Mental Health & The “Technology Industry”

My relationship with the “technology industry” has been contentious in many ways.  I’ve been diagnosed with and am currently undergoing treatment for PTSD, struggled with depression, and have intermittently contemplated suicide.  Constantly fighting with myself, battling Impostor Syndrome, and pushing back against my own unrealistic expectations of things is as exhausting as you might imagine.

“The industry” has talked at-length in recent years about figuring out ways to reduce or eliminate burnout, and it’s been helpful as far as exposure is concerned.  What hasn’t improved is the actual effort around improving things.  Organizations can talk all day about giving people more breaks, encouraging contributors to take more vacation time, refer them to specialists, and add more “perks” like nap rooms, alcohol, spaces and activities to socialize, but addressing the root of the problem requires getting into the sharp, thorny thickets of human emotion and understanding the human costs of doing business–a subject that few organizations seem interested or able to engage in.

I had a recent conversation with someone that travels in the same circles that I do in the New England technology industry after they posted an article about an Uber engineer that recently committed suicide due to work-related stress.  I took great pains to point out to them that the tech industry does a great job of increasing visibility–but that’s generally where the effort stops.

Let me be clear: visibility does not solve problems.  People solve problems.  Engineering problems, people problems, organizational problems, global problems.

Just because you know someone is close to burnout doesn’t mean that their situation is magically going to improve.  It requires communication.  It requires an immense amount of trust.  Effective communication and trust require vulnerability.  Vulnerability veers into territory that most organizations, whether explicitly or implicitly, generally steer individuals away from.  While organizations might make “diversity” and “inclusivity” core pieces of their mission statements, the actual work that ends-up going M.I.A. is the actual skills around having difficult conversations and how to provide support for each other.

In my own experience, the organizations I’ve worked for have actively avoided all of these conversations and haven’t built a reasonable framework for disclosure or discussion.  A significant number of the experiences I’ve had so far basically boil-down to some variation of the phrase “don’t let it become a problem”, implying that not only do the organizations not care, but that there are also potential consequences if the individual “can’t keep a lid on it”.

Organizations make it easy and expedient to avoid communicating with each other about the things that make work-life balance possible.  On top of that, there’s always the implication in larger or cut-throat VC-funded organizatons that the point of the business existing in the first place is (ostensibly) to make money.  “Human costs” of doing business are so poorly defined and nebulous that making them part of the overall calculus often results in nothing changing.  Unless an enterprising soul is able to tie the costs of “toil” (in the parlance of Toyota) or “unplanned work” directly to a revenue stream or cost-center, the business, to be utterly blunt, just doesn’t give a damn.

“That’s what we hire you for!  You do work, we pay you.  End of story.”

All things being equal, it’s been implicit rather than explicit that there’s a core belief in every tech organization: “if you can’t hack it, you have no place here”.  Which further implies that there isn’t support availble internally for problem solving, training, or even simply to “check something out with someone”.  I’ve completely lost count of how many times I’ve wanted to walk over to a Product Manager or an Executive and ask them why de-prioritizing a change to reduce toil was a good idea.  Or how the calculus of employee churn compares against expected costs in a given group or department (hint: it doesn’t).

How do you re-engage an employee who’s lost in their own head?  How do organizations make it okay for someone to have feelings and work on their problems while still providing value as a contributor?  How do we provide real culture in organizations rather than cheerleading sessions and frivolous, alcohol-laden socialization?

We need to create connection.  We do that by helping everyone to understand their inherent value and to really appreciate their contributions, no matter the size.  When we are able to help connect people together and help them realize that the code or the product is just a MacGuffin for connecting people together in pursuit of something greater.  Whether that’s self improvement or improvement of a product or the world writ-large, that’s what we really need.

What are the costs of an employee burning out and leaving?  What is the impact of constant, interrupt-driven events on engineering teams?  What, if anything, can help drive more meaningful interactions between individuals and teams to help take emotional risk from lethal to livable?  How can we take suffering, whether silent or not, out of the picture and instead figure out how to uncover an individual’s “joie de vivre”?

We could start by inculcating a culture of “acceptance”.  Rather than telling or implying to someone “shape-up or ship-out”, we can make room for them.  Ask them what’s going on.  Talking about our personal lives at work is only problematic when the organization makes it a problem.  When fear overrides our common and innate ability to empathize.

To reiterate: businesses don’t like risk or liability.  Personal lives are rife with situations that organizations, whether out of risk-avoidance or cowardice, tend to want to avoid any discussion or mention of.  Human life is exceptionally complicated, with some being more complicated than others.  If we’re not able to talk about what is creating disharmony in our lives, whether it’s personal or professional, like actual adults, then we’re missing the point of working together in the first place.

We could continue progressing through improving communication.  Telling someone that their decisions are creating an unfair burden or that they felt as though they couldn’t speak-up is key to improving the working life of anyone in technology.  Being able to talk openly and honestly about the causes of their stress, whether it’s too much work, feelings of powerlessness or uselessness, or a lack of improvement, being able to respond to and mean what you say goes a long way.  Being able to say “I can see where you’re coming from”, “I didn’t know this was a problem”, “I’m sorry things aren’t going well”, or “I want to help you, tell me how I can help” can help many people in very meaningful ways.

Lastly, we need to start building a culture of “work to live” versus “live to work”.  The technology sector lionizes the hard-drinking, quick-developing, move-fast-and-break-stuff, up-til-3am-saving-this-client’s-butt type of employee, but does little to really incentivize or provide meaningful feedback for people who contribute in a more healthy way.  If the technology industry were serious about work-life balance, there’d be less emphasis on balance-sheets, PNLs, and work-hard-play-hard engineering culture, and instead would make work-life balance their core, internal mission.  Unofficially, where I work currently likes to play with the phrase “No Capes”, but we’re still a long way off from making it a reality.

The technology industry needs to more clearly understand that there is more to be done.  It’s not enough to simply acknowledge it and move on.  It’s not enough.  Organizations need to implicitly, and intimately, understand the impact of work-related stress as it relates to mental health and the health of the broader organization.  Where organizations seem to fail most is making it safe to even start the process–so I encourage you to bypass the organization entirely.

Start with your peers.  You know at least one who probably has a lower threshold for frustration or someone who’s probably having a tough time with things.  If you really care about them, ask them how they’re doing.  They just might surprise you and tell you that they need help with someone that you’re good at or have experience with.

You probably then want to start thinking about your group or your organization.  How can you do better to support people that might be suffering in silence?  How can the group or the organization make it easier for people to get help and to sound the alarm when they’re overwhelmed?

Finally, what can the organization or the business do to make their operations more sustainable?  Are the human costs of technical debt or procedural gaps justified when the quality of life for employees is compromised?  I’d argue that no cost is too high in maintaining a high quality of life for any employee, regardless of position or function.  But the important part is starting the discussion.

We can all do more to help improve the lives of our peers, our friends, our coworkers, our communities, and our loved ones.  If we can at least start the conversation, then we might just be able to improve the lives of the ones who need help the most, but might not have the voice or the words to ask for it themselves.

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