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Tech’s ongoing mental health crisis

The pandemic shone a light on the impact long hours and high pressure can have on the mental health of technology workers – an issue that is at risk of continuing long after Covid

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The mental health of all too many technology workers appears to be worryingly poor. In fact, two out of five consider themselves at high risk of burnout, with 42% of them thinking about quitting their job in the next six months as a result.

The State of burnout in tech 2022 report by mental health app provider Yerbo, which was based on interviews with 32,644 respondents around the world, also reveals that women feel themselves more at risk of burnout than men – 46% versus 38.2%.

The study attributes this situation to people continually working long hours without sufficient recovery time, which is leading to feelings of exhaustion, inefficiency, cynicism and emotional detachment.

Waseem Ali, chief data officer at Rockborne, which hires out data and analytics consultants, agrees with the findings, arguing that the risk of burnout is probably higher for many tech workers now than it was at the height of the pandemic. A key challenge, he says, is that widespread talent shortages are creating “a lot of understaffed teams at the moment – perhaps more so than during the pandemic because of current disparity in supply and demand”.

This situation is also being exacerbated by the rise in the number of digital transformation projects introduced because of the various lockdowns, and is not being helped by a widespread move to hybrid working. Not only is this creating a “disjointed company culture” in many instances, says Ali, but people are also having to commute again at least a few days a week – with all the expense that now entails because of rising petrol prices – while dealing with “frustration at technology issues” at home.

“Tech is a highly pressurised job that shows no sign of letting up in the near future,” he says. “Whether you’re at home being bombarded by messages and emails, or in the office with a queue outside the door of people needing support, that stress is going to build up – and burnout is certainly a risk factor if not managed by senior teams.”

But this scenario is not just having a negative impact on tech workers themselves – it is taking its toll on their employers, too.

Dealing with the impact of poor mental health

The Yerbo report points out: “Burnout is associated with reduced commitment to the job, leading to low productivity, high absenteeism, intention to leave the company, and turnover. In fact, experts believe that burnout is one of four factors that contributed to the Great Resignation of 2021, where millions of people quit their job globally.”

Also, research conducted by management consultancy Deloitte at the end of last year estimated that the cost to UK employers of poor mental health had risen to £56bn in 2020-2021 from £45bn in 2019. It also suggested that for every £1 employers spend on staff wellbeing, there is an average return of £5.30.

As to what employers can do to improve the mental health of their workforce, Alaska May, chief people officer at cloud-based security systems provider Open Systems, believes it is imperative to take a holistic approach to the issue.

For example, the company has introduced a range of initiatives, such as “no-screen Fridays” when employees are not expected to turn their camera on for internal meetings, and “Me Days”, where staff are encouraged to take a couple of days off a year to do something that “makes them happy”, such as meditating or undertaking some form of personal training.

Staff wellbeing is also one of the organisation’s five core HR workstreams and comes with its own calendar of activities throughout the year. It is talked about regularly at town-hall meetings and success is measured and discussed – although, as May points out: “It’s not too much about measurement because it’s more important to ‘show and tell’.”

Another key approach is to ensure line managers are equipped to spot if employees are struggling, and if so, to find ways to deal with it, such as evaluating work volumes and any issues with ways of working.

“It’s super-important to ask ‘why?’ and by proactively looking at processes and making changes, we show we care,” says May. “Things like ‘Me Days’ also show we care – it’s not just a policy. We’re showing we care enough to say ‘it’s good to talk about mental health’.”

Two other tech employers that are putting mental health and wellness front and centre in how they treat their staff are Thryve and Accenture.

Thryve

Because high stress levels and overwork are among the key reasons that many employees suffer from mental ill-health and burnout, Thryve decided to introduce a four-day week last autumn to take the pressure off.

But as the tech recruitment consultancy’s founder and managing director, John Lennon, points out, this kind of approach needs to be thought through and introduced carefully. It is unlikely to work if people are simply paid less for working fewer hours or end up having to work 10 hours a day over the four days.

As a result, the decision was taken to cut the working week from 40 to 32 hours and to close the office on a Friday. For six months before the new policy was introduced, various measures were taken to facilitate its smooth running.

Each staff member was given training to enhance his or her time management, organisational and prioritisation skills. Teams were encouraged to work more closely with back-office administrative support staff to share tasks.

Certain admin activities, such as onboarding and sending out contracts, were automated. Line managers asked their teams for feedback after the second and fourth week, and then once a month for the first six months, to establish what was working and what was not, so that tweaks could be made as appropriate.

Eight months in, though, and Lennon says: “It’s the best business decision we’ve ever made.”

“Because people are happier, healthier, well-rested and not as stressed or overloaded with things to do, they are more motivated and incentivised to deliver better results and perform at a higher level”
John Lennon, Thryve

He adds: “We’re all conditioned to believe that a five-day, 40-hour week is the right way to do things, so the biggest thing is the mindset shift. But in terms of business and financial impact and employee wellbeing, it’s not just a success, it’s a huge success, and the feedback is that the team is very focused during working hours and wants to deliver so they can enjoy the fruits of a longer weekend.”

After only three months, 84% of staff reported a significant drop in work-related stress, 89% felt they had become more productive and 94% said they had a far better work-life balance.

“The logic is that because people are happier, healthier, well-rested and not as stressed or overloaded with things to do, they are more motivated and incentivised to deliver better results and perform at a higher level,” says Lennon.

Just as important, though, is for leaders and managers to “encourage an open atmosphere in which mental health is discussed, so that people feel comfortable talking about it as they know they’re in a safe environment and don’t feel judged”, he says.

Taking a personalised approach is also critical because no single approach will be appropriate for everyone, says Lennon. For example, in general wellbeing terms, being clear about what motivates individuals, whether it be a promotion or more renumeration and training, “invariably leads to good outcomes for the business”, as does understanding their challenges and finding ways to address them.

The same applies to taking an individualised approach to mental health support, says Lennon. “There should be ways for employees to communicate how they can benefit from approaches that suit them. So, some may want an open environment in which to talk, others may want to be signposted to a professional, while others may not want to talk about it with colleagues – it’s important to respect everyone’s boundaries and personal preferences.”

Accenture

While providing mental health support for people in their moments of need is vital, offering them more preventative help is equally important, says Jill Hughes, executive sponsor for mental health at Accenture UK and Ireland.

“The big challenge, and I suspect this is typical, is how to get people to take advantage of the support you provide,” she says. “I know from personal experience that there can be a bit of reticence to admit things to yourself, but people also say they’re not sure they can be helped or they’ve not got time, which is why we are trying to talk about mental health and make it normal to seek support.”

As a result, the professional services company places a lot of store on listening to employees using a range of mechanisms. These include running an anonymous, quarterly mental health pulse survey to understand people’s lived experience, the challenges they face and where they are struggling.

Line managers are also encouraged to have open conversations and share their personal stories to try to create a safe environment for their teams. “Healthy minds coaching” or counselling services, provided by insurance company AXA, are made available to everyone even before trouble strikes, while “meeting-free Fridays” are intended to encourage people to develop healthy habits and set boundaries around their work activities.

“It’s about supporting wellbeing in its widest sense and talking about it holistically, so that people see it as a positive thing to invest in all parts of their health,” says Hughes. “None of us think twice about sharing stories about doing an exercise class, so part of it is trying to encourage people to be mentally fit too, as the two things are so closely connected.”

“It’s about supporting wellbeing in its widest sense and talking about it holistically, so that people see it as a positive thing to invest in all parts of their health”
Jill Hughes, Accenture

The company also offers support for people who are “struggling in the moment”. For instance, it has a network of 3,400 “mental health allies” in the UK and Ireland, and 10,000 internationally, who are “trained to be a first line of defence”, says Hughes.

The aim of the scheme, which was initially developed in conjunction with Mind and tailored to Accenture’s specific needs, is to ensure struggling employees have access to volunteers who will listen and signpost them to appropriate support.

But because some communities, such as carers and young people, have frequently struggled more than others, especially during the pandemic, the firm has also identified the fact that “one size doesn’t fit all”. In other words, more tailored care is required for such groups.

As a result, a specific carer network, which meets monthly, has been set up to offer support, and a whole series of talks, networking meetings and other events have been put together for Carer’s Week from 6-12 June. Similar activities were also created for young people during Mental Health Awareness Week in May.

Meanwhile, as the organisation continues to further evolve its approach to hybrid working, it is also attempting to embed the concept of wellbeing into everything it does.

Hughes concludes: “It’s important not just to see wellbeing as an initiative on the side, but to ensure it’s knitted into our whole way of working. We’ve got a wonderful opportunity in the post-Covid world to think differently and creatively, so we’re looking at every aspect of our employees’ day-to-day experience to see how we can genuinely make a difference.”

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