Mental health – the nemesis of the tech industry

A recent report by the British Interactive Media Association (BIMA) which questioned more than 3,000 UK technology workers found that those working in the tech industry are five times more depressed than the general UK population.

Worryingly, this is in line with the healthcare profession, which is understandably a pressurised environment dealing with life and death situations. In addition, they discovered that 52% of those surveyed had suffered from anxiety or depression at some point.

Why is the tech industry suffering more than others?

The nature of the tech industry is both competitive and fast-paced, known for its lack of work/life balance fuelled by a ‘long hours’ work culture. The combination of these factors can create a pressurised environment – leading to anxiety, depression and ‘burnout’. Workers in the cybersecurity industry, for example, are faced with critical decision-making on a day-to-day basis, causing high stress levels and a difficulty to ‘switch off’ from their role.

Then we have the year-on-year growing world of tech unicorns which is often known for toxic cultures and ‘flexible working’ – read excessively long hours. You might remember that Revolut made the headlines in 2019 when the fintech startup’s internal practices went under public scrutiny.

According to the Tech Nation Report 2020, digital tech employs 2.9 million people in the UK, accounting for 9% of the national workforce. A 2020 survey conducted by recruiters Harvey Nash found that half of the UK’s tech professionals have been concerned about their mental health at some point. The survey also highlighted the UK’s tech industry is experiencing the highest skills shortage for more than a decade. With employees overstretched due to staff shortages – one of the leading causes of stress in the workplace – coupled with increasing employee absence related to mental wellbeing, this vicious circle needs to be addressed in order to keep the tech sector alive.

Patrick Samy is CEO of Span, the NHS-backed digital health management platform, a former Microsoft computer science expert and Stanford researcher (CS)

A study by the Mental Health Foundation found that 38% of people feared their job security and future job prospects would be jeopardised if they spoke up about a mental health problem. As a male dominated industry, with only 16% of tech roles filled by women, how do you encourage employees to come forward in the workplace – especially when 40% of men won’t talk to anyone about their mental health? It’s important to create a workplace culture where everyone feels comfortable enough to be vocal if they are struggling with their mental health or wellbeing.

How to improve your employees’ mental health

A survey by Opininium, in partnership with the University of Warwick, found that only two thirds of managers surveyed would know what to do if an employee directly told them they were struggling with their mental health, whilst around half said they did not know how to support wellbeing in the workplace.

Educate managers and senior members of the team on how to spot early signs of mental health issues. Inform them of the most common indicators such as restlessness, insomnia, feeling overwhelmed, a sense of dread, difficulty concentrating and remembering, low mood or excessive sweating. These are harder to spot in remote workers, but equally, these members of the team should not be forgotten. Consider enrolling and training employees across the business as ‘mental health first aiders’ to help identify, understand and respond to signs of poor mental health in their colleagues.

Employers need to create a comfortable space for employees to discuss their health. The first step is to create gender-specific education and awareness about health issues, and then create a safe and discreet space for all employees to seek advice. This may be through an anonymous chat consultation or allowing individuals to choose between male or female clinicians.

Timing is also key. In standard healthcare, people often wait one or two weeks before they can see a clinician, which can encourage cancellation. Don’t assume your employees will get what they need from the NHS or your current company health plan. By providing convenient access to wellbeing and healthcare for employees, you will encourage them to take the first step.

Consider adopting and promoting telehealth services – digital platforms offering online health consultations allowing employees access to medical professionals such as clinicians, nutritionists and psychologists.

A Mercer survey found that 76% of employers see telemedicine as having a larger role in their future health programmes. This is an effective way of businesses not only demonstrating they recognise the importance of the wellbeing of their employees, but offering an easy-to-access solution through innovative technology.

The tech industry is one that is familiar with the use of data to improve processes, and this approach can also be used when evaluating mental health in the workplace. Use quantitative data reported by managers across the company to identify if some areas experience more stress or anxiety than others. Use qualitative data to identify individual needs at the manager level and provide support when appropriate. Introducing ‘wellbeing checks’ across the business will also help to evaluate this.

Lastly, however simple it sounds, it’s important to encourage employees to take regular breaks. Typically IT workers, for example, will spend the majority of their working day sat behind a desk staring at a screen. Explore standing desk options and encourage employees to take a walk and get some fresh air and natural light. Regular exercise is a proven way to improve mental health and help reduce stress and anxiety.

Why should mental health be on your priority list

The biggest hurdle to overcome is to recognise the impact of poor mental health in the workplace. Anxiety and depression, for example, may not be visible but as chronic conditions, they are legally recognised as a disability – therefore reasonable adjustments should be made in the workplace to aid affected employees.

The second challenge is often ‘We just don’t have the budget’ – at least that’s what many think. But actions like implementing breaks or educating staff don’t need to raise your HR costs. Digital health is also democratising employee benefits – like costly private healthcare insurance – that used to be only available to the likes of Google and Microsoft. Investment in mental health will save money in the long run – whether you’re a tech startup or a corporate. Presenteeism, absenteeism, productivity and talent acquisition amount to billions every year and improved mental health in workplaces can lower all of these costs.

With 70 million work days lost each year due to mental health problems in the UK, according to the Mental Health Foundation, costing approximately £2.4 billion per year, action needs to be taken…and fast. Wellbeing needs to be embedded into the challenging technology workplace culture. With long term benefits including increased productivity, reduction in absenteeism, and a healthier and happier workforce, now is the time to invest in employees’ mental health.


Patrick Samy

Patrick Samy is CEO of Span, the NHS-backed digital health management platform, a former Microsoft computer science expert and Stanford researcher (CS)


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