Let's Talk: It's Time to Get Serious About Mental Illness in Tech

When I was 12, I pretended to be sick for 2.5 weeks so I wouldn’t have to go to school. Nothing was wrong with me, physically. I just woke up one day paralyzed by the thought of leaving the house and I was old enough to know that I had to fake an upset stomach to justify staying home.

Eventually, I went back to school. And it would take me 13 years to learn that what I was actually was a form of a mental illness. It would take another 5 years to learn that almost everyone has it, or will experience some form of it, but that no one likes to talk about it.

I'm telling you all of this because this week is Bell Let’s Talk Day, the annual campaign that promotes conversations around mental illness to help reduce the stigma and promote awareness and understanding. And given the chronic misunderstanding and mishandling of mental health in tech, or any corporation, these conversations have never been more important. 

Tech’s quiet battle with depression

The tech and startup world are built on the backs of incredibly bright minds. It's known for its innovation and resilience and a culture that fosters high-productivity.

But it has a dark underbelly.

Tech is a fast-paced game with high stakes: Founders of startups have to transform an idea into a successful, scaleable business quickly. They're under intense pressure to run a successful company, stay on top of a fast-paced, competitive industry, all while maintaining the same image as the tech titans before them. 

Employees of these companies operate under the same high-stress: late nights, abnormal hours, and tight deadlines, all while wearing multiple hats and being constantly available at any time of day.

The above isn't unique to startups the pressure to excel and climb the corporate ladder in the carrier world creates a culture that exacerbates mental health issues. And it's also important to remember that there is no fixed state: mental health ebbs and flows along a spectrum, just like our physical health, ranging from thriving to coping or struggling to clinically-treated mental illness.

But the tech industry fosters a "crunch" culture (where demanding work must be completed in a short amount of time). And there's an increased motivation to neglect one’s health by forgoing proper diet, exercise, and sleep in the name of increased output. And if left unchecked, this can lead to a rise in burnout, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. 

The growing mental health crisis

Everyone around the world has mental health, but not everyone talks about it. 

According to OSMI data, 51% of tech professionals have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. By comparison, 19.1% of U.S. adults experience mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

A study by Michael Freeman found that entrepreneurs are 50% more likely to report having a mental health condition:

Founders are:

  • 2x more likely to suffer from depression

  • 6x more likely to suffer from ADHD

  • 3x more likely to suffer from substance abuse

  • 10x more likely to suffer from bi-polar disorder

  • 2x more likely to have psychiatric hospitalization

  • 2x more likely to have suicidal thoughts

The terrifying problem with mental illness is that it is invisible; it's a private battle that people have, and it's hard to know when people need help.

Zarko Draganic was a high-functioning Silicon Valley legend that hid his bipolar diagnosis for years for fear it would make him look weak. His wife, Penelope, said:

“Hypo-manic productivity is a sign of strength and opportunity, and even in your weakest moments you're not supposed to present anything other than your game face,” Draganic said. “It's not the culture that creates the illness, but it's a culture that actually makes this illness even harder to grapple with.”

Between the years 2011 and 2017, “founder's blues” contributed to a number of high-profile suicides in the startup world, including Draganic's husband, Austen Heinz, a biotech entrepreneur and the founder of Cambrian Genomics; Aaron Swartz, the co-founder of Reddit; and Jody Sherman, the founder of Ecomom.

Why we don’t talk about mental health

Despite all the conversations and how far we've come, mental health is still heavily stigmatized. It’s viewed as a shameful personal deficiency, a failure or weakness, and most people don’t feel comfortable admitting they are dealing with it for fear of being judged by their peers.

Those feelings are often exacerbated in tech, an industry where your greatest asset is your brain. To talk about your mental health is like admitting defeat:

“Internal struggles are often seen as a “badge of honor.” Even Steve Jobs went through a dark period when he was kicked out of his own company—but he eventually returned and brought Apple back from the brink of bankruptcy, revolutionizing personal computing in the process. The key is that struggling is only seen as noble if you ultimately come back from it, proving your mettle.”

Essentially, the message is: don’t talk to anyone about your feelings until you’ve conquered them.

As a result, those who experience mental illness live in a lonely bubble, with intense pressure to prove that you can work through the most painful, internal moments of your life – alone and with a smile on your face.

This is the problem that we're facing, not only in tech, but any organization where employees feel the corporate pressure to excel: With each passing unnecessary death, the importance of mental health and talking about it comes briefly back into focus, before fading until the next unnecessary death or the next mental health awareness week.

We need to be doing more. 

How to support mental health at work

Research shows that employees are afraid to talk about mental health at work. 60% have never talked to anyone about their mental health last year. 52% of those that did described the conversations as neutral or negative.

It's time to change that. We put together a few starting places for you to implement at work to help foster healthy conversations and create lasting changes for a mentally healthy organization.

1. Don't wait for a crisis: Start talking now

First things first: If we want to get serious about mental health, we need to have the conversation year round, not waiting for a crisis to occur. 

For organizations to truly prevent suicide, workplaces need to understand their impact on mental health and address the stigma and create a holistic, preventative approach.

But in order for true, comprehensive change to occur, companies have to do more than encourage self care days: Encouraging employees to get help and then failing to change the culture of work is an empty gesture they’ll still return to the same work conditions.

Founders and leaders shape the organisational culture and their behaviour sets an example for others to follow. In order to have a healthy, supportive environment, conversations around mental health should be open, honest, and authentic. 

Look into having a mental health expert come speak at your workplace to walk through the signs of depression. Consider implementing workplace mental health training to help you name, normalize, and navigate mental health at work. 

2. Leaders can make it safe for employees to talk

When it comes to mental health challenges, being open and transparent has clear benefits to others, especially when leaders open up.

This isn't always an easy thing to do, says Jason Saltzman, founder and CEO of the entrepreneurial hub Alley:

“When you're trying to raise capital, and you’re trying to build a team and you're trying to instill confidence that you can execute certain things, if there's a kink in your armor… it could be very problematic for you to move forward with people that would support you.”

But leaders do not need to be flawless in order to be good leaders; employees appreciate authenticity above all else. And when leaders share their own experiences, it helps employees feel safe to share their own, creating a catalyst for change, not only internally, but also externally by inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.

The New York Times and Reuters recently reported that the cultural shift toward openness, from the C-suite on down, is most effective in truly supporting employee mental health.

If leaders aren't ready to share their own experiences with mental illness, an alternative is to simply lay the groundwork for a mentally healthy workplace:

  • Advocate for your employees to disconnect after work, making use of flexible schedules, and make use of health benefits.

  • Normalize the idea that it’s fine to use sick days for mental health.

  • Model the behaviour they would like their staff to follow – such as leaving the office at a reasonable time.

3. Implement workplace programs

Mental Health effects every aspect of the organization and there should be programs in place that help your employees feel supported, heard, and promote belonging. In fact, companies that support mental health initiatives see an average 4:1 ROI (Deloitte).

So, what kinds of initiatives or programs can you implement right away?

Mental Health First Aid Training: Training can help employees become empowered to help their collegues. It also equips them with the tools, knowledge, and resources to help themselves and others. Note: the expectation shouldn't be put on employees to suddenly become mental health experts: the real work needs to come from leadership to help spark a change. 

Monthly meetings: A monthly Tag Up meeting to work through possible activities or programs could be a great way to start things off. If you’re a results-driven company, maybe a KPI could be to hold mindfulness sessions every week over the course of a quarter. Take steps to ensure you capture how people are feeling at the beginning of the program vs. at the end to see if the sessions helped.

Implement a Mental Health program:  Consider bringing in mental health trainers from accredited programs for half-day courses to help understand the issues, spot concerns early, and turn the volume up on the conversation. 

Create communities: Employee Resource Groups (ERG) can be created to help support teams while also working towards a culture change. Netflix has its ERG for mental health; Johnson & Johnson has Metal Health Diplomats. At Microsoft, individuals at all levels share their own mental health experiences, in person, on social media and via podcasts.

Normalizing: Break the taboo and make mental health topics like therapy or taking medication commonplace. I used to be scared of letting my coworkers know I had to go to therapy, and would hide my weekly appointments under "Doctor" in my work calendar. Now, I try to be as open as possible,and my team knows that the reason I can't make that 4:00 PM meeting is because I'm seeing my therapist. 

This isn’t Fight Club: You’re allowed to talk about mental illness

Read that again.

We're losing too many people too soon because of the fear and shame that permeates this industry. When we add our stories to the conversation, we help break down the stigma, and those conversations can lead to action, which can create much needed change. 

It's time for us to start taking action in the workplace to reject the shame and stigma. Bell Let's Talk Day is an incredible catalyst to start the dialogue, Let’s keep talking.