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Tech firms need to keep focusing on mental wellbeing and support

Mental wellbeing is a critical issue for the tech sector as the pandemic has taken its toll, and employers are realising the importance of providing support to their staff

It is now 12 months since the first UK lockdown began and it has been a challenging time for us all. The technology industry has been right at the front line, helping businesses transition to remote working and adapt their business models in response to the crisis.

While the meteoric rise of technology has been a great positive for the industry, at the same time, the pressure it has placed on tech professionals has been significant. With long days, rising workloads and rapidly changing objectives, it’s been quite a journey.

The perhaps inevitable corollary of this is that the number of people reporting concerns about their mental wellbeing has also jumped – up 75% on last year, with more than a quarter (28%) saying they are concerned about their mental health right now. Our Technology & talent study, which surveyed over 1,700 tech professionals globally, lays this bare, finding that more than half of respondents (55%) have seen a rise in their workloads.

Mental wellbeing has been a live issue in the tech sector for some time already – in fact, our study from the previous year, conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic, found that levels of concern about mental wellbeing were already on the rise then.

Remote working: friend or foe?

Sadly, the pandemic has taken mental health concerns to new levels – and this is no surprise. While some individuals have been very happy to work entirely remotely, for others it has proved an increasing challenge the longer it has gone on, especially given the volume of work being asked of them. What was fine for a few weeks or a couple of months becomes harder to bear when it becomes open-ended.

Much of it depends on the nature of an individual’s role. Some activities – coding, for example – are well-suited to solitary conditions (headphones on, of course). But other roles that involve ideas generation and interactivity are much harder to do remotely.

When jobs become an endless series of Zoom or Teams calls, often with no break in between, jumping from one topic to another with little preamble, the going can get tough. In offices, interactions almost naturally stray at some point into more personal and social interaction – small things, but they add up.

Blurring of personas

In the remote world of Covid-19, all too often, individuals are faced with what seems like an endless to-do list and a ceaseless wall of video calls. Working from home, there is a blurring, too, of the work persona and the home persona.

Many people are beginning to look forward to “putting on” their work persona as they head out for the office again. At the other end of the day, the commute home was also frequently an opportunity for many to reset themselves on the way back and make that transition from work persona to home.

Now, though, we have to instantly switch from one to the other when we turn away from our screen and become a family member again. This can be difficult for some – almost like an identity crisis – and certainly contributes to a growing sense of mental unease.

That said, we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Without doubt, working remotely has brought many benefits, too. It has ripped up the old commuting rulebook and few seem to be lamenting that. In fact, 75% of tech professionals want to carry on working from home for most of the week (three to five days).

Indeed, the ability to work remotely has become a top three consideration for professionals considering a new role. At Harvey Nash, we are also seeing a rise in clients specifying remote-first roles that are location agnostic. These trends greatly benefit both individuals and businesses.

Hybrid will help

However, in my view, the crucial element is that the future will be about a hybrid model: very few people will continue to work remotely all the time. Just getting out once or twice a week and mixing with colleagues and clients in offices will make a massive difference.

My hope is that a move to a more hybrid model will help ease the mental health crisis from its current peak. It is certainly much easier to read people’s emotions when you see them in the flesh. A smile on Zoom can hide a million things. Increased colocation should help leaders and managers support teams more fully, and make it easier for individuals to ask for support or guidance.

Keeping up the support

This won’t remove the problem, however. I fear that mental wellbeing pressures are a facet of modern life. The stigma of talking about them has lessened, and that is huge progress in itself. But we need to keep working away at the issue, investing in support mechanisms and creating open cultures where mental wellbeing can be discussed without prejudice.

It was certainly encouraging that in our Technology & talent study, more companies have put support measures in place, with four-fifths of businesses being rated as “supportive”.

There is further to go. We need to get to the point where someone might say “I’m feeling depressed this week” in the same way that they may say “I’ve got a bit of a cold”. It should become part of normal conversation, with a range of potential aids available.

We will never entirely beat stress and depression – it’s part of human life – but, as an industry, tech businesses have a duty to keep doing everything in their power to give their highly talented, in-demand staff the care and support they need.

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