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What can tech employers do to support your mental health?

sublimemarch profile image Fen Slattery ・1 min read

We've seen lots of posts on dev.to about mental health, and there are organizations like Open Sourcing Mental Illness working to change how we talk about mental health in the tech community.

If you're a person with mental illness, what are some things your employer does to support you and your needs? What could they improve? How can fellow developers help you feel more included in our industry?

Image from #WOCinTech

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Fen Slattery

@sublimemarch

Accessibility lead and front end engineer. they/them

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Ignorance and apathy about mental health is actually what has chased me OUT of the enterprise tech environment. I've written some about my views on mental health and how others can become more comfortable with their mental illness, as well as some things I do to stay sane as a freelancer with mental illness. Those posts are here and here.

From my experience, I cannot say what companies are doing right because I've never worked in an environment where they have. But I can say what companies could do better. The chiefest of these things is to realize that a mental illness is a result of a wiring that is never going to be "fixed".

Every company I worked at, in a tech role or otherwise, fails to see mental illness and invisible illness as permanent and debilitating. No manager ever expects an employee in a wheelchair to eventually "get over" their need to take the elevator. But those of us who have a rough life mentally, emotionally, or invisibly physically (fibromyalgia, EDS, MS, chronic pain, even diabetes on occasion) seem to be expected to one day "get better". This approach feels extremely patronizing, as if our managers are trained to "humor us" for a time, so long as it is convenient, and allow us our to adapt so that one day we wont "need to be difficult" and can become a part of the office environment. It also communicates "Okay crazy guy, you've got 'anxiety'. I totally get it. We absolutely support your 'illness' and will give you what you need to succeed despite your 'challenges'. But, you've got about 6 months to snap out of it because we know that you're just out for attention and an excuse to be the lowest producer in the office, which won't fly after your 'grace period'. Welcome to the family!"

Simply acknowledging that, no, we are not doing this for attention, no, we are not happy about our limitations either, and yes, we would stop needing the things we need in a heartbeat if we had a choice, would be ideal. Our limits are imposed by our physiology, just like people who are paralyzed or missing limbs have their limits imposed by their anatomy. The fact that you can easily see one and not the other is not a reason to discount it. I feel the "productivity" culture at most companies is so short-sited and ignorant that they cannot even recognize that those of us with "alternative wirings" would produce at least as well as everyone else if they made extremely cheap or free changes like areas with low lighting, "quiet rooms" for us to retreat for a moment, or would send us a Slack or Jabber message 10 minutes before they show up at our desk to talk about something that forces us to suddenly and violently change mental gears. Perhaps software companies do this, but I've only ever worked as a tech worker at companies that sell things other than technology and am therefore seen as a "necessary evil" even if I didn't have issues.

 

In general, flexible work from home policy when you're not feeling well is key. Whether that illness is physical or mental shouldn't matter. Management should not require you to disclose it, and where possible, peers should move away from a cultural norm of talking about why they're staying home.

I wish the industry as a whole would move away from open offices. They're the absolute worst for my mental health, but there's seemingly no getting around them. Especially early in your career.

Lastly, trans inclusive and mental health inclusive healthcare coverage are key. Whether or not you're affected by these issues, both management and individual contributors can make a difference in their companies by advocating for missing coverage.

 

Recently, a nasty cold went around my office and people were staying home a lot. I also needed a day off, but I didn't have the cold -- so I made a point of saying I was taking a "mental health day" and would not be online or responding to messages that day. I wanted people to know that the reason I was staying home was not physical, but that it was just as valid. When I returned to work, I saw that someone had @'d me on Slack and another person interceded to let them know that I wasn't online that day -- standing up for me, which was great.

On the one hand, I totally agree with you about moving "away from a cultural norm of talking about why they're staying home." On the other hand, I wonder if there isn't an opportunity to teach people that there are more than just physical reasons for taking a day off, that are just as urgent/important. What do you think?

P.S. 100% agree about open offices. Privacy is important!

 

Ooh, that's a good point. I definitely want to work to destigmatize mental and other invisible illnesses, but at least in the United States it's actually illegal to require disclosure of health issues under the ADA, but people sometimes don't realize that or follow it. I think it definitely depends on how supportive your office is, and what message you want to send. I think both are valid choices.

 

I agree. If I were able to work from home when I wasn't feeling up to dealing with the social presence of being at the office I'd be a lot more productive. They've given me a laptop and mobile phone so I can work and be contacted from anywhere... But don't let me do it. It baffles me.

 

One little thing we've done at work recently that has been great has been having a craft break time every now and then where we get together in a conference room to make some kind of physical craft. It's both a company-sponsored reason to get away from your desk for a bit and switch gears if you want, and a way to decompress from a stressful project cycle. That, and I think for people who spend so much time making intangible things, it's satisfying in a different but sometimes needed way to make something you can hold in your hands once in a while and stretch different creative skills than usual.

We also recently set up an employee assistance program—I haven't used it while I've been at this office, but I've used them in the past when I was going through a stressful time and needed a listening ear and a referral to a therapist. I think especially in high-pressure startup environments and agencies those programs can be a helpful guard against burnout.

 

The physical craft piece is a super cool idea!!

 

Personally, i think the biggest problem in the industry right now is that mental illness is not taken seriously simply because it doesn't manifest itself physically.

I have both anxiety and depression and have had for most of my adult life which i accept will probably never go away. I struggle talking to people, never seem to fit in and frequently never feel good enough.

The way we move forward is to first aknowledge the problem then to become confortable with the idea that it's not curable. Mental illnesses affect people in different ways so don't consider there to be a univeral solution.

 

Accepting workers as whole humans - that we come to work with skills and capabilities and contributions, desires and goals, but also vulnerabilities and frailties and needs. An acceptance that we struggle by the mere fact of existance.

Recognising that mental and physical health are on a continuum - that healthy bodies supported by adequate time for rest, education about burnout and being proactive in its prevention, access to decent food, perhaps even providing counselling services.

Our organisations are a reflection of the culture at large, but there are pockets of enlightened employers that can help support you, so keep looking for them.

 

I'm a huge fan of iterative retrospectives every 1 or 2 weeks, where the entire team can discuss how they feel about the project, their career, and personal lives. We are also using the Team Health Check app to quickly find the most critical issues to discuss, and understand how do we feel in the team context (is it only us that doesn't have any fun?).

You can read more about it in my post Tools that help me build healthy and performing teams.

The best wishes and a lot of mental toughness!

 

Recently i needed to take a month off from work to admit myself into a partial hospitalization program for my mental health. My boss and colleagues sent me flowers and made sure that I took my time with getting back into work when I was discharged and went back to work. I have the privilege of working with a great group of people, but obviously can't say the same for others. If your company is not willing to support your health, then, I would think there's a problem somewhere.

 

To be honest, just running things properly, treating people with respect, valuing their skills and demonstrating this by paying attention to them and helping them develop, having a system that isn’t just run based on unstated power relationships... you know, all the things that the management coaches say you should do but companies do the opposite of anyway. This stresses everyone but if you’re on the edge in the first place they can be catastrophic.

 
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This is a serious topic, so this sort of comment is neither constructive nor appropriate. Please be more considerate in the future.

 

Considering the context of the post, this is in poor taste.

 
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