Mental Health Awareness Week: Tech industry experts discuss experiences supporting employees over the past year

The past year has been challenging, difficult and isolating for many staff, which has led to a worsening of mental health problems across the UK. The technology sector has played an instrumental role in enabling society to continue to function digitally – from software developers to cyber security professionals.

So, what have leading technology companies found when it comes to the effects the pandemic has had on such employees, and importantly, how have they supported through this challenging time?

Ensuring innovation without leading to burnout

Burnout is common across all sectors and industries, particularly technology. James Brotsos, Product Manager of Developer Experience at Checkmarx acknowledges. “It’s no hidden secret that the past year has spurred a significant digital shift driven by software. What many don’t see is developers working furiously behind the scenes to enable this transformation by developing feature-packed software at a breakneck pace.” Brotsos cites a recent survey from Checkmarx “discovered that nearly half (46%) of developers said the rate at which they’re expected to build and deploy software is somewhat or significantly faster now compared to before the pandemic.”

To this point, Nick Street, Senior Manager at Tanzu Labs UK explains that “although software development teams might have experienced working remotely prior to the pandemic, there has been no blueprint for the past year which has seen companies ramp up their digital transformation and demands on devs teams like never before.” Street goes on to emphasise how vital is it for developers to be supported in setting up good routines. “For example, designating a pair of engineers as the “interrupt pair” at the start of each day can help lower the cost of interruptions and minimise the need for conversations, decisions and context switching. With demanding hours, and no obvious cut-off point provided by offices and external places of work anymore, workers in this field must be encouraged to find ways to deliver what is expected in a safe and sustainable way.”

Raymond Pompon, Director at F5 Labs reiterates this. “When it’s only a short emotional distance from ‘I think I’m coping well’ to ‘burnt-out’, it’s vital we notice the signs when they appear. But to complicate the challenge, the symptoms of stress and burnout are often obscure. You feel overly tired, for example, but making the link between tiredness and burn-out is difficult. Recognition is half the battle.”

The inability to switch off

Unsurprisingly, as employees have followed guidelines to work from home, the boundaries between work and personal life have inevitably blurred. Eva Majercsik, chief people officer at Genesys notes that the pandemic has “accelerated the “always on” mentality many people already struggled with. It’s drawn more attention to the need for balance and the expectations employees have for how their companies support mental well-being.”

Julie Chell, Chief People Officer at Civica explains how Civica has “acted on this swiftly, with regular training, communications and tips on mental health, reminders about access to our Mental Health Champions around the business and regular webinars to get people talking. In addition, we started doing a range of ‘drop in’ sessions where people can join colleagues for a virtual work-out, mindfulness sessions, virtual coffee and book club discussions.”

Moreover, pulse surveys have been a useful tool for many companies by offering insights into employee wellbeing and productivity. Chell continues, “these surveys have proved invaluable in our decision making, guiding us to offer the right support and communications. For example, we’ve found that the vast majority have appreciated the flexibility shown by our leaders throughout the pandemic and we’ve been clear in passing the thanks on.”

Suman Gopalan, Chief HR Officer at Freshworks notes “improving mental health in the workplace starts with widespread understanding: organisations should encourage dialogue and work to combat any associated stigma. Managers play an important role in this. They must create an environment where people are not under constant stress and feel comfortable to come forward to talk about the challenges they face. In fact, I’d encourage managers to undergo training to handle these conversations with empathy and professionalism, and to recognise signs of mental health difficulties among their colleagues.”

How technology can offer support

According to Faisal Abbasi, Managing Director UK & Ireland at Amelia, an IPsoft company, the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI) powered Digital Employees could be a great aid to employees. He demonstrates this by taking the example of how “a digital case manager in a legal firm can proactively manage inbound enquiries about case updates. Or a digital IT service desk engineer could handle tickets for password resets or printer troubleshooting.” As a result, “this improves the experience of the human workforce without impacting company productivity.”

Moreover, Digital Employees can be implemented as personal assistants for employees by HR teams. Abbasi adds “they can make proactive suggestions to take a break or stop working when it gets late. This positively nudges employees to set good boundaries at work and avoid slipping into burnout.”

Learning a new skill

Sean Farrington, SVP EMEA at Pluralsight, believes that there has also been additional pressure as companies look to accelerate digital transformation programmes in a bid to adapt to remote working. He advises organisations to “offer more opportunities for skill development and training, both to boost employee’s engagement and confidence in their current roles, and to equip them to take on the jobs of the future. Access to skills in in-demand areas like cyber security, data analytics and cloud computing will give employees the reassurance they need to work with new technology.”

Farrington continues that recent research from Pluralsight found “nearly a third (31%) of employers offered no skill development opportunities during the pandemic, despite 38% of furloughed employees wishing they had access to online learning. Clearly, there is an appetite for learning, and it must now be embedded into the culture of organisations to ensure employees feel supported and motivated. Through regular access to tailored, on-demand learning, employers can help overcome the challenges faced by tech teams this year, while also driving business success.”

This Mental Health Awareness Week, take the time to acknowledge the pressures those in the tech industry have faced over this past year, as they have been challenged with a colossal digital shift. As the UK begins to transition out of lockdown, it’s crucial that employers continue to focus on prioritising the mental health of employees.

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