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Mental Wellbeing in the Tech Industry: QCon London Q&A

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Businesses are losing a lot of money to mental ill-health. The pace at which the tech industry moves and the pressure to deliver can leave staff struggling to keep up. People have different sweet spots for pressure and performance, and they change over time; the way to know an individual’s sweet spot is by talking to people to find out how they work.

Michelle O’Sullivan spoke about mental wellbeing in the tech industry at QCon London 2020.

Feeling unwell looks different from person to person. O’Sullivan suggested not overdiagnosing. "If you suspect that someone is feeling unwell, ask them," she said.

Storytelling is a powerful tool to challenge stigmatising thoughts and beliefs that people may hold in relation to mental health. O’Sullivan encouraged senior leaders who have experienced mental illness to share their story. To create psychological safety, leaders need to model vulnerability. It is important that those telling their stories have their manager’s support so that they feel safe to tell their story.

You might not want to speak with your manager or colleagues about your mental health, but please speak to somebody, O’Sullivan urged the audience.

InfoQ interviewed Michelle O’ Sullivan, a psychologist and researcher on mental health in the workplace, about the impact of mental ill-health, the effect of putting pressure on people, engineering occupational psychosocial factors for optimal performance, and dealing with mental health in the workplace.

InfoQ: What’s the impact of mental ill-health issues in the workplace?

Michelle O’Sullivan: The impact of mental ill-health within the workplace is marked. Deloitte estimates that it costs UK employers between £42bn-£45bn each year, through a combination of sickness absence, presenteeism (where people attend work whilst ill and therefore do not perform to their full ability), and staff turnover.

The tech industry relies on its people. Approximately 14-15% of the UK workforce will have a diagnosable common mental health condition. Employers need to consider both how those who have experienced mental ill-health can be supported, as well as how to prevent mental ill-health and protect the wider workforce. Business performance and staff wellbeing are inextricably linked.

At a time where there is unprecedented focus on productivity, mental health and wellbeing can be an organisational blindspot.

InfoQ: How do you define mental wellbeing?

O’ Sullivan: Mental wellbeing isn’t about having or not having a psychiatric diagnosis. The World Health Organisation defines mental wellbeing as "A state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community."

It’s really about having a sense of purpose when we get up in the morning, and knowing that we’re contributing to something bigger than ourselves. Good quality work can have a hugely protective role to play in our mental wellbeing

InfoQ: What’s the effect of putting pressure on people?

O’Sullivan: Pressure has a bad reputation. A bit of pressure can be a good thing for most people. It helps motivate us and keeps us focused. Many of us will have had experiences of doing some of our best work a few hours before a deadline!

When pressure exceeds our ability to cope, the experience becomes stressful. When stress is sustained or overwhelming, the body enters a state of high alert. Unmanaged it can contribute to poor mental and physical wellbeing.

Pressure is a subjective experience. We all have a different sweet spot for pressure and performance, and it changes according to other demands in our lives at any given time. The only way to know an individual’s sweet spot is by talking to them and knowing how they work. It’s not a conversation that happens once and that you can then forget. It needs to be revisited and discussed as part of routine people management.

InfoQ: How can we engineer occupational psychosocial factors for optimal performance?

O’ Sullivan: There are six core factors that have been identified by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE’s Management Standards) that contribute to workplace wellbeing and thereby support performance:

  • Demands – this includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment
  • Control – how much say the person has in the way they do their work
  • Support – this includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues
  • Relationships – this includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour
  • Role – whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles
  • Change – how organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation

The HSE has a range of tools and information on their website to guide employers in managing these factors.

InfoQ: What do you suggest for dealing with mental issues in the workplace?

O’Sullivan: If someone is concerned about a colleague’s mental health, I would say the best thing you can do is have a conversation with them. You don’t have to talk about mental health, just ask them how they are and what you’ve noticed that suggests they’ve not been feeling themselves recently. A lot of the time, people only need a listening ear. The Samaritans have some excellent e-learning on listening skills that is freely available: Wellbeing in the Workplace online learning.

Don’t get hung up on trying to find a solution. People will often be able to find their own solutions if you ask open questions and give them space to think through what’s going on.

If you think a person might need further support, it can be a good idea for them to visit their GP. Also, check out what health and wellbeing resources your company provides. Many companies will have an Employee Assistance Programme through which people can access counselling, an Occupational Health Provider, or private health insurance. If you are UK-based and can’t access support through your company, it can be worth checking the Able Futures, through which people can get up to nine months of mental health support for free.

Of course, it is important to think about how you look after yourself, as well as your colleagues. Don’t be afraid to access these supports if you are struggling. As well as helping you feel better, it can model getting support to those around you.

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