‘We are at a critical point for mental health in the tech sector’

In recent years, there has been a welcome focus on the importance of mental health in the tech sector and indeed across society more widely. Recognition has grown of how widespread mental health issues can be in our ‘always on’ world. Employers have placed more emphasis on providing the support mechanisms needed and creating an open environment where the stigma in discussing issues of mental health is removed.

The very real need for this was underlined in the most recent Harvey Nash Tech Survey, conducted last year, which included the stark finding that half of tech professionals said they were or had in the past been concerned about their mental health due to the pressures of work.

Then came Covid-19… The pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for communities and economies, affecting people on every level of their personal and professional lives. The tech sector has played an instrumental role in enabling businesses and individuals to keep going, facilitating the transition to remote working and ensuring that communication and IT platforms can cope with the demand. It is a role the sector can rightly be proud of.

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But what toll has the crisis, with all of its pressures and uncertainties about the future, taken on tech professionals so far? At Harvey Nash, we were keen to get an understanding of this, particularly in light of the concerns we had already unearthed in our Tech Survey. We ran a supplementary pulse survey to find out, launched during Mental Health Awareness week in May. Across our two surveys, we took in the views of some 1,600 tech professionals in the UK.

The results give cause for concern and suggest that Covid-19 has brought us to a crossroads for mental wellbeing in the sector. We simply have to ensure that we take the right path ahead into the future, or the situation could become significantly worse.

Some of the key findings from our pulse survey are:

• Over one in three tech professionals say that their mental health has deteriorated during the Covid-19 pandemic

• Over a quarter are concerned about their mental health right now due to working pressures – before the crisis it was less than one in six

• For over a third of those people actively concerned now about their mental health, it is the first ever time in their lives that they have experienced this

We found that those in Project Management and IT Operations roles — who were most under strain to rapidly move large workforces to a remote/virtual environment — are most affected right now.

Of course, the degree and ways in which people have been affected depends quite significantly on their personal circumstances. For example, job worries are affecting contractors much more than permanent staff. Meanwhile, those with children face particular strains, with the need to balance work with home-schooling a particular cause of stress. For those who live alone, on the other hand, the main challenge is quite different — having no one to speak to.

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We are now entering a new phase, with lockdown easing and more aspects of life beginning to move towards something more like normality. But while instinctively one might expect this to reduce the mental strain on people, for a significant proportion this easing is in fact ushering in a whole new phase of worry, concerned about catching the virus or passing it on to members of their household.

This just underlines the fact that the Covid-19 crisis and its effects are not a one-off shock – but a long-term shift into a new normal. It becomes essential for tech businesses to ensure they are responsive to this and provide their staff with the support they need, for example by

creating online resources, supporting the creation of mental health networks and discussion forums and, potentially, offering staff access to counselling services too.

Encouragingly, we found that 56% of companies have increased the level of personal and emotional support to staff since the crisis began. However, half of businesses still don’t offer any formal support for mental health issues.

The difference this makes is visible: three quarters of those working for unsupportive companies are either concerned about their mental health now or in the past. This drops by a quarter amongst very supportive companies.

In these challenging times, I urge tech businesses, at a senior level, to review the mental health support measures they have in place and ensure they are fit for purpose. But the challenge isn’t just one of getting the right ‘mechanisms’ in place, it’s also one about culture change.

The most successful organisations are the ones where everyone feels it is their duty to ask their team members and colleagues one simple question: ‘How are you?’

Tips for employers

Tips for Employers Experts at This Can Happen, the world’s largest online workplace mental health conference, with whom Harvey Nash has partnered in producing the research report, have created some useful and practical guidance for employers around managing and supporting mental wellbeing at work.

1. Create an internal portal of free resources so your staff know what is available for them to access both internally and externally. Supporting the mental health of your staff does not need to be expensive. Webinars are available here.

2. Invite staff to upload content themselves. This may be in the form of blogs or information that they have found elsewhere. It is really helpful to enable staff to be responsible for content as well.

3. Hold regular town halls where the main theme is mental health. Have a senior leader run the session, inviting people to talk about their mental health. Don’t worry if, at the start, these gatherings have low numbers. It will grow as people learn about it and feel more comfortable.

4. At the senior level, communicate, communicate, communicate. Uncertainty creates anxiety and right now employees may be uncertain about how long they’ll be working away from the office and whether there are going to be impacts to the business and their job.

5. Remember that mental health is not an ‘initiative’. It needs to be embedded in workplace culture and will not happen overnight. A small start is a good start.

Written by Bev White, CEO, Harvey Nash Group

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