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Are We Tackling Mental Health in Tech Companies the Right Way?

Work in startups and tech companies is not easy. It is stressful. It is mentally taxing, often challenging, and usually time sensitive, mission critical, important to a client, a colleague, or all of the above. Not always. But more often than not.

Supporting mental health in the tech industry

Easy, quiet, boring days are few and far between in the tech sector.

As recent as five years ago, not very many people were talking about the mental toll working in the tech sector takes on employees, freelancers, and co-founders. Now, the stigma is starting to lift. People are talking about mental health more openly. Companies are realizing that looking after staff also means taking mental health into account, and not only on World Mental Health Day.

Changing Perceptions: Real Impacts?

One example, of many now, is Sanctus, mental health startup in London. Sanctus works with brands such as WeWork and Red Bull to give team members individual and group coaching sessions (not therapy, we must point out, which is different and can come from publicly funded organizations or privately).

In 2016, the founder of Sanctus, James, published an article on Medium: “Mental health in startups.” It gained so much attention, taking about “the elephant in the room” – mental health in the tech and startup sector – that he was asked to write something similar for a national paper.

He later founded Sanctus, and was then joined by George, a co-founder from a previous startup, one that raised $1 million and was used by 50 million users every month. It eventually failed. It took time for James to realize the impact that startup had on his mental health, so it’s wonderful to see the positive impact his journey is having on others.

Despite frequently cited studies that 1 in 4 have mental health problems, the message from Sanctus is that we all have mental health. Every day. We think, we are sentient, supposedly intelligent creatures, therefore we worry, we have anxiety; this, in essence, is mental health, and just like our physical health, we need to look after it. And that is unique to every one of us.

One of the many takeaways that caught people’s attention in that article, that has contributed to an outpouring of similar sentiment and an explosion of services in this area was: “People do not talk about mental health enough, that’s a fact. And I believe startup culture is exacerbating this problem, by encouraging people to work themselves into the ground, ’sleep faster’ and move quicker.”

Since then, startups in this space have gained prominence, such as Calm, Headspace (with over 40 million users), Unmind, and many others. Non-profits are also benefiting from more people being willing to talk about mental health, with new ones being set-up, including ones with the backing of the British Royal Family. With more tools for people to look after their mental health, and an increased willingness to talk about it – in the same way we do our physical health – the stigma is lifting further.

Is This Having an Impact at Work?

In the early-stages of mental health startups and services, a positive impact may be harder to prove. Mental health is very personal and it changes every day. But with an improved access to services that can support people at work, and outside of work, that is going to have a positive impact in the workplace.

Companies in this space will be keen to prove the ROI. And given the number of them that have emerged from the tech/startup space, many are seeking clients amongst other tech and startup companies, so it’s from within one of the most stressful sectors that solutions are being discovered. Whether that comes in the form of gamification apps or 24/7 access to therapists, there are solutions that employers can provide to employees, to provide the support people need at work.

Beyond support, what can companies do to improve workloads in the tech sector:

1. Provide clear priority guidance. If everything is important and urgent, then nothing is. Ideally, workloads should ebb and flow. Busy periods should be followed by somewhat quieter ones. When everything is urgent all of the time, it’s the quickest route to burnout and employees going elsewhere.

2. Don’t expect 24/7 connectivity. Burnout is a very real threat to employees’ mental health and wellbeing in the tech sector. Encouraging or at least not preventing team members being connected and communicating about work 24/7 is not healthy.

3. Let employees talk. And take time off for mental health, if that is what they need. Don’t discriminate against mental health, that will only set internal cultural progress back, alienate those who might also want to speak up and seek help, and serve to perpetuate ongoing problems.

We all have mental health. Work in the tech sector is stressful. If you don’t look after employees, another company will.

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