Tech is a team sport, let's look out for each other
Last month was tough, this month is tougher and Christmas will be hell.
You're not the only one who is finding it difficult to sleep at the moment. Your team members are working too many hours. Your customers are worried about the effect that the outbreak will have on their kids' education. Their kids are worried about the effect COVID-19 is having on their parents' ability to stay employed.
October 10th was World Mental Health Day. If you haven't taken 2 minutes to watch this short video produced by the WHO, I suggest you do so. It's quite heartening.
Within a COVID-19 outbreak, it's easy to focus on the immediate stressors. But those stressors can actually mask some underlying issues. For the technology industry, we've probably been avoiding mental health issues for too long. Even without the pandemic, members of the tech industry are in a structurally weak position:
- The work is desk-bound. That limits opportunities for physical activity, which is a natural aid to mental well-being.
- We can also easily work remotely. Consistent isolation means that there are fewer opportunities for our friends and colleagues to check in.
- It's easy to slip into a pattern of long hours. Our work is on the computer and phone, which means that can be hard to leave work at work.
Doom scrolling is called doom scrolling for a reason. Here's a scenario you may be familiar with: your body is on high alert because the 1 pm press conference is due, so you check your phone. Jacinda is late. So you check Facebook, maybe a few other sites. After a few (e.g. 10) minutes, you realise that there's no press conference today. But every time you attempt to put down your phone, you feel something pulling you back to check again. That's your body is demanding a dopamine kick from the next headline.
If you're finding it hard to switch off, remember that it's okay to ask for help. Cortisol and other stress hormones have been swimming through your blood for weeks now. The effects of stress compound over time, so it can pay to be proactive rather than have the situation forced upon you by burnout.
Depression and anxiety
Symptoms of depression and burnout are more subtle than you may think. If your emotions are muted or greyed out - perhaps you don't look forward to something you used to love such as your morning coffee or your favourite show - this might be enough to detect that you're on a slippery slope. Other symptoms include being unable to concentrate, waking up early, and several others that are easy to pass off as something trivial.
Addressing things that feel trivial might actually be a very effective strategy. Just like preventing an infectious disease outbreak, it's much easier to intervene in your mental state at the start when signs and symptoms are relatively small. Waiting until you can't get out of bed in the morning means that your mental state has already affected you and those around you.
We're a male-dominated industry that's not known for its general level of emotional intelligence. Although it's a trope, there is some research to back up the decades-long cliché that technology jobs attract those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and attention-deficit disorders (ADHD).
Neuro-diversity is not widely understood. It's a fairly new term - I mean my spellchecker doesn't think that it's a real word. I mention it here because many people who are neuro-diverse also have comorbidities with anxiety and depression. They often blame themselves for being unable to be "normal". After years of growing up on the social fringe, they begin to resent themselves. A lack of awareness about neurodiversity means that their differences are only perceived as weaknesses. Yet in truth, neurodiverse individuals are able to excel in many areas that neurotypical individuals find difficult, boring or irrelevant.
Tech is a team sport, let's look out for each other. If you are concerned that mental health issues may be affecting anyone you know, please consult further resources such as depression.org.nz and mentalhealth.org.nz.
Tim McNamara is the Chair of the New Zealand Open Source Society. He holds a Masters in Public Policy from Victoria University of Wellington and has two decades of experience in the technology industry in various roles within the public, private and academic sectors. His area of expertise is natural language processing, a subfield of artificial intelligence.
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