in the technology industry is a recurring topic, with discussions over anxiety, depression and ‘burn out’ regularly permeating social spheres across a range of sectors.
A report published this year by the British Interactive Media Association (BIMA) shows that mental health is still a significant challenge for the UK technology industry. Two-thirds (66%) of respondents in the BIMA report said they are stressed by their work, while more than half (52%) said they have suffered from anxiety or depression at some point.
Stress, anxiety, depression and a range of other mental health issues in the technology industry have grown to such an extent that people working in these fields are just as stressed as health service workers and are up to five times more depressed than the UK average.
Crucially, the report says this is not just “people reporting periods of stress” and instead highlights an endemic problem which should be tackled more aggressively.
13% of people say they are constantly stressed with symptoms such as anxiety attacks, headaches and continual tiredness affecting their ability to work.
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Stu Hirst, principal security engineer at JustEat, believes it is time to have a serious discussion about mental health – both in the cybersecurity sector and the tech industry at large. Stressed, depressed or burned-out employees are unlikely to be productive ones and employers have a duty of care to tech workers.
“Companies are growing at such a pace now and the tech stack is growing at such a pace that it’s incredibly difficult to keep up”, he says. “In cybersecurity, it’s particularly difficult because of emerging attack vectors and the risk landscape is growing daily. It’s more applications, more network connections, it’s more complexity overall.”
Workers at companies across a range of sectors are working long hours in fast-paced environments and often find themselves in a seemingly endless spiral of critical decision-making, stress and poor work-life balances.
While this isn’t an issue exclusive to the tech industry – it happens in a range of industries the world over – discussions over the impact these environments have upon people aren’t spoken of nearly enough. Employees are burning out, imposter syndrome affects many and the simple stress of day-to-day working life can boil up if left unaddressed and huddled away in the recesses of one’s mind.
“I think with tech, in general, it’s difficult to master in every facet of what you do,” he explains. “That has knock-on effects for people – whether that’s imposter syndrome or mental health issues or just trying to be comfortable in your job and cope with high workloads.
“In some environments, you are contending with very long hours and you’re never really able to switch off. That combination of things can lead to people not knowing how to cope.”
During his time in the cybersecurity sphere, Hirst says he has worked with a number of people who’ve been forced to take sick leave because of issues related to overwork, stress and environments they have been unable to cope with. Many simply don’t have the mechanisms to deal with the high-octane, stress-fuelled work they contend with and it’s an issue that is certainly growing in frequency.
“I definitely speak to a number of InfoSec people I know who might not have taken time out because of this, but they’re trying to find mechanisms to at least cope and manage their situation,” he explains. “This ranges from people switching off phones when they go on holiday to just trying to spend more time with family.”
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A positive takeaway from this growing awareness, Hirst insists, is that more and more people are talking about these issues. Moving forward, however, he believes the tech industry has to seriously address the problem and become “a little bit braver” in talking about mental health and burnout.
By doing so, many people struggling with problems will realise there is an open forum through which to share their troubles and, ultimately, find help.
“In general, these kinds of things can only help people. They can speak to other industry people and professionals for more advice,” he says. “I think it’s interesting, for me personally, to see how many people in other roles in tech go through the same thing. The more you talk about it, the less it feels like it’s just you dealing with that stuff.”
In his role at Just Eat, Hirst regularly engages with other staff and participates in the company’s initiatives to create an open environment for people to express themselves or highlight what is going on in their professional and personal lives – something he says benefits staff greatly.
“When you’re not feeling at the peak of your mental fitness, negative feelings or challenges can be enhanced or magnified,” Hirst explains.
“Finding ways to support people to proactively manage their mental wellbeing is really important for us at Just Eat, and we work with a number of mental health and wellbeing organisations to enable us to do that. Supporting people to bring their full selves to work, whatever that may be, is essential to our success.”
Equal Playing Fields
A key factor in addressing ongoing concerns over mental health in the workplace, Professor Williams believes, will be to establish an “equal playing field” in regard to the perception of mental health compared to physical health.
If an employee on holiday were to break their leg, the likely outcome once they returned would be to discuss the ordeal among peers and colleagues. The same openness is unlikely to be applied if that person were to have experienced mental health issues.
“We need to try and have an equal playing field with mental and physical health in workplace settings where people can freely talk about low mood or stress in the same way as coping with any other challenging illness,” Prof Williams insists.
“People often have different ways of perceiving mental health problems as being different from physical health problems” he explains. “When in fact, it’s very similar from the point of view that you would see a health practitioner and there would be assessments to establish what the problems are.”
Simple changes to workplace practices and company culture could go a long way to fostering a more open environment in this regard and help break down the perceived barriers that envelope mental health issues.
“Depression is a chronic condition and so is anxiety, so employers are required by law, as it is a disability, to make reasonable adjustments for people to be able to cope with their symptoms in a workplace setting,” he says.
“Traditionally with things like anxiety or depression there are symptoms where people feel exhausted and tired; they often wake up in the early hours, feel worse in the morning but better as the day goes on,” he explains. “A reasonable adjustment for someone with anxiety or depression, for example, might be able to start work slightly later or work later into the afternoon to compensate for that.”
- Professor Chris Williams and Stu Hirst will take part in a panel discussion at DIGIT Expo 2019 exploring the topic of mental health in the workplace. For more information, visit www.digitexpo.uk