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Mental Health Awareness Week - the tech industry crisis that organizations need to tackle

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett May 16, 2019
Two-thirds of tech workers feel stressed and over half (52%) have suffered either anxiety or depression at some point.

Person holding face in hands depressed concept © fotolia
( © fotolia)

Tech workers are at least five times more depressed than the UK average, according to the latest research. Five times. That is quite a statistic to think about in Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK.  There is no reason to believe the same is not true elsewhere in the world.

Put another way, while the country’s Mental Health Foundation indicates that between 4% and 10% of the general population will experience depression, which includes anxiety, at some point in their life, the figure rises to more like 52% in the tech sector, a study by the British Interactive Media Association (BIMA) has revealed.

While two thirds of the 3,000 workers questioned said their work made them feel stressed, a worrying 13% experienced this strain on a continual basis, leading to symptoms, such as headaches, anxiety attacks and sleeplessness as a result. Some 28% also acknowledged having been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition, with more women (32%) finding themselves in this position than men (23%).

As for the roles most susceptible to stress, the report entitled ‘The voices of industry: BIMA Tech Inclusion and Diversity Report 2019’ revealed that people in business ops roles experienced by far the highest levels on a constant basis (27%). The most pressured roles overall though consisted of web design and development as well as admin and project management.

The kinds of individuals most likely to be affected, meanwhile, include those with a long-term health impairment (83%) and people who are neurodivergent: Tourette’s syndrome and dyscalculia (90%), dyspraxia (83%), autism (79%), dyslexia (78%) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (69%).

Those who prefer to self-describe their sexuality (82%) and bisexuals also suffer high levels of workplace stress, as do returning parents, particularly if they came back to the office in the last 12 months (71%). Other depressed or anxious demographic groups worth singling out include 18-to-34 year olds and women (58% respectively).

So just what is going on here and what can employers do to improve the situation?

The problem, believes Sarah Lockhart, Principal Consultant for Health and Well-Being at benefits management software provider Thomsons Online Benefits, stems from the fact that the tech industry is such a fast-moving one. While this dynamic is particularly marked among start-ups and rapidly-growing digital businesses, it is also a fact of life even in more established companies. She explains:

Tech is a very fast-paced industry and the deadlines are tight. The workforce often comprises a high proportion of young people, who have less experience dealing with client expectations and are often less resilient to knock-backs, which can damage mental wellness. Tech also remains a male-dominated industry – and research has shown that men are less likely to seek mental health support than women due to the stigma that still surrounds it.

Stress, anxiety, depression

A tendency towards long working days also does not help, believes Mike Blake, UK Well-Being Lead at risk management consultancy, Willis Towers Watson:

The long-hours culture is a big stressor in the workplace as people have to be able to switch off or ultimately that way burnout lies, no matter how tough you are.

Interestingly, Dr Anuj Chaturvedi, a family General Practitioner and Medical Director of concierge medicine provider, HealthClic, also points to the high numbers of foreign tech workers suffering from anxiety and depression as a result of finding themselves in a new culture. He explains:

People are very mobile these days and, while it’s great experience, when you come to a new country, you inevitably have less of a social support network and don’t necessarily know the rules, which can be very stressful.

As to why other groups, such as neurodivergent individuals and women, may suffer proportionately higher levels of stress, Lockhart again believes it is often a result of social isolation and/or difficulties in creating a good work-life balance due to the nature of the work:

Clients expect tech companies to be constantly on call and connected across different time zones, so often the 9-5 working day doesn’t exist.

Positive interaction with colleagues also tends to be an important factor in good workplace mental health, not only to maximise output, but also to reduce anxiety levels and boost wellbeing. But women, especially with young families, can struggle to fit into a male-dominated world and/or balance their personal and professional lives. Neurodivergent workers, who are often relatively highly represented in the tech space, often require additional support to help them thrive too.

But it is not always easy to spot signs of mental ill health. Common symptoms include people becoming withdrawn, taking excessive time off, failing to hit deadlines and allowing the quality of their work to slip. Other signs consist of a lack of care over personal appearance, frequent minor illnesses, sudden weight loss or gain, irritability and a withdrawal from social interaction.

Just to make things even more difficult though, it is vital that managers keep an eye out for such signals because, as Lockhart says:

Some people become so caught up trying to cope with the day-to-day that they don’t even realise they have a problem until they’re encouraged to step back and address it. But the impacts of mental health issues are far-reaching. While the individual themselves will suffer most, employers can see a rise in disengagement and presenteeism among their workforce that negatively impacts productivity. Managers, meanwhile, must deal with the impacts on their team, which includes lowered morale and a heightened workload.

How to avoid paying the price

In fact, to put a concrete figure on it, the World Health Organization indicates that depression and anxiety, which affect 300 million people around the world, cost the global economy a vast $1 trillion in lost productivity each year.

As to what employers can do about it, the most important thing is to encourage a culture in which staff feel able to talk about their mental health problems. An exemplar of what can be achieved here is Barclays Bank, which introduced a ground-breaking campaign in 2013 called ‘This is me’. The aim was to end the stigma around workplace mental ill health by giving employees forums in which to discuss their issues and challenges more openly.

Unfortunately though, research undertaken by Mental Health First Aid England (MHFA England) and Bauer Media UK indicates that a vast 86% of workers are not so lucky. As a result, they still feel uncomfortable talking about common mental health matters compared with the (still high) 58% who are unhappy discussing their physical health conditions.

But as Vicki Cockman, Workplace Lead at MHFA England, which provides the mental health equivalent of physical first aid training, says:

Workplace culture is central to this. If we don’t create workplaces where people feel able to come forward if they’re struggling – without fear of shame or judgement – the more people will be struggling in silence. This can mean someone is unwell for longer than they would otherwise be, or it can exacerbate an issue.

As a result, MHFAE, Bauer Media and UK mental health campaigner Natasha Devon have jointly launched a new ‘Where’s your Head At’ workplace manifesto commitment to encourage employers to implement the six ‘core standards’ set out by the UK government’s Thriving at Work review. These include coming up with a ‘mental health at work’ plan and routinely monitoring progress towards meeting the goals laid out in it.

Taking such a tack is important, Cockman attests, because the secret to success is in taking a ‘whole organisation’ approach based on prevention rather than cure, in which wellbeing is “woven into the culture across policies and processes and employees’ mental health is prioritised”. Leaders should also model the behaviour they would like their staff to follow – such as leaving the office at a reasonable time or not answering emails at weekends - in order to unlock the “psychological security that people need to thrive in work and life”, she adds.

But to really embed cultural change and make it sustainable, Willis Towers Watson’s Blake believes that mental health and wellbeing goals must be included in objectives and key performance indicators (KPIs). He explains:

If you make the objectives quite broad, such as to improve the mental health of employees, your KPI could be that you’ll hold mindfulness sessions every week for six months. It has to be something you can measure though, so you’d need to look at engagement levels and also do regular surveys to see how people are feeling subjectively. But there’s no magic bullet.

My take

Mental health matters may have moved up the corporate agenda as part of the much talked about corporate health and wellbeing trend, but until the social stigma - and fear - surrounding the issue start to be broken down, success in tackling it will only ever be limited. 

If you feel you need help dealing with any of the issues described above, please contact Mind here


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