The Silent Crisis: Mental Health in IT

Mental Health in IT

As a 53-year veteran of the IT industry, I’ve witnessed first-hand the toll that unchecked mental health issues can take on individuals and organizations alike. From my early days as a computer operator to my tenure as CIO, I’ve seen how anxiety, stress, depression, and burnout can ravage teams and derail projects. Yet these issues often remain unspoken and unaddressed.

But here’s the uncomfortable truth – many IT managers still struggle to recognize the signs of declining mental health in their teams. A 2022 survey by CompTIA found that while 80% of IT leaders said employee well-being was a priority, less than half felt equipped to identify and address mental health concerns.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth – many IT managers still struggle to recognize the signs of declining mental health in their teams. Compounding this lack of awareness is the pervasive stigma around discussing mental health struggles… Click To Tweet

Compounding this lack of awareness is the pervasive stigma around discussing mental health struggles openly. The fast-paced, high-pressure culture of IT often valorizes “toughing it out” and views asking for help as a weakness. As one tech CEO said, “If you can’t handle the stress, you don’t belong here.”

This toxic combination of lack of understanding and stigma has created a silent crisis that’s undermining our teams and organizations. If we as IT leaders want to build resilient, innovative, high-performing teams, we must be educated on why creating psychologically safe environments where issues are addressed without fear or judgment is the best way to help our organizations.

Recognizing the Big 4 Mental Health Issues

What exactly should we be looking out for? While mental health challenges take many forms, there are four core issues that every IT manager should be able to spot and address:

  1. Anxiety – More than just “worrying,” anxiety in IT often manifests as perfectionism, impostor syndrome, overthinking, and avoidance. A QA tester who spends hours beyond the typical workday endlessly repeating test cases or a developer who procrastinates on deploying code for fear of criticism may be wrestling with anxiety.
  2. Stress – IT work’s relentless demands and breakneck pace create fertile ground for unhealthy stress. Common signs include irritability, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and feeling perpetually overwhelmed. When an ordinarily easy-going sysadmin starts snapping at colleagues or a project manager’s decision-making abilities decline, stress is often the culprit.
  3. Depression – Depression can be tricky to recognize in the workplace, as it often looks like disengagement and low motivation. An IT worker who was once a creative problem solver but now does the bare minimum, regularly misses deadlines, and seems apathetic about their work may be suffering from depression.
  4. Burnout – More than just a bad day or challenging project, burnout is a state of utter depletion that can take months or years to recover from. Irritability, cynicism, lack of focus, and a feeling of futility are red flags. Burnout may be to blame when a previously gung-ho developer’s code quality degrades, or a once-collaborative team member withdraws from conversations and seems perpetually exhausted.
While mental health challenges take many forms, there are four core issues that every IT manager should be able to spot and address. Here Daniel Breston explains. #mentalhealth #wellbeing Click To Tweet

Watch this video created by Norwich Football Club. Understanding mental health issues may feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable for IT managers trained in systems and processes, not psychology. But just as you’ve learned to identify the signs of an impending server crash or network outage, you can develop the ability to recognize when a team member is struggling and intervene before disaster strikes.

The first step to solving any problem is acknowledging it exists – and the time to end the silent crisis of mental health in IT is now.

The 8 Principles of Mental Health in IT

Drawing on research from the field of autism research (Jessica Dark (Frontiers | Eight principles of neuro-inclusion; an autistic perspective on innovating inclusive research methods (, I’ve adapted her framework for eight fundamental principles that can guide managers in creating a mentally healthy IT organization:

1. Respect

  • Explanation: Value the autonomy and perceptual influence of all team members.
  • Tools/Methods for Implementation: Implement regular feedback sessions; respect privacy and personal space in virtual environments.
  • Metrics for Evaluation: Measure employee satisfaction; reduce complaints or grievances related to respect issues.

2. Representation and Inclusion

  • Explanation: Include diverse groups in decision-making processes where everyone can participate.
  • Tools/Methods for Implementation: Use collaborative workflow methods like Kanban and Value Stream Mapping. Establish clear guidelines for inclusive meetings and communications.
  • Metrics for Evaluation: Track the diversity of voices in decision-making survey participants’ feelings of inclusion. Monitor retention across employee groups.

3. Continuous Learning and Experimentation

  • Explanation: Continuously learn from research, experiment with innovative mental health support methods, and pilot new wellness initiatives with open feedback.
  • Tools/Methods for Implementation: Offer courses and conferences on mental health topics. Create space to experiment with new team-building activities, communication practices, etc.
  • Metrics for Evaluation: Track participation rates in learning programs. Assess knowledge retention and behavior changes. Measure the impact of wellness experiments.

4. Barrier Removal

  • Explanation: Proactively identify and remove barriers to participation and peak performance. Assess IT systems, processes, and team dynamics for pain points that cause undue stress or hinder collaboration.
  • Tools/Methods for Implementation: Conduct journey mapping to pinpoint barriers. Implement flexible scheduling. Use the cloud to test new practices.
  • Metrics for Evaluation: Quantify time spent on specific pain points before and after changes. Track usage of support resources. Survey employee engagement.

5. Clarity of Purpose

  • Explanation: Align team efforts with clear goals and outcomes that support mental health. Set and communicate specific objectives around improving psychological safety and well-being.
  • Tools/Methods for Implementation: Develop a team mental health mission statement. Include well-being metrics in XLAs or OKRs. Make mental health a regular agenda item in retrospectives.
  • Metrics for Evaluation: Measure progress toward defined mental health goals. Assess employee clarity on objectives.

6. Thoughtful Communication via Actionable Outcomes

  • Explanation: Use precise, inclusive language to discuss mental health and technical topics. Provide resources on supportive language.
  • Tools/Methods for Implementation: Develop team agreements on communication practices. Model and practice empathic conversations. Provide templates for discussing sensitive topics.
  • Metrics for Evaluation: Survey psychological safety. Track usage of mental health terms in communications. Assess the quality of technical documentation.

7. Psychological Safety

  • Explanation: Create an environment where team members feel safe to take risks, voice concerns, and ask for help without fear of negative consequences. Provide channels for safely raising issues. And ensure management responds constructively to problems.
  • Tools/Methods for Implementation: Establish clear guidelines for respectful communication. Train managers on supporting psychological safety. Implement blameless post-mortems.
  • Metrics for Evaluation: Survey team psychological safety. Track frequency and type of issues raised. Assess the quality of post-mortem insights and actions.

8. Proactive Support

  • Explanation: Anticipate and proactively address potential mental health needs and challenges.
  • Application for IT Service Team: Provide robust mental health benefits and resources. Regularly check in on team well-being. Encourage the use of support tools.
  • Tools/Methods for Implementation: Offer comprehensive mental health coverage. Provide access to therapy and coaching. Implement regular well-being surveys and check-ins.
  • Metrics for Evaluation: Track usage of mental health benefits. Survey attitudes toward and awareness of resources. Assess manager competency in proactive support.
Here Daniel Breston shares eight fundamental principles that can guide managers in creating a mentally healthy IT organization. #mentalhealth #wellbeing #ITSM #ServiceDesk Click To Tweet

Getting Started

As a leader, you can begin making a difference today by taking these six steps:

  1. Start the conversation: Share this framework with your leadership team. Commit to prioritizing mental health.
  2. Assess the current state: Survey your organization to understand the most significant barriers to mental well-being. Identify existing bright spots to build on.
  3. Pick one principle: Based on your assessment, choose one area to focus on first. Set specific goals and assign an owner.
  4. Implement and iterate: Pilot initial changes, evaluate impact, and refine your approach. Communicate learnings to build momentum.
  5. Expand impact: As you see results, add focus areas and engage more of the organization. Make mental health an ongoing priority, not a one-off initiative.
  6. Lead by example. As a leader, model healthy behaviors and work-life boundaries. If you’re responsive to emails 24/7, your team will feel pressure to do the same.

With commitment and persistence, you can create an IT organization where everyone feels supported to do their best work. You have the power to replace the stigma and silence around mental health with open conversation and proactive care. Your leadership will improve your team’s well-being and bottom line.

Keep in mind that cultural shifts take time. Don’t expect overnight changes, but do look for steady improvements. Celebrate successes along the way, both to maintain momentum and signal that mental health is a priority.

This is the post-Covid, digital, VUCA reality

The tech industry is at a tipping point when it comes to mental health. We cannot continue to ignore the issue and expect to thrive. The human and business costs are too high.

But change is possible. By applying proven principles in an IT context, we can create organizations where mental wellness is the norm – where people feel supported to bring their whole selves to work and produce their best.

As IT leaders, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to lead this change. We have the influence and the resources to make a real difference for our teams and industry.

The tech industry is at a tipping point when it comes to mental health. We cannot continue to ignore the issue and expect to thrive. The human and business costs are too high. See how you can lead the change here. #mentalhealth… Click To Tweet

Let’s commit to being the generation of tech leaders who finally end the silent mental health crisis in IT. Let’s have the courage to challenge the status quo and the creativity to find new solutions. Let’s build organizations where every employee can thrive professionally and personally.

The journey won’t be easy, but few worthwhile endeavors are. And the rewards—for our people, our organizations, and our society—will be immeasurable.

As Batman once said, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” As IT leaders, it’s not just our technical skills or titles that matter but our actions to support our teams. By prioritizing mental health, we define ourselves as leaders who create a better future for our people and industry.

It’s time to break the silence and take action. It’s time to prioritize mental health in IT, once and for all. The future of our industry depends on it.

This article was written in collaboration with Clause, an AI assistant.

Further Reading

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Daniel Breston
IT Management Advisor at Independent

Daniel Breston is a 50+ year veteran of IT, ex-CIO and principle consultant, multiple framework trainer, blogger, and speaker. Daniel is on the board of itSMF UK and is a Fellow of the British Computer Society. Daniel may be retired, but he will help an organization if requested. Not full-time, but hey!

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