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InfoQ Homepage Articles Well-Being with Dr O'Sullivan, Part 1: Tech-Ing Care of Your Team's Mental Health

Well-Being with Dr O'Sullivan, Part 1: Tech-Ing Care of Your Team's Mental Health

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Key Takeaways

  • Forget about stress balls and gong baths. Consider what practical support your team needs and ensure they get it
  • Deliberately and consciously manage communication channels and messaging
  • Actively and routinely monitor your team’s wellbeing
  • Facilitate peer and social support
  • Be ready to signpost - people need more direction when under stress

You’re in lockdown. You’ve got targets to meet. The pandemic is likely impacting your team’s personal and professional lives in a myriad of different ways. Suddenly, going for a chat over coffee isn’t possible. How can you provide managerial support that will protect their mental health? Here are five evidence-based approaches to supporting your team that can support their wellbeing and helps keep the team working well under challenging conditions.

Forget about stress balls and gong baths. Consider what practical support your team needs.

A lot of our mental health is influenced by social, biological and environmental factors. When people are working from home it can be more challenging to get enough exercise or maintain a healthy posture when working hunched over kitchen tables. Taking care of our bodies is essential to taking care of our minds. Research has consistently shown that people with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and arthritis are two to three times more likely to have a common mental health condition. Ask yourself, does your team have the practical tools in their homework environments to maintain their physical health? Do they have time in their working week to exercise? What resources could you make available to assist them? Could you give time, money or loan equipment?

Job security can have a big impact on mental health. While some people in the tech industry are relatively secure during the pandemic, many have lost their jobs or their jobs may be at risk. It is also important to think about partners’ job security. Even if your team's work is secure, some of them may be suddenly supporting families on a single salary. You may not be able to promise that work will always be there, but it can be reassuring if you can pass on accurate messaging from the company about their security or available financial support.

Focus on the factors that are within your control as a manager. The Health and Safety Executive has created stress management standards that identify six core workplace factors that contribute to stress at work: demands, control, support, relationships, role and change. They have a suite of resources, UK Health and Safety Executive's - Stress management standards including stress risk assessment tools, that can help identify pain points in your team.

For example, many tech companies are facing a dramatic increase in demands as they try to adapt systems to accommodate an increase in users, and transition companies to remote working. This increase in demand is rarely met with an increase in resourcing. Managers need to help gatekeep their teams’ time, support them in negotiating unreasonable demands, and if there is an expectation that people need to work over their hours, their needs to be assurance around how long they will be expected to work at this capacity. It’s important to bear in mind that people will have different thresholds for working at this level.

Manage communication channels and messaging

Diverse media and communication channels can leave employees feeling bombarded and their attention depleted. Even during business as usual, tech teams utilize a huge number of different communication channels. If people are taking in messages from emails, Slack, Jira, CI/CD pipeline, teams … the list goes on, their concentration is broken with each ping. This can hinder their performance, and leave them struggling to cope. Try to minimize the number of notifications and unnecessary cognitive load on people. People can often worry that they won’t be seen to be performing if they turn off some notifications. It is worth having explicit conversations with your team about how notifications are managed. Can they turn some off at certain times of the day to allow time for uninterrupted work?

There should be an official company Covid-19 comms plan. Company comms should use clear and simple messages, with accurate information from reputable sources. Managers should refer to these comms rather than drawing down information from contradictory sources. Clear communication can help to mitigate worry and uncertainty staff may be experiencing, providing an important sense of control.

Actively and routinely monitoring wellbeing

Everyone goes through periods of feeling well and unwell. Our emotions are largely functional, crafted by evolution. Doing things that are good for our survival, such as socializing and sex, are purposefully pleasurable to reinforce that behavior. Stimuli that could harm us, like a saber tooth tiger, or a telling off from our boss, evoke negative emotions so that we learn to avoid these stimuli.

Emotions are designed to be transient. If we feel bad, usually, with a bit of time we will eventually feel better. This is true for even extreme stressors, such as exposure to a traumatic event, or like a serious accident. Most people will be distressed initially but will begin to recover after a few weeks, without any intervention.

We should be careful of pathologizing normal stress reactions and hold in mind that ‘normal’ looks different for everyone. One of the most common questions managers ask is ‘how do I spot when someone is becoming unwell?’. The trick is keeping an eye on the people we are supporting, knowing what ‘normal’ looks like for them, and monitoring how they are coping following a stressful event. There is no checklist for mental health that you can apply to everyone. If someone is behaving differently, be curious and ask them about it. This can be as simple as saying ‘I’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself lately. How are you doing?’

The very act of checking in with someone can be an intervention in itself. Checking in might be a quick personal IM or time at the beginning of each weekly team meeting for people to say a little about their personal space. Dig beyond ‘I am fine’. It can be a playful prompt to ask if that means they are feeling F**ked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional - obviously this language is to be used with discretion! When our distress is seen, it helps us feel secure and can soothe us. If a person is experiencing prolonged high levels of distress or deteriorating over a few weeks, this is when it’s important to ensure support can be stepped up. As a manager, keep an eye out for signs that someone may be struggling to take care of themselves (growing a pandemic beard and no haircuts aside!) and people not being themselves.

If you don’t have a pastoral comms routine in place, now is the time to start. The way we are working is changing which provides an opportunity for you to reflect with your team on what social habits they want to start.

Facilitate social support

The military has recognised the value of formal peer support when working in challenging conditions for a long time, embedding it in their ways of working. Good social support during difficult times can lower the risk to mental health, while poor social support is associated with anxiety, depression and PTSD. Resilience is not something that exists in a person but rather exists in the social bonds between people. Social support should be facilitated horizontally, i.e. between peers, and vertically, i.e. with leadership. Provide a regular forum for employees to express their concerns and ask questions. Consider formalizing points to check-in on your team and with individuals, having people buddy up, and creating virtual social spaces. One example might be to have a virtual meet up for 15 minutes in the morning that is specifically aimed at non-work chat. It can be useful to hold in the morning as people often comment on how they’ve slept. Sleep is a really helpful and socially acceptable litmus test for wellbeing and a catalyst for deeper conversation. Another idea could be virtual gaming socials.

Be ready to signpost

While most people won’t need formal support, it is important to have in mind what options are available to your team if needed. When distressed, it becomes harder to problem-solve. Be prepared to sit down with someone and talk through what formal support may be most appropriate, this could be more practical (e.g. financial support services, legal advice) or directly focussed on psychological needs (e.g. therapy). Depending on where you live and work, there will be different support services available. Check out what your company offers. Many employers have an Employee Assistance Programme that can provide practical and psychological support, or health insurance that covers treatment for mental ill-health. There may be many great charities in your area. For those living in the UK, the NHS has a directory of mental health services that you can search by postcode. For those outside the UK, do lookout for a support services directory.

Lastly, to be able to take care of your team you need to take care of yourself. It’s like when you are on an airplane and you need to put on your own oxygen mask first before you can tend to other people. The next article in the ‘Tech-Ing Care of Mental Health’ series, goes through practical tools for looking after your own mental health.

For further ideas on how you can put these tips into practice, check out our podcast….

About the Author

Dr. Michelle O’Sullivan, clinical psychologist, provides advice for managers looking after their teams’ mental wellbeing. Ideas for remote working and pandemic times as well as normal work conditions. Practical researched tips to help your team to stay performing to their best.

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