Why is the tech sector in the stone age when it comes to employee wellbeing?
“They took the credit for your second symphony
Rewritten by machine and new technology
And now I understand the problems you can see”
Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles (click here for the song)
2020 saw the increasing use of technology, whether it was zoom for a meeting, an app for covid, or face time to call relatives. Telehealth reinvented healthcare, and improved access for many, particularly in regional and remote areas. This time last year many organisations successfully transitioned to fully digital in matter of weeks or even days. But if we peer below the surface at the wellbeing of the employees in the tech sector, the picture is not so pretty.
“13% of people say they are constantly stressed with symptoms such as anxiety attacks, headaches and continual tiredness affecting their ability to work.”
Ross Kelly 2019
What is going on?
Researchers have found that the nature of being an entrepreneur may predispose people to poor mental health.
“32% of the entrepreneurs reported having two or more mental health conditions, while 18% reported having three or more mental health conditions.”
Why do entrepreneurs especially in the tech sector suffer so much more acutely from mental illness than other CEO's?
Leadership development is seen as secondary: With an intense focus on results, and rapid growth, there is a tendency by all to minimise the importance of sophisticated leadership capabilities. Typically, this means that poor habits become the norm, which is detrimental to the wellbeing of the leader and all employees.
Personal choice: Despite being highly employable entrepreneurs choose the punishing, uncertain and more creative founder employment path.
Fake news: The image of the tech industry leaders creates an unattainable standard of success, the success stories are just as false as pictures in fashion magazines and just as destructive.
The buck stops with the founder for everything: In the senior executive team of a well established organisation there are skilled employees with complementary skills. In the early days of a start up the founders will be required to do things they do not know how nor are not well-suited to do. Poor person job fit is a psychosocial work hazard, and emotionally draining.
Limited social support: The long work hours, all-encompassing passion about the work, increasing pressure typically means founders to spend less time with family, friends and others who provide social support. Due to competitive nature of the industry there is also high reluctance to share issues and challenges with other professionals in the industry.
Expectation to be resilient at all times: The boss has the pressure to remain calm, provide motivation and strategic direction when things become difficult, or there is high pressure.
Wellbeing is not a priority: Ironically for such a modern industry the attitude towards self-care is archaic. Time off to refresh or time for oneself is seen as wasted time rather than essential.
Financial stress: To have ‘skin in the game’ often the entrepreneur makes a significant personal investment in the business and may go without a salary. Whilst this can be positive, it often leads to enormous financial stress and anxiety as business failure may result in personal financial ruin.
Pressure to keep up: The rapid pace of growth and change in the industry, makes it difficult to celebrate any achievements beyond setting the next set of more challenging objectives. In addition the constant reliance on sourcing and justifying external funding, builds a cycle of constantly lifting the complexity of the strategic goals.
Substance abuse: There is a culture of alcohol and other drug use in the sector, for team bonding and to maximise performance. A 2019 study found that over 1 in 10 (11.4 percent) of workers in the Information Technology industry admit to using illicit drugs.
Low success rate: Despite what we read in the news, three out of four venture-backed startups fail, and more than 95 percent of startups fall short of their initial projections.
What can be done?
Start with the leader:
Regular readers would know that the behaviour of the CEO sets the tone for the behaviour of the entire organisation. Improving the wellbeing of all employees begins with improving the leadership capability and wellbeing of the leader. In a fast paced ever changing business environment, both time and money need to be allocated to evidence based bespoke leadership development. The CEO needs a confidential safe environment to be vulnerable about addressing the gaps in their leadership capability.
"Build a life centered on the belief that self-worth is not the same as net worth," Michael Freeman.
Organisational and Investor initiatives:
Remove the stigma associated with workplace mental health amongst both founders, investors, and employees. (Click here to read my past blog on reducing stigma) Know how to talk about mental illness in life and work (Click here and here to read my past blogs on RU OK) Create a professional support network, (Click here to read my past blog on social support). Know your personal values and really live according to them, (Click here and here to read my past blogs on values at work)
Implement the key principles of creating a psychologically safe and healthy workplace from the beginning. (Click here to read my past blog on creating a psychologically safe workplace)
Place comprehensive evidence based wellbeing practices at the centre of the organisational culture from day one.
Allocate dedicated funds for comprehensive evidence based wellbeing initiatives.
“We need to try and have an equal playing field with mental and physical health in workplace settings where people can freely talk about low mood or stress in the same way as coping with any other challenging illness,”
Professor Chris Williams
Thank you to Catherine Shu for her honest interview on HBR podcast that inspired this blog.
Freeman, M.A., Staudenmaier, P.J., Zisser, M.R. and Andresen, L.A. (2018). The prevalence and co-occurrence of psychiatric conditions among entrepreneurs and their families. Small Business Economics, 53(2), pp.323–342.
Are Entrepreneurs “Touched with Fire”? . (2015). [online] . Available at: https://michaelafreemanmd.com/Research_files/Are%20Entrepreneurs%20Touched%20with%20Fire-summary.pdf.
Government of Canada, C.C. for O.H. and S. (2020). Mental Health - Psychosocial Risk Factors in the Workplace : OSH Answers. [online] www.ccohs.ca. Available at: https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial/mentalhealth_risk.html
Ross Kelly (2019). It’s time to get serious about mental health in the technology industry. [online] Available at: https://digit.fyi/mental-health-technology-industry/.
Brown, E. (n.d.). One in five US tech employees abuse pain relief drugs, reveals study. [online] ZDNet. Available at: https://www.zdnet.com/article/one-in-five-us-tech-employees-abuse-pain-relief-drugs-reveals-study/ [Accessed 24 Feb. 2021].