Headforwards founding director Toby Parkins shares his thoughts about how Agile approach can help businesses innovate in challenging times.
In a 2019 report surveying over 3000 members of the UK tech community, the BIMA found that ‘tech people’ are five times more depressed than the UK average, and feel as stressed as those in high intensity professions like medical work.
In 2021, the Harvey Nash Group’s Technology & Talent Study (across 69 countries) found that 75% more tech workers were at that time concerned about the state of their mental health, compared to before the pandemic.
Tech roles are synonymous with lone working, but so are many others jobs – so why is the level of depression and anxiety so high, and what can we do about it?
The jury’s out on exactly why the tech community is suffering to this degree. The BIMA’s survey points to gender, neurodiversity, ethnicity and age discrimination as the key factors affecting people’s mental health.
In the last three years, demand for technology has increased, but this has coincided with a UK-wide skills shortage, thanks to the Great Resignation. There is therefore perhaps more pressure on tech workers post-pandemic to work longer days, take less breaks, and agree to additional work they might not be trained to do.
The nature of a tech role and equipment needed means it has always been easier to work remotely. As a remote worker, it can be difficult to separate work from home; pressure to get something done, and the blurring of boundaries where working hours are concerned (popping out to chat to the postman, taking the dog around the block, putting a load of washing on) means often an individual doesn’t log off when they’re supposed to, and the working day starts to eat into their downtime.
Working remotely can be lonely, and if the individual doesn’t physically see colleagues, they may feel isolated, which could impact on their mental health.
The nature of the product being produced by software developers means there has to be a certain level of perfectionism, and there is often pressure to get it right the first time; in other industries, if a job needs doing more quickly, you can do it less well, whereas in tech and coding, if you do it less well, it doesn’t work.
What can the industry do about it?
The industry has a responsibility to protect its workforce from discrimination, the negative effects of remote or hybrid working, and the pressures of work.
A tech company must have a culture that supports mental wellbeing: builds trust with employees, invites transparency, and does everything possible to make uncomfortable conversations, comfortable.
Mental health should not be a taboo subject internally, and absence due to anxiety, depression or stress should be dealt with the same level of compassion and respect as back ache or an abscess for example.
There are a number of ways an organisation can support its employees:
- Most crucially, don’t let there be any contributing factors to the mental ill-health of employees in the first place. If there are added pressures due to a skills shortage, don’t make that impact on the wellbeing of your team.
- Make sure your onboarding process isn’t just about the job. Check in with the new employee at regular intervals to see how they’re getting on, and if there are any problems, take on the responsibility to help them.
- If an employee is struggling, give them options of ways the company can help. At Headforwards, we talk to them about the type of support they would like, research counselling/therapy options in their area, and fund the first six weeks of a programme with a qualified therapist/counsellor. We then establish whether or not the individual feels it is helping, and we often fund further sessions.
- Invest in a health insurance policy that caters to employee wellbeing. At Headforwards, we use Medicash; each employee has access to a virtual GP, counsellor, helpline and more.
- Promote the use of an app that supports good mental health. At Headforwards, our Medicash policy comes with the mProve app which has a wide variety of supportive features to help individuals cope with stress: breathing videos, exercises, meditations etc.
- Put just as much time and money into putting mental health first aiders through training as you would medical first aiders.
- Ensure internal comms – like intranet and noticeboards clearly display links to helplines, company health policies and internal contacts, so that if something is wrong, the individual doesn’t have to search through their onboarding information or speak to a person to find out their policy number or the services available to them.
- Publish links to charity organisations that could help.
- Encourage employees to be social – this could be as simple as making it clear that coffee between two colleagues does not need to count as a break, or post local walking routes on the office noticeboard.
- Work closely with health bodies who can provide support in the area.
- Organise regular socials to get people away from their desks. At Headforwards, we organise physical socials for those who live in Cornwall, like paintballing, bowling, summer BBQs and dog walking, and for those working remotely, we have craft sessions like truffle making and macrame.
- Ensure there are different spaces in the office where individuals can go for either social stimulation or a moment of quiet.
- Promote the organisation’s approval of a flexible working day; if you want to take a two-hour lunch break, it’s fine to tag the extra hour onto the end of the day.
What can you as an individual do to protect your mental health?
- At the end of the working day, shut down all of your work, and turn off notifications
- If your desk is in a room used for family activities – kitchen, bedroom or lounge for example, do something to change the ambience once your work is done; light a candle, change the lighting, rearrange the room – just something to make it feel different to your workspace.
- Have a routine – do something everyday that signals work is finished, like taking the dog out, calling a friend, watching TV, reading a book or doing some exercise.
- You could change your working environment all together by working elsewhere for a day or more a week; go to the office if it’s close enough, visit a friend’s house, a café, a shared workspace or a team mate’s house.
- Most importantly, if you feel you’re not coping, do not try to cover it up and pretend everything is ok. Use the resources your employer provides, speak to your People team, and get as much help as you can.