Today is Bell Let's Talk Day. A day when Canadians are encouraged to speak out about their struggles with mental health and breakdown the stigma often associated with mental illnesses. In the last 10 years, mental health awareness has taken a front-seat in many organizations around the world and we're becoming increasingly aware that we're all impacted by it. A 2018 study by Sunlife Financial revealed that nearly half of Canadians have experienced a mental health issue, but the reality is that 100% of us have. Mental health issues go beyond more talked-about illnesses like severe depression, addiction, and schizophrenia. They include work-related stress, burnout and anything else that prevents you from being completely present. When not treated, each of these can become more severe and lead to negative outcomes.
IT contractors are not immune to mental health issues and, in fact, many believe they are at higher risk. According to the BIMA Tech Inclusive & Diversity Report 2019, tech workers in the UK are at least 5 times more depressed than average, with those in web design and development, admin and project management most likely to experience symptoms. These findings make sense given the nature of the tech industry and many IT jobs. It is not uncommon to hear about developers working late into the night, depriving themselves of sleep, which has severe long-term effects on one's mental health. But even without that common stereotype, technology-related positions are often isolated and high-stress. They regularly have tight deadlines, implementations lasting hours longer than they're supposed to, and a lack of ability to "wait until Monday" when things go wrong. The nature of contracting also has elements that are known to lead to mental illness. A study by the University of California found that 72% of entrepreneurs experienced mental health concerns. They coined the term "Founder's Blues." That's because on top of having to excel at your own position, you're also dealing with running your own business and always thinking about the unknown as you search for the next gig. Adding to the problem is that independent contractors don't have the same support systems as an employee. There is no HR department with resources and programs, nor is there an option to take a Mental Health Day without giving up pay.
Improving Mental Health Issues in the IT Industry
Many are already recognizing the increased risk of mental health issues in tech.Open Sourcing Mental Illness (OSMI) is a non-profit organization that is created specifically to help those in the tech sector. They conduct regular studies, share data, and provide access to resources around mental well-being. Another organization made up of tech professionals around the world is Prompt, which encourages conversation of mental health in the IT industry. An initiative of the Travis Foundation, Prompt connects speakers on the subject with conference and meetup organizers. Of course, you do not need to be part of a non-profit organization to help tackle this issue in your industry. Being aware of your own mental health and knowing when to take action and care for yourself is the first step. You can also look out for others and encourage them to take a break when they need it. Watch for symptoms like headaches, being withdrawn, taking time off, missing deadlines, letting work slip, sudden weight loss or gain, and lack of care over personal appearance. When you take a cough drop and get some extra sleep because your throat is a bit sore, you can prevent a cold that may have knocked you down for a week. Similarly, recognizing symptoms of a mental health issue and acting upon them quickly will prevent it from snowballing into lost work and damaged relationships.