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InfoQ Homepage Articles Well-Being with Dr O'Sullivan, Part 2: Tech-Ing Care of Your Own Mental Health

Well-Being with Dr O'Sullivan, Part 2: Tech-Ing Care of Your Own Mental Health

Key Takeaways

  • A pandemic is an abnormal situation. In such an abnormal situation, feeling stressed, worried or anxious is a common experience. 
  • Practical strategies like structured problem-solving, mindfulness and having a designated ‘worry time’ can change our relationship with worry. 
  • Being kind and giving thanks can support our wellbeing. A kudos card or listing three things you are grateful for at the end of the day can go a long way.
  • While so much may be outside of our control, it’s important to focus on what we can do. This should include taking care of our bodies - eating well, exercising and getting good quality sleep. Try setting a lock down goal that is achievable under the current restrictions. 
  • Watching the news can impact our mood even when we are not in the middle of a pandemic. Reflect on the type and amount of media you are consuming. Ask yourself if it is serving you?  It can be helpful to put a set time on when you engage with the media

Life can pull the rug out from under us at any time. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19, the pace of change in the tech industry placed a high demand on its workforce. Covid-19 has pulled the rug out collectively from under everyone. Our lives have been changed in the short and long-term in countless ways that are unique. Now we’re looking at a landscape where some people may be furloughed or their work may be at risk, others are having to work harder than ever to transition systems for remote working and coping with a dramatic increase in users. Considering changes at work along with demands in our personal lives - caring responsibilities, bereavement, and not having access to many of our leisure activities - it is unsurprising that reports of anxiety are at an all-time high

High levels of burnout and psychological distress have been reported in the tech industry under business as usual conditions, with one survey finding almost 60% of workers reported experiencing burnout. A pandemic is an abnormal situation. In such an abnormal situation, feeling stressed, worried, or anxious is a common experience. The human brain has an amazing capacity to time travel. Thanks to our frontal lobes, we are able to imagine all sorts of scenarios that could play out in the future. This is most advantageous for us as a species, allowing us to foresee problems and manage them. However, sometimes the problems are not so easy to solve, and we can get stuck, our minds going over the same worries over and over again. It can become difficult to think about anything else. Although some people are sensation-seekers and enjoy novelty, all humans crave a degree of certainty that ensures safety and survival. We want our worlds to be predictable and reliable. We are all facing a lot of uncertainty at the moment and problems that can feel unsolvable. Here are some evidence-based strategies from psychological science that can help manage worry:

Get practical with some problem-solving

Excessive stress, anxiety and low mood can impact our cognitive functioning, making it difficult for us to solve problems by ourselves. Worry is our brain attempting to problem-solve, but it doesn’t do a very good job at it. A good place to start for managing worry is sitting down and seeing if a formal problem-solving exercise will help. Problem-solving is a very common tool used in therapy, with research supporting its effectiveness in the treatment of anxiety and depression. Using this template, try to take a systematic approach to work through to a solution. Many of you will recognise this format as very similar to the Lean PDCA cycle. Take, for example, the problem might be that your workload is too high while you are taking care of your kids at home. Try brainstorming lots of different solutions, including the weird and the wonderful. This could include maintaining excessive working hours, skipping your unit tests (you know it will be fine…), locking your children in the shed, talking to your teammates about committing to fewer story points in the sprint, or raising with your manager that your workload isn’t sustainable under the current circumstances. Try exploring fully the pros and cons of each option. It might be useful to talk this through with someone at home. Choose one solution and experiment with it (maybe don’t experiment with locking your children in the shed!). Keep a record of the outcome and what you learned from it. 

This process can help us move away from futile worry which focuses on things that haven’t yet happened and don’t provide solutions if they do. Problem-solving is about dealing directly with the issues at hand and devising a plan to tackle them.

Postpone your worry

Worry can be centered around very valid concerns. However, worry can be like an uninvited guest, intruding in our day to day lives when we are trying to focus on a project, taking care of our loved ones, or trying to relax. Our instinct can be to either kick out this uninvited guest, tussling with it as we try to push it out the door or to let it take over our house. One way of dealing with worry is to postpone it to a specific time, essentially inviting it over for tea at a time that works for you. At the designated worry time, you can then try going through the problem-solving exercise. You can download more information on postponing worry here and use this template to help grow your skills in postponing worry. Don’t conflate postponing worry with procrastination. Make sure you are allocating time to address arising issues, and utilise practical problem-solving. 

Try giving mindfulness a go

If you haven’t already given mindfulness a go, now is a good time to start. Mindfulness is about cultivating present-moment awareness, grounding ourselves in the here and now. It can put the breaks on the mental time travel we engage in, help us to postpone worry, and help us take a step back from dramas that can immerse us. It is not a panacea and may not be helpful for everyone, however, there is a growing evidence-base for its effectiveness in improving mental health. There is also research indicating that mindfulness may facilitate performance at work. Cognitively demanding work needs to be balanced out with breaks and downtime for our brains. Downtime does not equate with idleness for our brains but is actually a time where our brains are busy processing new experiences and learning. Mindfulness is one tool to unload your brain, helping you to return refreshed and ready to attack the next microservice. There are countless apps and youtube videos that you can download to start developing your practice.

Giving to others

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, we have seen some of the worst of human behaviour, but we have also seen some of the best. As we are social animals, our survival is dependent on the success of the group. Cooperating groups are more likely to survive than groups who don’t, and so thanks to natural selection, we are hardwired to look out for each other. Doing good activates the reward pathways in our brain, reinforcing our behaviour that is beneficial to our survival as a species. In a nutshell, giving is good for the giver as well as the receiver, and can contribute to our wellbeing. Whether sharing your time or your resources, there’s research to show that it can support your happiness. It doesn’t have to be a huge grand gesture, even a kudos card or other small act can be beneficial. The Mental Health Foundation has put together ideas for random acts of kindness during the pandemic.

Practice gratitude

Our brains are biased, noticing things that may harm us rather than the good things that have happened. Gratitude can support our social and emotional wellbeing. There are lots of different things you can do to practice gratitude, from keeping a diary and listing three things you are grateful for at the end of the day or sharing with a loved one, to writing a thank you note to those who have impacted your life. You could embed this into your work routine by focussing on what went well in retrospectives rather than just glossing over it as we often tend to do.

Taking care of our bodies

Taking care of bodies is essential to take care of our minds. They are the usual things we all know we should be doing, but really need to be prioritised during challenging times: 

  • Eating a balanced diet. Avoiding too much sugar, caffeine and alcohol can make it easier to regulate our mood and energy levels.
  • Regular exercise. There is a wealth of research that supports the mental health benefits of exercise. While we might be limited around the types of exercise we can do, under most countries’ restrictions, people can go out for a walk, run, or cycle everyday. There are also lots of online classes available for all sorts of things from yoga to dancing. 
  • Ensure you are getting enough sleep. You can download tips on managing your sleep here.

Some people might be tempted to start letting daytime routine slide, working later in the evening, gaming into the night and sleeping longer in the morning. Oncall IT support services and those working on infrastructure may have to work shifts. These can be a risk to our natural circadian rhythm. One study found that working shifts increased the risk of death by 11% after five years. If you have to work shifts, you will need to take additional care of your physical and mental health. While our bodies may have slightly different diurnal preferences, try to adhere to yours rather than getting into bad habits. 

While this might sound obvious, sleep, diet, and exercise are often the first things to slip when we are under pressure. They can be the canaries in the coalmine. 

Focus on what you can do

While so much may be outside of our control at the moment, it’s important to focus on what you can do. Try setting a lockdown goal that is achievable under the current restrictions. Consider:

  • What do you enjoy?
  • What gives you a sense of achievement?
  • What makes you feel connected to others?
  • What have you wanted to do at home but haven’t had the chance to?

Make sure your goal is SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-limited. You can download a worksheet to help you think about your goal here.

Managing your media consumption

Watching the news can impact our mood even when we are not in the middle of a pandemic. A common pattern that can be seen at the moment is watching a lot of the news or following all Covid-19 content on social media to feel more in control. Reflect on the type and amount of media you are consuming. Ask yourself if it is serving you? What impact does it have on you? Does it make you feel more in control or does it make you feel more anxious? Nobody wants to miss an important update, however, it can be helpful to put a set time on when you engage with the media - a little bit like worry time. This way you are staying in control, getting a regular news update, but it is not hijacking your mind.

Finally, a lot has been written about the power of social connections and maintaining routine in the current climate. These are vital building blocks for supporting our mental health. Put together, all these strands can help us get through this, one day at a time.

If you missed the first article of this series, here it is 

About the Author

Dr. Michelle O’Sullivan, clinical psychologist, provides mental wellbeing advice for technology people. Particularly in these difficult pandemic conditions where remote work is the norm. Practical researched tips to help you stay performing to your best.


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