Tech firms need to keep focusing on mental wellbeing and support

by Joseph K. Clark

It is now 12 months since the first UK lockdown began, and it has been a challenging time for us all. The technology industry has been at the front line, helping businesses transition to remote working and adapt their business models in response to the crisis. While the meteoric rise of Technology has been a tremendous positive for the industry, at the same time, the pressure it has placed on tech professionals has been significant. With long days, rising workloads, and rapidly changing objectives, it’s been quite a journey.

The perhaps inevitable result is that the number of people reporting concerns about their mental well-being has also jumped – up 75% last year, with more than a quarter (28%) saying they are concerned about their mental health right now. Our Technology & talent study, which surveyed over 1,700 tech professionals globally, lays this bare, finding that more than half of respondents (55%) have seen a rise in their workloads. Mental well-being has been a live issue in the tech sector for some time already –our study from the previous year, conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic, found that levels of concern about mental well-being were already on the rise then.

Tech firms

Remote working: friend or foe?

Sadly, the pandemic has taken mental health concerns to new levels – and this is no surprise. While some individuals have been pleased to work entirely remotely, for others, it has proved an increasing challenge the longer it has gone on, especially given the volume of work being asked of them. What was fine for a few weeks or a couple of months becomes harder to bear when it becomes open-ended.

Much of it depends on the nature of an individual’s role. For example, some coding activities are well-suited to solitary conditions (headphones on). But other positions that involve ideas generation and interactivity are much harder to do remotely. When jobs become an endless series of Zoom or Teams calls, often with no break in between, jumping from one topic to another with little preamble, the going can get tricky. In offices, interactions almost naturally stray into more personal and social interaction – small things that add up.

Blurring of personas

In the small world of Covid-19, individuals often face an endless to-do list and a ceaseless wall of video calls. Working from home, there is a blurring between the work persona and the home persona. Many people are beginning to look forward to “putting on” their work persona as they head out for the office again. At the other end of the day, the commute home was also frequently an opportunity for many to reset themselves on the way back and make that transition from work persona to a home.

Now, though, we have to instantly switch from one to the other when we turn away from our screen and become family members again. This can be difficult for some – almost like an identity crisis – and contributes to a growing mental unease. That said, we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Without a doubt, working remotely has brought many benefits, too. It has ripped up the old commuting rulebook, and few seem to be lamenting that. 75% of tech professionals want to work from home for most of the week (three to five days). Indeed, the ability to work remotely has become a top-three consideration for professionals considering a new role. At Harvey Nash, we also see a rise in clients specifying remote-first functions that are location agnostic. These trends greatly benefit both individuals and businesses.

Hybrid will help

However, in my view, the crucial element is that the future will be about a hybrid model: very few people will continue to work all the time remotely. Getting out once or twice a week and mixing with colleagues and clients in offices will make a massive difference. I hope that a move to a more hybrid model will help ease the mental health crisis from its current peak. Reading people’s emotions is much easier than seeing them in the flesh. A smile on Zoom can hide a million things. Increased colocation should help leaders and managers support teams more fully and make it easier for individuals to ask for support or guidance.

Keeping up the support

This won’t remove the problem, however. I fear that mental well-being pressures are a fact of modern life. The stigma of talking about them has lessened, which is massive progress. But we must keep working away at issues, investing in support mechanisms, and creating open cultures where mental well-being can be discussed without prejudice. It was certainly encouraging that in our Technology & talent study, more companies have put support measures in place, with four-fifths of businesses being rated as “supportive”.

There is further to go. We need to get to the point where someone might say, “I’m feeling depressed this week,” in the same way they may say, “I’ve got a bit of a cold”. It should become part of everyday conversation, with various potential aids available. We will never entirely beat stress and depression – it’s part of human life – but, as an industry, tech businesses must do everything they can to give their highly talented, in-demand staff the care and support they need.

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