#BreakTheStigma - May is Mental Health Awareness Month
Introduction: Mental health in Tech
Fostering mental wellness for employees in tech companies benefits everyone including clients. However, it’s not an easy task to check off. Mental health is something that needs to be worked on constantly. Creating a safe space where employees feel comfortable, connected, and engaged takes work but the results can be very rewarding for clients and the entire organization.
It was 3 am during one summer night when Riley couldn’t sleep and realized this situation had lasted for 48 hrs. This happened before #Covid and #GreatResignation became trending topics on the Internet. Although the relationship with the boss was stressful, Riley was functioning well at work and while projects were challenging, they were delivered with good results.
So, what about this sudden insomnia?
Most professionals in IT, Data Analytics, and other tech-related fields know the importance of having a good performance at work. We use computers with working hardware and software to do our analysis. Everyday performance is monitored, controlled, and measured. Performance is expected. But what kind of performance can be expected from people when the hardware (the body) is working, but there are problems with the software - the mind?
Insomnia was usually the first sign in Riley’s body to indicate that something was wrong. Was it bad habits? Riley was eating healthy and doing exercise regularly to keep a good performance. There were no signs of panic attacks or paralyzing depression. The only symptom was this inexplicable insomnia and full alertness in the middle of the night. But that was an awakening sign for Riley (pun intended) because insomnia is among the first of a series of symptoms to appear:
- Changes in sleeping patterns,
- Loss of appetite,
- Impulsive decision making,
- Alcohol drinking in moments of distress.
Being aware of these signs is important for early detection and seeking professional help, but Riley brushed it off as something temporary. Later, Riley experienced body aches and other symptoms created by stress and insomnia. Despite knowing what had to be done, quitting would be difficult because it comes with mental struggles of its own:
- Thinking about personal failure,
- Causing disappointment in others,
- Job and economic insecurity.
That same year, Riley made the decision to quit and recharge. That time off from work was invested in personal and professional goals that put Riley in a position to seek more fulfilling work that provides a better work-life balance.
Common in Tech
Since the appearance of Elon Musk on SNL announcing his bout with Asperger's syndrome, it's no longer a secret that neurodiversity and having different abilities are almost intrinsic for IT/Tech professionals.
Peter Thiel had already pointed out that many of the biggest names in Silicon Valley present some degree of Asperger's that gives them personality traits that make them prone to succeed in the tech world:
- Obsessive focus on a single subject to the exclusion of others.
- Social impairment such as lack of interest in small talk or casual conversation.
- Rigid convictions about their ideas and what they can or cannot do.
Placing such an individual in a “normal” workplace is challenging. They can be perceived as pedantic, apathetic, and self-serving. They might face judgment from coworkers that could easily end in workplace bullying. Mental health issues impact close to 20 percent, or 1 in 5 peers in your network. However, only half of them receive treatment.
After years of being bullied, many of these individuals achieved success and created big tech companies. Years later they became some of the big egos in the tech scene, known for imparting a toxic work culture and way of doing business at the cost of mistreating others. If it’s true that the bully was once bullied then the need for maintaining good mental health at work is not just about breaking a stigma but also about breaking a cycle.
Glorification of Hardship
Most people are indoctrinated since childhood to give their best. We grow up idolizing higher-achieving heroes who represent performance and prowess. Lately, we have also seen performance-related buzzwords appearing frequently in our news and social media feeds:
- Agile, etc.
One must be resilient, fluid like water, or tough against adversity. Even if you're broken, you have to pick up the pieces and pull yourself together to show beauty and strength, as seen in Japanese Kintsugi art. We are not allowed to show distress, we must keep calm and secretly look for treatments or techniques to overcome the mental disorders. The assumption was that one didn’t have the right to lose face, express discomfort, or look for ways to even prevent illness and burnout. Those who express distress are usually perceived as weak. The truth is that mental health is not so simple. Research is just starting to discover that there are many different factors that cause mental illness including:
- Brain chemistry,
- Brain structure,
- Past Trauma,
- And other medical conditions.
Very little was being said about ideas, techniques or ways to prevent mental hardship from happening at work. But the Great Resignation came as a wake-up call for employers and the general public to realize that a change in perspectives is happening.
It turns out that high-performing heroes are humans too.
When a public figure like Simone Biles speaks out, society has no other option than to listen and acknowledge that #MentalHealth is something to be cared for in every single person. Because if even rockstars at the peak of their careers can suffer mental struggle then we should expect the same from everyone else at any point in their lives.
Covid has been an agent of change that accelerated shifts in many areas of society, including the job market. Part of the Big Resignation phenomenon is that job seekers are also being more selective when prospecting employers. Nowadays, the interview process is a two-way street and job candidates are interviewing potential employers just as much as employers are screening candidates.
Companies are now embracing remote work, flexible schedules and locations in the hopes of retaining talent and preventing others from experiencing burnout. Suddenly, the ideas of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and “hardship is necessary to become a better individual” are shifting to a more holistic view of the role of work in our lives. Job seekers keep seeking employment for the obvious economic incentive, but they're also looking for:
- A good corporate culture,
- A good work-life balance,
- A job with a sense of purpose,
- Psychological safety,
- A toxicity-free environment.
We can Make a Change with Kindness
Improving the well-being of those around us starts by breaking the stigma associated with mental health. Specialists and non-profit organizations agree that Compassion and Kindness can help promote psychological safety and even enhance productivity in the workplace.
Experts suggest that kindness can be practiced in many simple ways by:
- Showing Respect and Acceptance - Choosing not to judge.
- Advocating within our circles - Turning into each other to acknowledge the problem.
- Learning more about Mental Health - Understanding how others see the world.
Kindness is the best policy when interacting with others, even our antagonists, not only because it’s the right thing to do, or because tables could suddenly turn later in life, but because it’s only by treating others with decency and respect that we can help create a psychologically safe environment and #BreakTheStigma for all of us.
Business Insider: https://www.businessinsider.com/peter-thiel-aspergers-is-an-advantage-2015-4