Mental Health in *Ops

What are the first things that come to mind when you think of the words “mental health”? Straightjackets? Pills? Psychiatrists and leather couches? If they are, you might not need to place all the blame on yourself. Western culture, to this day, still manages to maintain a deeply-entrenched stigma around the notion of mental health or disorder; the very words appended together evoking all manner of distinctly negative connotations. We’ve tried as a culture, in many different ways, to describe it: disorder, illness, disease—antonyms of what would generally be considered “normal”. As a direct result, individuals in Western society are now working to find ways to engage in the Herculean task of ending the stigma of mental health and understand its impact on individuals, groups, and society more broadly.

What do I mean by “*Ops” and what does mental health have to do with it? More than you might think. I use the phrase *Ops to describe all Operations groups and individuals rather than just a single subset of them: NetOps is not DevOps, DevOps is not SysOps, SysOps is not SysEng, SysEng is not NOC, etc. However, all of these title are more generally discussing Ops as a whole, thus the idea of *Ops. It’s inclusive and acknowledges the different specialities and skill sets that many *Ops people are familiar with but might not have a focus or interest in, and I think it more accurately represents the diversity of roles within the Operations discipline.

More importantly, what does #HugOps mean? More than a Twitter hashtag, it’s a set of core beliefs and ideas whose time has come. The wonderful people over at PagerDuty wrote a short-ish blog post about #HugOps, empathy skills for DevOps, and its impact on team members as well as the broader organization.  It means embracing the whole of Operations (even the “Type-2 Fun” parts of it), engaging in and improving sustainable Operations practices, and just generally being an empathetic human being.  Sustainable Ops practices aren’t just focused on business continuity and velocity, they’re also concerned with things like quality of life, encouraging personal growth, and skill development.

To the point then: why talk about mental health and Ops in the same breath?  Because they’re inextricably linked, bound at the atomic level by the sheer fact that we are humans operating complex systems.  By inference, complex systems are prone to failure, and as a culture we do a terrible job of decomposing problems into their atomic parts without laying blame on someone or something, whether conscious or not.  When a team engaging in DevOps practices produces a service on which your system or service lives on encounters a failure of some type, of course you’re going to have a reaction.  What’s important is understanding the reasoning behind it and decomposing it so it becomes less of a people issue and remains simply an issue.

Why is it hard to talk about mental health in a work setting?  When we view the question through the lens of traditional (borderline “legacy”) organizations and structures, we often come to the same conclusions: that these issues are “thorny” and are better left to silence.  What we are learning instead is that when we leave these topics in the shadows, they fester and grow into pernicious and poisonous things.  In many cases, HR guidelines in a lot of legacy orgs reflect this viewpoint: feelings are thorny and difficult, the only thing that matters of productivity.  From that same perspective, the notion remains: “So long as your work is getting done and we are paying you a fair wage that we are legally bound to pay you, we don’t care.  Just don’t rock the boat.”

I once had a friend tell me, “HR isn’t there to help you or protect you.  They are there only to protect the business.”  I think what that person was trying to convey was that HR in legacy orgs isn’t (generally) there to be your friend or to help you.  It’s there to ensure neither the business nor you are subject to a lawsuit.  It’s been my experience that those self-same orgs are among the worst jobs I’ve ever worked at.  I worked at a Fortune 50 company many years ago where employees and contractors alike were afraid to talk about personal matters anywhere in proximity to the building for fear of being put on a short list for layoffs once the cycle came back around.

If your organization sounds even remotely like this, I advise you to run.

The notion that these types of guidelines, rules, and groups exist with the idea ingrained that employees are incapable of being functional, rational, empathetic adults at their place of work not only speaks to a level of organizational naivety, it is plainly insulting to anyone who has even a modicum of self-respect and self-awareness.  To that, I call bullshit.

To the above point: what kind of impact does that have on an individual?  Maybe someone who is in struggle at that very moment, maybe someone adjacent to another who is going through a difficult time in their life, has a chemical imbalance, or is a survivor?  It perpetuates the stigma of mental illness and further isolates individuals who might otherwise be strong contributors to both productivity and growth within a team or an organization.  When silence is the only option, that person’s life suffers in a number of ways:

  • Decreased motivation
  • Decreased cognitive function
  • Loss of appetite/sleep
  • Mood variability (depression, mania, bipolar-like symptoms, trauma, etc.)
  • Substance abuse

The list goes on.  To bait the hook even further: why, in two-thousand-and-fucking-sixteen are we still fighting to have this conversation?  I’m not sure I’m able to answer that question without talking more about my own experiences.

I started at my current job a little over two-and-a-half years ago.  In that time, the customer base and the fleet size that we operate has increased by an order of magnitude, and so had our problems.  When I started there, I had just left a job where the manager I was working under had coaxed three distinct panic attacks out of me in a single day.  I turned in my two week notice that very day and nearly refused to do the exit interview because I had nothing positive to say about the company or the person I had worked under.  When I went to the new gig, things were mostly okay.  I contributed to documentation, improved the JIRA dashboards that we used, started putting together a unified shell command structure that would eventually be used by the entirety of the rest of the Ops team… things were going well.

What I didn’t know was that in my personal life, I had failed to exercise the primary rule of Ops: Fix the problem, not the symptom.  I had left one job for another, but in the end I traded one set of stressors and symptoms for a completely different and drastically more complicated set.  I was already having a bad time of things due to depression, but laying impostor syndrome and a large amount of interrupt-driven work on top of the personal issues I was already experiencing was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I began to see a therapist.  I was already familiar with a lot of self-help and motivational methods and books, but what that person helped me to see was too large for me to ignore: I suffered from non-combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and still suffer from it to this day.  (Side-note: the fact that I have to specify non-combat-related screams loudly that we have a long way to go as a culture when discussing mental health.)

What would take me many months and a complete disintegration of a romantic relationship was seeing how the symptoms pervaded every part of my life, from intimate relationships all the way out to professional relationships.  My work suffered.  I was on-call often and being paged in the middle of the night only contributed to an inability to cope with “minor” stress.  Sometimes I’d be paged over a hundred times in a single shift.  I started to lose motivation, not just at work but in my personal life as well.  I stopped going to the gym, I stopped caring about personal relationships, and I began a general spiral.

That’s when I decided enough was enough.  I took a month-long road-trip and got away from the stress so I could try to think critically.  I found that I could sleep at night again.  I started to remember people’s names and faces more easily.  I drank a lot less.  I also took probably one of the most important steps out of everything I’ve done for myself in the last few years:

I explained to my management team that I was undergoing therapy and explaining everything that that entailed.  It wasn’t the most comfortable conversation, but conversations that make room for growth and reflection seldom are.

What has followed since that conversation has been nothing short of eye-opening for me.  I’ve found that there’s a renewed sense of empathy and camaraderie among the Ops people I work with currently.  Rather than trampling each other in stand-up conversations, we are more apt to lay out our thoughts in emails and chat and regroup after emotions have dissipated.  I notice more people are asking how I am doing and if there’s anything that they can do to help–and vice-versa.  I now find myself asking coworkers that are visibly stressed if they need me to take something off their plate for them or talk with them about it.

I’ve learned over the course of this entire experience that there are non-negotiable things that every person has to have available to them:

  • An explicit option to be real with their management and their peers
  • The specific ability and option to set boundaries and expectations with everyone they work with
  • The ability to push the Nope Button/pull the rip-cord (and have that be absolutely okay)

That being said, there’s a lot of room for improvement in the *Ops community from the individual level all the way to the organization level.  “Making room” for people to be able to talk about the difficulties they’re encountering in their lives and how it impacts their work is just one small part of it.

Be empathetic.

  • “Hey, I’ve noticed you’ve been a bit out-of-sorts lately.  Want to talk about it?”
  • “I want to help you succeed.  If that means adjusting your responsibilities here at work so you can be less stressed and healthier, let’s talk about it.”
  • “I understand you’re stressed out.  I feel the same way sometimes.  Would talking about some of it help?”

If HR is an impediment, get them out of the way.  If HR policies or the team is hindering your teams’ ability to be real with each other and their management, it might be a good time to address that.  If people are afraid to be empathetic, rational, thinking adults, then I would think that that would carry over to their everyday interactions with other people.  Culture is both organic (bottom-up) and codified (top-down), not just one or the other.  If what you’ve codified doesn’t match-up to what has been cultivated organically between people, then maybe it’s time to ditch the handbook and instead opt for real interaction.

If you’re a manager and you’re thinking “my team doesn’t have any of these problems” or “this doesn’t apply to me”, then it most certainly applies to you.  Symptoms of mental health might not be visible, but you might recognize them as your “intermittent” or “low” performers (which, by the way, is a terrible thing to categorize someone with).  Personal life circumstances might make the work-life more difficult for some people, and can be exacerbated quite easily.  Losing team members due to stress, burnout, or mental health issues can have a ripple-effect throughout the rest of the team, maybe inducing others to leave and seek better (or less stressful) opportunities.

Educate, educate, educate.  There is literally no excuse in this age of information to not know the signs of someone in struggle with mental health issues.  The resources available are things that we use every day of the week: Google, Wikipedia, HealthMD–the list goes on.  If in doubt, just fucking ask.  Genuinely give a damn about your team’s happiness.  If you don’t have something you can do immediately to make the situation better or easier to handle, then at the very least empathize.

  • “I hear you.  I’m sorry you’re struggling right now.  I don’t have any good answers or anything I can do right this second, but I want to make things better.”
  • “Thanks a lot for telling me.  I appreciate your honesty and vulnerability, and I’ll do what I can to make things right.”

Finally, what can organizations as a whole do to help make things better?  It’s actually a lot easier than you’d think.  “Good culture” is more than free beer, tabletop games, catered lunches, and open collaboration spaces.  If these are your main efforts or focus on cultivating great company culture, then you’re doing it wrong.  If you want to attract “10X Engineers” or “Rockstars” who will leave in 6 months because they got bored, then sure–do that.  If you want to attract people who will stay, who believe in “the mission”, and want to provide the best customer-facing and work experience possible then do the work.  Learn about your employees, figure out their wants and needs, and do what’s in your power to make them a reality.

Feedback loops seem to be overlooked in some places and over-utilized in others.  Here’s a simple way to do it if you can’t change HR policy or company culture in the short-term: anonymous survey forms.  By eliminating the stigma of speaking up about frustrations and letting people contribute to the feedback loop with uncensored input, it can give leadership great insight into where gaps exist and how best to resolve them.  Tossing proverbial “grenades” into conversations and stepping back to moderate the discussion can also be a great way to give team members a sense of empowerment and ownership over issues they feel strongly about.  I’ve found personally that when someone feels strongly about a specific issue, they’re going to take it and run with it until they’ve reached some kind of satisfactory response or at the very least an understanding of the geometry of the problem.

Lastly, this should go without saying: be a resource.  Even if you’re not in management, you can be a vocal advocate for someone in struggle.  Cheerlead for them when they do well, counsel them and step into the thick of it when something goes wrong.  Ask the Five Whys, be provocative in your questioning, make recommendations (not mandates).  Give them a sense of empowerment and ownership.

In short: be the kind of person that you’d want others to be for you.  Lead by example.  Short of that, find somewhere that you can be honest and be yourself without apologizing for being human.

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