Is there a mental health pandemic in IT?

Mental problems are on the rise in IT, what can businesses do about it?


“In March 2020, it wasn’t usual practice to admit on a conference call that you were having a tough mental health week,” wrote Deborah Frances-White in a recent Guardian opinion piece. “One year on, it is perfectly ordinary to hear someone saying they are struggling with lockdown or feeling at the end of their home-schooling tether.”

Mental health is suddenly on everyone’s radar. And now as stress, overwork and economic uncertainty become so commonplace, it has even become a big concern or businesses.

In healthcare, nearly half of certain clinical staff have reported symptoms consistent with PTSD said a study in The British Medical Journal. In transport, London bus drivers who have worked risking their lives through the crisis cited mental health –  as well as physical health – as a reason for recent strike action. While in food retail, the problem of burnout has reached a whole new level.

These jobs have all stayed busy – and become more stressful – during the pandemic. And the same is true for IT. In fact, research conducted by IDG Connect last year highlighted the significant impact lockdowns had on IT departments around the world, and the level of stress this placed on workers.

“We are working seven days a week 12 hours,” said one person we surveyed last spring. “We don't really get to rest.” Another described how a “monster effort” to support rapid working from home for the majority of the company failed to receive any internal praise or recognition from leadership.

In June, Harvey Nash research of UK tech professionals demonstrated the rise in mental health problems in he sector. This showed over a third (36%) of those surveyed reported that their mental health has deteriorated during Covid-19. It also revealed that, amongst a wider tech community, those within IT roles were under most pressure.

Do technical roles face the greatest mental health challenges?

There is some evidence to suggest that individuals in technical roles – who have clearly borne the brunt of keeping things up and running during the pandemic – have also faced the worst of the mental health fallout.

A Pulsant study published in November showed that out of 201 UK IT decision-makers in mid-market organisations nearly two-thirds (65%) have felt under increasing pressure to keep organisations running effectively. Of these, 80% believed this increased stress had harmed their health and wellbeing.

This was supported by the Harvey Nash research which revealed that those in IT operations had seen the greatest rise in mental concerns since the pandemic, with one in five reporting a problem during the last quarter of 2019, reaching one in three last year.

Rob Grimsey, a director at Harvey Nash, says a sister survey was carried out in February 2021, and the numbers have changed little in the interim. What has changed he says is that that companies are increasingly investing in formal and informal support for their employees. “When comparing data across surveys, organisations are definitely becoming more supportive around mental health issues,” he says.

Should businesses employ specialist mental health support?

The challenge for many businesses is grasping the nuance of different mental health triggers in the workplace and understanding how best to tackle resulting problems. Jasmin Mantel, HR director at SAP UK tells us:

“The Covid pandemic has been a different experience for every one of us and, therefore, offering a variety of different initiatives is essential in providing genuine support to all of our employees across the organisation.”

She describes how SAP has provided a variety of tailored services for specific concerns. For example, Peppy Parenthood provides specialist support to new parents. ‘Never lunch alone’ is an online platform that connects SAP employees from all over the world who are feeling isolated during lockdown. While Music Diet is “a wellness programme that uses music as a tool to boost brain health and mental resilience using neuroscience-based techniques”.

“We also have over 50 mental health first aiders trained, and launched a global ‘Are you ok’ campaign to provide our employees with all the support they need and to encourage people to speak up when they aren’t feeling okay,” she adds.

Mantel describes how the approach is “a mix of in-house support” and external resources. “None of these are IT specific but rather industry leaders in the services they provide.”

Amber Coster runs one such external organisation for wellbeing. Her company, Balpro helps large IT and tech businesses support their employees’ mental health.

Coster, who suffered a breakdown herself whilst working at a high growth startup, describes how the work Balpro does is also mainly role agnostic, although they do segment certain programs based on seniority in order to help people managers support their teams.

“We’ve run the same workshops to highly technical teams, sales teams, creatives and management consultants and staff consistently report feeling a better state of wellbeing, more motivated and increased respect for their employer. Behind the titles, we’re all human,” she says. 

What is the role of wellbeing?

The wealth of studies in wake of the pandemic mean that many businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the impact mental health issues can have on the performance of their organisation.

“But getting a sense of how employees are, and catering to different needs, isn’t so easy,” says Coster. She believes companies need to keep the mental health of their employees “at the top of their agenda”.

“The wider focus on organisational culture, mission and values will be the way that organisations pivot from necessary but reactive and tactical programs to securing the long-term performance of their staff and business,” she says.

Carolyn Hobdey, who spent 20 years in corporate HR and has just published a self-help memoir, thinks there will be an “increase in ‘Wellness Specialists’ either based within larger employers or as freelance consultants”.

“This is not to say that wellbeing can be ‘outsourced’,” she says. Her belief is that these specialists will need to work alongside HR to upskill leaders.

The role of ‘Wellness Specialists’ will be twofold, she explains. First, to help leaders better handle the variety of working practices that will begin to exist within their teams. Second, to build their confidence in handling necessary wellness conversations with staff members.

What do you think is needed to support mental health?

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