Tackling common mental health issues in the tech business world
One in every eight people on our planet lives with a mental health issue of some sort, according to the World Health Organization. That figure has been rising for a decade, and shows very little inclination to reverse. From depression to anxiety, to work-related stress and burnout, as we mark World Mental Health Day on October 10th, it’s worth taking a look at some of the most common mental health issues faced by workers at all levels in the technology and business worlds – and any mitigation that’s available to help people and companies achieve a better balance and healthier humans.
Burnout is one of the biggest issues among the technology business workforce. It’s a syndrome typified by three main symptoms: 1) energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased feelings of distance from or cynicism about one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy.
Perhaps oddly, burnout is not recognized by the World Health Organization as a medical condition, but as an “occupational phenomenon.” Nevertheless, it’s a significant issue across the technology business workforce, which has many job roles in which there is a significant fixation factor on particular issues or problems – whether it’s coders trying to create an app that does a particular thing well or better than others, or analysts constantly combing attack surfaces for would-be threats, or simply workers in a technology space who feel it incumbent on them to work beyond standard hours to achieve particular goals. The ‘overuse’ of technology has even in some cases been seen as intrinsic to the onset of burnout, because it can induce a sense of the human, as well as the technology, never being able to shut off from tasks or thinking about tasks, even when they step away from computers, desks, or offices.
That sensation of ‘always being connected to work’ was exacerbated by the rise and rise of remote work during the Covid-19 pandemic, when there was a vast increase in the expectation that staff would either use their own personal devices (from phones to laptops) to complete work, or take work devices into their homes, blurring the lines of the work/life balance more than had ever previously been the case.
What can companies do?
There are two main ways in which companies can guard against burnout in their staff – one operating at the policy level, and the other at the practical and technological level.
At a policy level, companies can ensure that staff understand from their onboarding that they are more central to the company’s success than any amount of overwork. The focus on people first needs to be built into the very ethos of the company, with open communication channels to allow staff to advise their managers of any issues meeting deadlines or completing projects, so that workflows can be adjusted in time to avoid choke-points of stress and singular responsibility.
From a technological point of view, there needs to be an “Off Means Off” policy – weekends, evenings, days on which a staff member is taking holiday entitlement must be underlined as no-contact days, to reinforce the work/life balance of staff, and the message that people are more important than individual projects.
Technological companies are, in addition to that, beginning to use technology – particularly AI technology – to actively relieve burnout. Security analysts are frequent victims of burnout, because they’re all too often tasked with constant vigilance for high level threats and low-level mundane activity. AI is beginning to be useful in lifting the mundane work off their shoulders, to allow analysts to be analysts and avoid the disconnection from their work that is so common a symptom of burnout. Some companies who rely on a heavy workload of
Companies with significant reliance on call centre or customer relations staff are also beginning to make use of AI to take a majority of the burden off their human staff, again particularly in terms of routine and mundane work, allowing staff to stay engaged with their work and not burned out with repetitive tasks. Andy Wilkins, Co-founder and CEO of UK AI company Futr, has also found that AI assistants can help those in need of more targeted mental health support. “The need for the right mental health support has never been more recognised, but people in need of help have to be able to access those services in ways that suit them, at the time they need it. The use of AI chatbots can help to reduce queue times by providing intelligent self-service to straightforward queries and freeing up critical human agent time for those that need it most.”
Anxiety and Depression
These are full-on mental health issues as defined by the WHO, and as such, there are levels of support companies can give that go beyond corporate culture. A belief in the validity of these conditions, and the fact that they don’t diminish the value and contribution made by the staff who have them is key, but this is where a commitment to mental health awareness and support goes beyond words and culture.
Where possible, private breakout spaces on site to allow the staff member to take breaks if they feel bouts of anxiety or depression coming on can be useful, as can a non-invasive approach to managing staff with these issues.
Ways of contacting genuine, trained support workers, either telephonically or, as is much more common these days given a rise in telephone-specific anxiety, through a text medium, can be subsidized by the company, to help staff connect with genuine mental health support in their times of need. And both a flexibility of medical leave policy and a flexibility on remote work can help people with anxiety or depression to ease the pressure on themselves when their condition is particularly strong.
Generalized batch training of staff in mental health awareness, and the ability to share experiences of particular conditions, either anonymously or, where specific workflow adaptations would be helpful, through named feedback, can be useful in not only supporting staff with anxiety and/or depression with their conditions, but also helping them to be as productive as they want to be, without stigma in the 21st century.
On World Mental Health Day – and hopefully every day around the year – companies have a moral, if not a legal duty to offer such help and consideration to their staff with mental health issues, at every level, from the new starter to the managing director. After all, 1 in 8 of us already struggles with a mental health issue. And the figure seems likely to keep rising. The stigma needs to end, and companies need to factor mental health support into their operational budgets going forward.
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