Tech has a problem, and it’s not one that’s going to be fixed with higher-spec servers or the latest software, because this one is “all in the head”.
I count myself quite fortunate to have worked alongside some great people in some brilliant environments, and often on interesting projects. There’s been one common thread that has been there throughout all the possible permutations of teams, environments, and projects though; and that’s the underlying question of mental wellbeing.
I’ve also been witness to some pretty unhealthy coping strategies too - and if you’ve worked in tech for long enough, then I’m sure you can probably identify some of the same patterns. Whether it’s the one who drops a “smart drug” (or “nootropic”) during a release cycle, the one who drinks to excess regularly after work - often arriving hungover of a morning, or even the one who simply closes themselves off to the outside world.. there’s clearly an issue in our industry.
How big is the problem?
Before we go any further, we actually need to make sure that these observations amount to more than just the anecdotes of someone who has happened to work in a string of environments with some relatively rare issues.
In the UK, it’s very difficult to find data on the prevelance of mental health issues in a given sector. Whilst the Office of National Statistics (ONS) can provide data related to suicide registrations, and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has data pertaining to work related stress, beyond that it becomes a lot more difficult.
To get some hard data, we have to look towards the US - or specifically, a paper presented at the “49th ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education”. Presented in early 2018, the authors noted previous research that suggested the prevelance of mental health issues was a shocking 1 in 2 people:
Furthermore, recent research suggests that 50% of those working in the tech community have been diagnosed with a mental illness, a statistic that may actually underestimate the problem because of stigmas in certain cultures and communities around seeking mental health services.
Fortunately there are now groups that are trying to cast the spotlight on mental health issues, and one such group is MHPrompt who claim they want to “start a conversation about mental health in tech”.
It’s obviously incredibly important to foster an open attitude towards mental health, and more so when that means cultivating an environment where relevant issues can be spoken about freely. However, it does beg the question: what else can we do?
Scrap the macho bullsh*t
I’ve been outspoken about the idea of “Start-Up Culture” quite often, and it’s not difficult to see how an individuals mental wellbeing would be impacted when subjected to the cliche philosophy of soldiering on through periods of long hours, poor diet, and reduced sleep.
Whilst it would be remiss to pretend that this phenomena was purely limited to the start-up realm - and I’ve unfortunately witnessed it during interviews and meetings at more established companies - it is more pervasive in this community.
Ultimately, this attitude represents a “law of deminishing returns” - whereby productivity is actively reduced when staff members are subjected to these conditions.
Using Education as a Tool
It’s not unusual for companies to provide their technical staff with subscriptions to the likes of Pluralsight or Safari Books; as it’s recognised that continuing education is an investment for the whole company.
Whilst it’s admirable to equip staff members with the tools required to stay current and well-versed in their field, similar strategies could be used to provide staff with the knowledge to recognise deteriorating mental health, and more importantly, how to prevent their mental health from deteriorating in the first place.
Knowledge Sharing is key
On one occasion, when chatting with an individual who worked in HR at a larger London start-up, I was surprised to hear just how well rehearsed their procedure was for supporting employees with mental health issues. The surprise was not that they were confident and capable, but it was just how much experience they had in dealing with such issues.
This experience had led them to develop an internal framework for supporting employees with mental health issues, and it was surprisingly centered around the employees wellbeing - as opposed to the legal obligations that the company faced.
I’m sure this company is not alone in it’s delicate handling of mental wellbeing issues, but through conversations with friends at different companies, it’s sadly a rarity to find such an adept approach. With this in mind, there’s clearly a need for knowledge sharing amongst companies, and arguably a framework (or “best practice”) for these situations.
The “Open Sourcing Mental Illness” initiative provides literature for different audiences (including HR and Executives) which could form the basis of such a framework.
Ultimately though, there’s very little replacement for good ol’ friendships and mutual support. By breaking down the barriers to discussing mental health issues, you also break down any isolation - providing a non-judgemental situation whereby individuals can both support and monitor eachothers wellbeing.
For a long time I was in a WhatsApp conversation - complete with a humourously self-deprecating title about mental illness - where two colleagues and I would attempt to coach eachother through our own issues. Soon that group grew to 5, and now it has around 10 members - and the subject is no longer “mental health”.. as that’s just become another everyday conversation topic amongst friends.
There are some good initiatives for mental health awareness in the technology industry, including the previous mentioned MHPrompt and OSMI, but ultimately this is an issue that we all need to improve upon.
Not only does there need to be fundamental support at the executive and human-resources level, but at a grassroots level we all need to understand the warning signs, and be open to fostering environments where mental health can be discussed freely.
*Addendum: I edited this post in March 2018, to include a reference to some research that provided the mental illess prevelance rate of 50% in technology.