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Supporting Mental Health in the Tech Workplace

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Key Takeaways

  • One of the biggest challenges in promoting mental wellness in the workplace stems from the fact mental illness is stigmatized and not discussed openly.
  • The only person who can make a diagnosis is a qualified mental health professional.
  • While 1 in 5 adults are living with mental illness at any given time, OSMI's research suggests that the number is higher in tech.
  • We need to do a much better job of supporting marginalized people in the tech industry.
  • Ultimately, the people with the most power to effect change are those in leadership roles (including senior developers, technical leads, and managers).

At any given time, 1 in 5 adults are living with mental illness, such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or ADHD. At the same time, the tech industry is characterized by high stress, long hours, workplace pressure to be available by phone and email at all times, social pressure to network and make a name for yourself, and the precarious balance between doing good by contributing to open-source, and maintaining a semblance of free time. Given how this demanding environment blurs the line between our professional and personal life, how can we ensure that the most vulnerable among us aren't being left behind?

After my best friend, a web developer at a Bay Area startup, committed suicide in September 2016, I began volunteering for Open Sourcing Mental Illness (OSMI), a non-profit organization raising awareness about mental health in the tech industry. I have represented OSMI by giving presentations about mental health in tech and hosting an OSMI booth in expo halls at roughly 20 tech conferences and meetups around the world. However, as a mentally healthy ally, my biggest role in this community has been to listen to folks like Ed Finkler (our founder) and our other volunteers tell their stories, and to think critically about what folks like me can do to help.

The article below discusses what I've learned and is also a summary of my talk "Empathy as a Service: Supporting Mental Health in the Tech Workplace" which I give at conferences and meetups around the world.

Why we don't talk about mental health

Mental health is very heavily stigmatized in our society. It tends to be (incorrectly) viewed as a shameful personal deficiency, and as such it's not something that most people feel comfortable admitting they are dealing with. There's a lot of misunderstanding about just the words "mental illness", too; if you ask a random person on the street what they think of when you say those words, they're likely to think of something like schizophrenia, but schizophrenia is actually fairly uncommon. The most common diagnoses that fall under this umbrella are depression and generalized anxiety disorder. It's also an "invisible illness" or disability – you often can't tell from someone's outward appearance or even from their day-to-day behavior that they have a mental illness. Then once it becomes known that someone does have mental illness, the reactions they get from others tend to be: disbelief ("you seem fine to me"), reproach ("you just need to will yourself to get better"), and shame ("I can't believe you're feeling sad when kids in Africa are starving"). All of this means that those with mental illness do not feel very incentivized to speak up. This is sad because it is a public health issue just as much as, say, diabetes. When diabetes diagnoses started to increase in the 20th Century, we responded by instituting reforms across our society to promote exercise, reduce excess consumption of sugary foods and beverages, and address the growing rates of obesity. Mental illness is more common than diabetes, but you just don't see the same public response.

How can we recognize if someone might have major depression

The most common symptoms are sadness, loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities, and tiredness or lack of energy. However, research in the field of psychology is starting to show that there's a much bigger range of emotions and symptoms that people can experience when they are suffering from depression. In particular, something that I find really fascinating is that recent studies have suggested that when women suffer from depression, they experience the symptoms traditionally associated with depression, while men are more likely to experience symptoms like angry outbursts and irritability, and anxiety, agitation and restlessness, which are not commonly associated with depression. This also means that men tend to go undiagnosed for longer and are less likely to receive treatment. In general, I would say that if someone's behavior has markedly changed in recent months – if they seem tired or unengaged, and if their personality has changed, particularly if they seem angrier or grumper – that might suggest that there's something going on. I do want to caution everyone, though, that at the end of the day, the only person who can make a diagnosis is a qualified mental health professional. If you're worried about a friend or a co-worker, try to get them in to see a therapist or at least talk to their primary care physician, who should be able to make an appropriate referral.

The reasons for people not speaking up when they have a mental health issue

At the end of the day, it all comes down to fear. On the whole, people living with mental illness do not want to be treated differently; they may need help and accommodation in specific instances, but as an example, your friend who just told you they have depression didn't just develop that overnight. They've likely been living with it for years and either were only just diagnosed, or maybe didn't tell you. But they want you to treat them the same way you've been treating them this whole time, to continue your friendship in the same way. In personal relationships, this is somewhat straightforward; in a professional setting, it's trickier. Having mental illness means that in certain discrete cases (which can be handled well, usually if all parties involved are aware and on the same page about it), you cannot do your job as effectively as someone who is mentally healthy. Sometimes you just cannot do your job, period – you may just need to take some time off for your health. Given this fact, the idea of telling your boss about your mental illness seems overwhelmingly intimidating for most folks. We live in a very performance-oriented culture, and it's very easy to assume that admitting this may mean you won't be considered for that promotion or could even be outright dismissed from your position (which is technically illegal in most places, but most of us have heard of cases of this happening anyway, usually due to the company giving some other reason for eliminating the position). On a related note, one challenge is that the less power you have, the more real these fears are. So the people least likely to speak up are the people who are already marginalized and vulnerable to begin with: women and non-binary folks, people of color, recent hires who are still in the early stages of their career, adults over 50, and people with other disabilities.

What organizations can do to remove these fears

At the end of the day, this is something that largely needs to happen top-down. Those at the management, director and C-suite levels of the organization need to convey the message that the company cares deeply about its employees' health and wellbeing (and signal that their understanding goes way beyond providing a ping-pong table!). The best way to do that is to be as generous and flexible as possible with your sick-leave policy – try to exceed the industry standard if you can. At the very least, normalize the idea that it's fine to use sick days for mental health. Don't require a doctor's note. Trust your employees. Be flexible and allow folks to work from home when they need to (though make sure that it doesn't become the expectation that you'll WFH anytime you're sick – sometimes you need to spend the entire day offline to get better, and that should be OK too). Trust your employees. Yes, I've intentionally said that twice because trust is so incredibly important.

Overall, the goal should be to get to the point where anyone feels comfortable at least talking to their manager one-on-one, and letting them know that they have a mental illness, because their manager is the person best equipped to ensure that they get the accommodations they need. Their manager is also the best person to reassure them that this admission won't mean an end to their career goals; if anything, this means that both the employee and the manager should work doubly hard to guarantee that there is a clear path to that next promotion. That said, this kind of culture is not something that just emerges overnight – it is something that will take time to build up and may require, among other things, additional training for the management team to ensure that they can handle these kinds of challenging situations appropriately. Mental Health First Aid is a great training course this; while it doesn't focus on the workplace specifically, it’s still highly applicable to managers, teaches a lot about mental health and how to communicate with folks experiencing mental illness, and is just an all-around great way to cultivate empathy. On a similar note, invest in Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) training, because these efforts need to be intersectional. If your changes lead to a state where a white male developer feels comfortable talking to his manager about his depression, but a black female intern does not, then you haven't done enough.

The work being done by Open Sourcing Mental Illness

Open Sourcing Mental Illness is a distributed, volunteer-based, non-profit organization that seeks to change the way we talk about mental health in the tech industry. We focus our efforts in three primary areas: raising awareness, providing resources, and conducting research. We raise awareness primarily by sending volunteers like myself to speak at conferences around the world about mental health in tech; there's maybe a dozen of us who are currently actively engaged in speaking, and each of us has a talk with a slightly different angle based on our experience and ideas for how we can make things better. In terms of providing resources, we have a set of handbooks dealing primarily with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and how that applies to mental health, as well as a blog that's a mix of personal stories and updates on psychology research that might be of interest to our audience. Our research is centered on the Mental Health in Tech Survey that we put out every year, which is open to anyone who works at a tech company or in a tech role at a non-tech company, and which allows us to gauge how mental health is viewed in our industry and helps us figure out where to focus more of our efforts in the future. The 2019 survey just opened up for responses; you can take it here. You can (and should) take the survey even if you aren't living with mental illness; all data points are equally valuable. Many thanks in advance to any InfoQ readers who take the time to do the survey!

Relocating to get a job

This is a tough issue because it's so intensely personal. For one person, it may be a great option, and for another person, it may be terrible. I myself have gone through five moves of more than 350km each in my life, and it's been fine, but then again I'm also a mentally healthy person with a ton of privilege. For someone in a much more vulnerable position, like someone living with mental illness, it may not be the best idea. In particular, for those with mental illness, an issue is that it forces them to move away from their therapist and all of the support structures that they have built up over the years, and that can be a challenge, especially because it can take years to find a good therapist whom you trust and are able to establish a strong relationship with. So while I wouldn't say that nobody should relocate for a job ever again, at the end of the day this is still a personal decision that may be right for somepeople – I do think that companies should become a lot more flexible and accept solutions like remote work. When most of our jobs are done online anyway, remote work really ought to be the industry standard.

Preventing loneliness and isolation when working remotely

I've heard nothing but praise for co-working spaces, which are cropping up everywhere. For a lot of folks who work remotely full-time, it's incredibly important that they get out of the house on a regular basis and have the opportunity to have those serendipitous "water cooler conversations" with others; co-working spaces are great for that. The key thing to realize is that you don't even need to go to a co-working space every day in order to reap the benefits of it; even if you work at the co-working space 1 or 2 days a week and work from home the rest, you'll still reap the benefits of that experience. Aside from that, any company with remote workers should make sure they are regularly flying in their remote employees or organizing company-wide off-site events to ensure that everyone gets a chance to bond in person and feels like they're an integrated part of the team. That face-time is still incredibly important.

What managers, tech leads, and senior developers can do to help

The most critical thing is to respect work-life balance and boundaries, and the best way to do that is to lead by example, because actions speak so much louder than words. That means leaving the office on time and only working 40 hours a week at the most. Don't work on the weekends. Don't answer that email at 2am even though you're up and you've already read it – if you answer now, that signals that everyone else is expected to do the same in the future. Take regular vacations. If you work for a company that has a set quota of vacation days per person, use allof them yourself. Don't tell people how to reach you while you're away. Maybe even uninstall Slack from your phone while you're gone. Take time off when you're sick, and if you feel comfortable doing so, be open with your team and say: "I'm taking a mental health day." Overall, don't be afraid to be vulnerable. Once you're in a leadership role, it's easy to think that you need to be superhuman, but in fact, the opposite is true: vulnerability is one of your best assets, because it makes you more relatable and approachable. As I mentioned earlier, one of your goals should be for someone living with mental illness to come to you and say, "Hey, here's this thing I'm dealing with, and I might need your help." They're less likely to do that if you've painted this picture of yourself as a superhuman who is perfectly healthy and doesn't have any struggles. When you struggle with something, be it a technical issue or a health issue or a personal issue, talk about it. And soon enough, you'll find that others will follow suit. And that's the only way, ultimately, that we can end the stigma, which is the biggest barrier to mental wellness.

What we must all do together

This is the tough part, because there are certain things that will only change if we all, collectively, do them; one person alone can't change an entire culture. The first thing is that we need to do a much better job of supporting marginalized people in the tech industry, because chronic harassment, bullying, and microaggressions can lead to depression, exacerbate eating disorders, and cause or worsen other mental illnesses. Also, people from marginalized groups often feel they have to over-perform (to counteract the myth of "the bar had to be lowered to allow you into tech"), which leads to increased stress and a greater likelihood of burnout. Overall, we need to stop working ourselves to death, and that includes this culture of over-emphasizing hard work and idolization of people like Elon Musk and his toxic "nobody changed the world on 40 hours a week" quote. On a similar note, we should stop saying that the only way someone can truly succeed in the tech industry is by relocating to Silicon Valley and working for one of the big tech companies or startups there. There are so many other viable career paths that can make an impact, and as I mentioned earlier, at the very least, remote work should become the industry standard. And finally, we need to end the stigma of talking about our feelings and the idea that engineers and technical people don't have empathy. Empathy is something we all have the capacity for, we just need to choose to exercise it.

Nara Kasbergen, spoke about supporting mental health in the tech workplace at GrowIT 2018. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&A, summaries, and articles.

About the Author

Nara Kasbergen is a senior full-stack developer in NPR (National Public Radio)’s Digital Media group, where she serves as the technical lead for emerging platforms. She is passionate about Developer Experience (DX), community-building, the intersection of humans and code, and her volunteer work for Open Sourcing Mental Illness, a non-profit organization raising awareness about mental health in the tech industry. She hails from The Netherlands and has lived in Munich, Houston, Pittsburgh, Tokyo, and New York City, prior to settling down in Washington, DC.

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