mental health in techWithout a doubt, the tech, software testing, and development industry is one of the most fast-paced industries there is. With complex projects, emerging technologies, a dynamic culture, and a stereotypically unhealthy lifestyle and diet associated with the job, there is an unusually high level of poor mental health in this industry. This article aims to shed light on the topic that, unfortunately, is still taboo to many. We continue the conversation and dig deeper into the statistics around mental health in tech and look at some tips and best practices to ensure that those we work in this industry stay as mentally robust as possible.

Mental health in tech

According to recent studies, two thirds of tech workers feel stressed, and over half have suffered with depression or anxiety at some point during their careers.

Shockingly, tech workers experience greater than five-times more depression than the UK average. So what is it about this environment that creates challenges to maintaining our mental health? Is it the job itself, the culture surrounding it, or does the industry and work-type tend to attract people who are more likely to suffer from these conditions?

Speaking as someone who for a time experienced mental ill-health, as well as a bad case of burnout during my tech career, I understand all too well how difficult it can be. Keeping it together can be difficult when working through the regular trials and tribulations of software testing, development team dynamics, designing new features, and solving complex problems.

Lucile Allen-Paisant, the founder of mental health training company Mind-It, says, “I really fear that the mental health of UK citizens may get worse in the future.” A decrease in mental wellbeing, according to Lucile, will be due to a combination of:

  • Isolation – as more people work remotely, many will miss casual conversation that can reduce feelings of isolation.
  • Uncertainty – when people don’t know what the future holds for their work and personal lives.
  • Business decisions – a “one-size-fits-all” working from home policy won’t suit all employees at a company.

These points underscore the importance of talking about mental health in the workplace. Management and employees need to feel able to discuss how they feel about the above topics. Here are a few tips that might help:

Five things software testers and tech professionals can do to care for their own mental health

1. Ask for help

If your workload weighs you down, or if you’re struggling to figure out a problem (and Stack Overflow and your Twitter followers have no answers!), go and chat with a colleague or team leader about your difficulties. Sometimes, the simple act of sitting down, or jumping on a Zoom call with someone and describing the issues can be a weight off your mind and a big help in getting your worries out.

If you feel stressed, anxious, or emotionally numb, when you don’t seem to enjoy anything anymore, reach out to family and friends and let them know you’re struggling. There is nothing weak about asking for help.

2. Take a break if you need it

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or overworked, don’t try to soldier on through. Take a step back and speak to your manager about taking some time off. The chances are that the super-important deadline CAN be pushed back (the world won’t end), and your team will cope without you for a few days as you rest up.

3. Keep active and healthy

Our physical health is linked closely to our mental health. Although depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are medical conditions that concern chemical imbalances and other neural-divergences, diet and exercise can help. it’s been proven that exercise and physical activities can prevent, lessen, and alleviate the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression, so if it’s a tool that we know works, it’s worth using it.

4. Know your enemy

Poor mental health isn’t really your enemy, it’s just something that can affect all of us at some time or another, depending on circumstances. Much like physical health, mental health can peak and trough throughout our lives. And just as with physical health, it’s crucial to spot the warning signs and do something about it before your mental health fails. Step in early before falling into a full-blown depression or having a panic attack during a client meeting.

5. Be kind to yourself

Even if your brain tells you that you are, you are not a failure. You’re not weak because you’re struggling. You’re doing the best you can, and if there is one person in the world that needs to have your back, it’s yourself, so don’t let negative thoughts get the better of you.

Practice self-care, whether that’s spending time away from the screen with a book, watching funny films, or playing games. Being outside and around nature can be good, as well as catching up with friends. Weekly video calls are great to create a structured social life when you’re unable to see people in person.

Five things project managers and bosses can do to support their team around mental health issues

1. Normalize talking about mental health

Although there have been improvements of late, some still see mental health as a taboo subject. If you can, encourage an open culture in your office or remote web team that makes it easy for people to open up and say if they’re feeling less than OK and ask for help. I understand deadlines and the high-pressure working environment, and that managers need a team of capable, talented people to get the job done. If we have a mentally robust team who can feel at ease talking about their struggles instead of plowing on with their heads down, you’ll find that they’ll be more productive and will stick around for longer, reducing your staff turnover and building a better reputation as an excellent place to work.

2. Give your team support

People work differently. Some people respond very differently to rules, structures, and others on the team. Managers can also have different approaches to getting the best out of their team. I have seen some good (and some really bad!) examples during my career. The method that always works best is when managers take somewhat of a mentor approach – firm but fair, but overall, kind.

When people make mistakes, it’s easy to become angry and frustrated, but sometimes we may be unaware of the reasons behind poor performance. Opening a dialog before throwing the rulebook at them is always the right approach.

3. Encourage kindness in the team

Discourage the blame culture within your teams. Unfortunately, I’ve perpetrated this myself in the past, when I’ve been in a team where things haven’t gone smoothly. I’d try to pin it on the person who I know hadn’t done that thing correctly. While I’m not saying we should absolve people of all responsibility, we should remain aware that some might be going through hidden battles. Overwhelming stresses can cause occasional lapses in judgment and work quality. Calling people out and blaming them isn’t the best way to help matters.

4. Flexible working helps

During times of remote working flexible working has become more normalized. However, it’s important to implement a policy that allows (or even encourages) flexible working. Try implementing things like flexi-time, where people can choose when to start work, then finish earlier or later. Doing this will make it easier for staff to normalize ‘mental health days’ if they need to take a day or a morning off with “no questions asked.”

Some progressive organizations are even exploring the 4-day working week, where staff pay remains the same. Many organizations worldwide have trialed this novel approach, with studies showing that productivity increases and corresponding mental health outcomes have also been extremely positive.

5. Invest in training

Alongside posts such as these and the many other available resources surrounding mental health, stress, and depression, it is worth seeking professional training to help equip you and your team on this matter. Taking outside advice will help your organization to learn how to spot signs within themselves and in others. It will also help open the conversation and normalize the understanding that mental health concerns us all. Throughout our lives, just as with other aspects of our health, mental health can move at varying times between being robust and less so.

In conclusion

Mental health problems within our industry will not go away overnight, and there is no silver bullet or magic cure. However, for us to change attitudes, we need to recognize signs within ourselves and our colleagues, and create a healthy, happy environment that encourages the best from us all.