World Mental Health Day 2021: considering mental wellbeing across the tech sector

First recognised by the World Federation for Mental Health in 1992, World Mental Health Day aims to raise awareness about the importance of mental wellbeing, and advocate against social stigma around the subject. Mental health has proved a hot topic across the tech sector, with research conducted by Harvey Nash earlier this year finding that concerns among tech workers increased by 75% during the pandemic.

With this in mind, we take a look at how tech organisations have been dealing with the matter of mental health, and the challenges that they have been looking to overcome.

Improved work-life balance

According to James Hallahan, director of Hays Technology in the UK & Ireland, hybrid working between the office and home has proved beneficial to the mental health of tech employees, but added that staff that are working remotely need regular check-ins from management.

“We are noticing now that technology professionals don’t want to go back to the old ways of working,” said Hallahan. “They have benefitted from an improved work-life balance, cutting out the commute and having more leisure time for family and relaxation.

“Looking ahead, they are demanding more flexibility about the hours they work and where they are based and we’re seeing a rise in appointments where people are contractually working from home. For this to be a successful strategy it’s really important that organisations maintain regular engagement with remote employees, in order to build loyalty and a sense of belonging.

“Managers need to check-in regularly, to ask how people are doing, not just with their workload but in themselves. Building strong, open, and honest relationships with employees leads to better two-way communication and managers will be able to spot early signs of burn-out or prolonged stress.

“At Hays we launched POWR, an app available to all of our own employees to help them learn ways to improve wellbeing, and we have mental health first aiders and a wellbeing committee, with wellbeing ambassadors across the country. We also have a free online product for customers, called Hays Thrive, and free online training for upskilling and wellbeing support for candidates.”

A need for D&I

Another aspect to consider when maintaining the mental health of staff is the need to make all members of staff feel represented and valued, regardless of their background.

“Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) has to be an authentic part of company culture and integrated into business strategy if it is to mean anything,” said Alex Arundale, chief people officer at Advanced.

“Advanced has produced a Diversity Pay Gap Report and uses data for insights into diversity across the organisation. It has highlighted levels in the business where some groups were underrepresented.

“You don’t solve these problems in a credible way by simply promoting more people from these groups into higher level positions. We have a recruitment policy that is designed to remove unconscious bias, so that anybody with the right attributes and potential can succeed. Instead of selecting by CV, we use aptitude tests to reveal what people are capable of, regardless of how many qualifications they have, or the schools they attended, or even their name.

“By recruiting for potential and promoting at pace we believe we are developing the best talent to be the leaders of tomorrow. Ultimately, everyone in our business will be able to see people like themselves reflected at all levels and roles.”

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Spontaneous informal chats

It’s also been found that remote video calls between colleagues have felt too formal, which can increase feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. A solution that’s been found to mitigate this is more spontaneous check-in calls that discuss matters beyond work.

“With a workforce that is office based, interaction is filled with formal and informal moments. This forms bonds and the informal moments can be a great release for teams,” said Marco Fanizzi, vice-president and general manager at Commvault.

“While collaboration and conferencing technology has been incredibly useful, the problem is that a reliance on – often scheduled – video, eliminates informality almost entirely. I realised pretty quickly that this was something we had to try and change if we were to safeguard the wellbeing of our teams.

“To try avoid this ‘planned informality’ we encouraged more spontaneous calls and conversations between managers and team members. It required a series of mentality changes to be made to the format of everyday communication to help put people at ease. Like removing the need to have video running, so colleagues would not worry about their setting should a call arrive that wasn’t in the diary, and less formal.”

Encouraging regular breaks

Finally, regular breaks from screens, with hybrid working set to be here to stay for many, is vital to minimise exhaustion and burnout.

Janette Martin, CEO of 360 Resourcing, explained: “Remote working has been great for some employees, but others have struggled with the distractions of family life. A blurring around the start and end of contracted hours has meant some people are working longer days, because they find it hard to switch off and aren’t taking regular breaks.

“Being on remote video calls is also extremely taxing as people’s brains are having to work so much harder to cope with sound and vision coming at us from a computer. In a face-to-face meeting, we see and hear the small cues in speech, expression and body language that we don’t get in an online meeting. It’s no wonder that after a day of back-to-back video calls people feel exhausted.

“We encourage our staff to stagger these meetings, so that they get breaks in-between, and to limit their length so they don’t end up feeling mentally overloaded. We are also encouraging people to come back into the office and are noticing how much more energized and positive they are feeling.

“The Talos360 office is a friendly and lively space, and I think people are relieved to get back to a sense of normality, with a bit of office banter that helps them get their work done in an enjoyable and productive way. Our ‘How To Switch Off’ webinars with real subject-matter experts have helped all of us consider and improve our work-life balance, to try to avoid stress and burn-out. We make sure the lines of communication are open to all, with frequent check-ins to make sure everyone is feeling ok and is coping with their work.”

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.