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[NEPHP] Empathy as a Service: Supporting Mental Health in the Tech Workplace

[NEPHP] Empathy as a Service: Supporting Mental Health in the Tech Workplace

At any given time, 1 in 5 Americans are living with a mental illness, such as depression, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, substance use disorder, burnout, or ADHD. Statistically, all of us working for an organization with 5 or more employees have at least one colleague who is affected. At the same time, the tech industry is often characterized by high stress, long hours, workplace pressure to be available by phone and e-mail after-hours or sometimes even while on vacation, social pressure to constantly network and attend conferences and make a name for yourself, and the precarious balance between trying to do good by contributing to open-source and maintaining some semblance of free time that doesn't involve coding. Given how this demanding environment increasingly blurs the line between our professional and personal lives, how can we ensure that the most vulnerable among us aren't being left behind?

As a community, the single most damaging thing we can do is continue to treat mental health as a personal shortcoming that can't be talked about openly. We shouldn't think of it as "somebody else's problem"; the 4 in 5 of us who don't currently have mental health disorders must do our part to help end the stigma. This talk will begin with an overview of key statistics about mental illness, followed by the efforts of the non-profit organization Open Sourcing Mental Illness to gather more data about mental health in the tech industry, the ALGEE action plan taught by the Mental Health First Aid training course, and finally conclude with ideas and strategies for making our tech workplaces more accommodating and inclusive.

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Nara Kasbergen

August 11, 2017
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  1. Empathy as a Service: Supporting Mental Health in the Tech

    Workplace Nara Kasbergen (@xiehan) 2017 Northeast PHP Conference August 11, 2017 #nephp17
  2. Topics covered 1. What are we talking about? 2. Why

    I speak up about this 3. What can we do? ◦ pragmatic, common-sense, action-oriented; anyone can do these things! 4. What must we do together? ◦ difficult, aspirational; everyone has to do their part
  3. What even are we talking about?

  4. 1 in 5 Americans living with mental illness at any

    given time Source: Mental Health America
  5. 1 in 11 Americans living with diabetes Source: CDC.gov

  6. 1 in 12 Americans living with asthma Source: AAAAI

  7. 1 in 5 Americans living with arthritis Source: CDC.gov

  8. Mental illness is one of the most prevalent chronic health

    conditions, but we don’t talk about it
  9. An incomplete list of mental illnesses Depression Generalized anxiety disorder

    Bipolar disorder Substance use disorder (alcoholism) Eating disorder (anorexia, bulimia) ADHD PTSD Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) Impulse control disorder Antisocial personality disorder Schizophrenia Dissociative identity disorder Autism spectrum disorders* Burnout**
  10. depression is at least 13x more prevalent than schizophrenia in

    the United States
  11. Symptoms of major depression • Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness,

    hopelessness • Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration • Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities • Sleep disturbances (insomnia or sleeping too much) • Tiredness and lack of energy • Changes in appetite • Anxiety, agitation or restlessness Source: Mayo Clinic
  12. “Telling someone not to be sad because others have it

    worse is like telling people they can’t be happy because others have it better.” - Unknown
  13. Source: robot-hugs.com

  14. Source: robot-hugs.com

  15. Source: robot-hugs.com

  16. 56% of U.S. adults with mental illness do not receive

    treatment Source: Mental Health America
  17. 15% of those with severe depression die by suicide Source:

    Mental Health America
  18. rate at which women experience depression compared to men* 2x

    Source: Mental Health America
  19. #3 ranking of depression among the top three workplace problems,

    following only family crisis and stress Source: Mental Health America
  20. $51 billion estimated annual cost of absenteeism from work and

    lost productivity Source: Mental Health America
  21. $26 billion estimated annual direct treatment costs Source: Mental Health

    America
  22. 59% percentage of Americans (ages 19 to 64) who get

    their insurance through their employer Source: Kaiser Family Foundation
  23. 20.8 weeks average wait time for Canadians seeking mental health

    treatment Source: Fraser Institute
  24. Why people do not speak up • Fear of dismissal

    • Fear of being taken out of promotion consideration • Fear of being taken off high-value projects/contracts • Fear of reduced hours (for hourly workers) • Fear of being asked to take unpaid medical leave • Fear of being treated differently
  25. “Leave your personal life at home when you come to

    work.”
  26. Why I speak up about this

  27. I’m a software engineer. I identify as mentally healthy.

  28. Ni Mu. July 13, 1988 - September 14, 2016

  29. it's on Medium or bit.ly/2oYYyOR (warning: it's 6,000+ words) I

    wrote a blog post
  30. September 16, 2016 NationJS in McLean, VA

  31. Open Sourcing Mental Illness: osmihelp.org Ed Finkler (@funkatron)

  32. Source: osmihelp.org/research

  33. “I could do so many awesome things if only my

    own head didn’t get in the way.” - Ed Finkler (@funkatron)
  34. What can we do?

  35. Common characteristics of tech workplaces and culture • The work

    is challenging and stressful • Our jobs are highly collaborative • Many of us have relocated for a job • Most of us work remotely at least part of the time • We're often expected to be available outside work hours • Someone needs to fix things when they break overnight • There is a heavy emphasis on drinking culture
  36. Relocation

  37. Relocation Positive: • Much easier to feel a part of

    the team and helping toward the mission if you are on-site • Can bring you closer to a community of practitioners in your field than where you currently are
  38. Relocation Positive: • Much easier to feel a part of

    the team and helping toward the mission if you are on-site • Can bring you closer to a community of practitioners in your field than where you currently are Negative: • Takes someone away from the existing support structures they have already built up • Generally stressful • Making new friends as an adult is surprisingly hard!
  39. Relocation Solutions: • As a community, stop saying that the

    best way to succeed in tech is to relocate to Silicon Valley; become more accepting of alternative choices • If you are a manager, take another look at your hiring practices and see whether remote employment is an option • Create a "Welcome Wagon" for new colleagues who have had to relocate to join your company
  40. Free idea: "The Welcome Wagon" • Take the new employee

    out for lunch or dinner with the team. Avoid alcohol at their first social event. • Team members take turns introducing the new employee to activities and events in the area, e.g. ◦ Invite them to join your book club meeting! ◦ Invite them to go rock climbing! ◦ Invite them to join your bocce league! ◦ Invite them to go volunteering with you!
  41. Remote work

  42. Remote work Positive: • Flexible hours • Easier to attend

    daytime therapy appointments • Easier to stick to medication regimens • Easier to take breaks • (Usually) quiet & peaceful
  43. Remote work Positive: • Flexible hours • Easier to attend

    daytime therapy appointments • Easier to stick to medication regimens • Easier to take breaks • (Usually) quiet & peaceful Negative: • Sense of isolation • Harder to build strong relationships with co-workers • Harder to tell if colleagues are doing OK (health-wise) • Can make it more challenging to maintain work-life balance
  44. Remote work Solutions: • Make funds available for employees to

    join a co-working space (or encourage your colleagues to do so) • Fly in remote employees or hold company-wide off-sites together to make sure they feel part of the team • Look into the latest research on remote work culture, improvements you can make to integrate remote employees
  45. “But what about open plan offices?”

  46. Open plan offices Positive: • More conducive to collaboration, creative

    problem-solving between multiple employees • Easier to construct because of things like fire code • Can increase sense of team unity, camaraderie
  47. Open plan offices Positive: • More conducive to collaboration, creative

    problem-solving between multiple employees • Easier to construct because of things like fire code • Can increase sense of team unity, camaraderie Negative: • Noise reduces productivity • Lack of privacy • Increased stress • Increased peer pressure • Highly conducive to the spread of disease (cold, flu, etc.)
  48. Open plan offices Solutions: • Allow employees to work remotely

    (or increase the number of days per week or per month when they can do so) • Urge employees to work from home when sick • Set aside small meeting spaces for quiet work • Have the company provide noise-canceling headphones • Encourage employees to decorate their workspace
  49. On-call rotations

  50. On-call rotations Positive: • A huge burden being shared among

    the team improves sense of team unity, camaraderie • Engineers have a way to prove their understanding of the technical systems and ability to manage a crisis
  51. On-call rotations Positive: • A huge burden being shared among

    the team improves sense of team unity, camaraderie • Engineers have a way to prove their understanding of the technical systems and ability to manage a crisis Negative: • Expecting the unexpected can be very difficult for those with serious anxiety disorders • Lack of sleep or interrupted sleep is bad for mental health • High stress can lead to burnout
  52. On-call rotations Solutions: • Fix tech issues to make being

    on-call less stressful • If someone is called in the middle of the night, give them adequate time to catch up on sleep • For employees with serious anxiety disorders, see if there's a way to take them out of the on-call rotation without making them feel like they're not contributing
  53. Alcohol at tech events

  54. Alcohol at tech events Positive: • One or two drinks

    can make it easier for some introverts and those with social anxiety to socialize with their peers • It's become an expectation in tech culture, and if you don't offer it, those who want to drink will go find a bar instead of staying to mingle with others at the event
  55. Alcohol at tech events Positive: • One or two drinks

    can make it easier for some introverts and those with social anxiety to socialize with their peers • It's become an expectation in tech culture, and if you don't offer it, those who want to drink will go find a bar instead of staying to mingle with others at the event Negative: • Non-drinkers feel unwelcome • Recovering alcoholics feel threatened by the environment • Free alcohol and drinking culture are so pervasive that there are probably more functioning alcoholics in tech than we're aware of
  56. Alcohol at tech events Solutions: • Offer nice alternatives (fancy

    sodas, mocktails) for non-drinkers to make them feel included • Put a limit on the number of free drinks (use tickets) • Have activities other than drinking (e.g. board games) • In a recurring series, try alternating dry/non-dry events • Add workplace wellness programs on substance abuse
  57. Managers: Lead by example • Don't micro-manage • Leave the

    office on time • Take regular vacations • Don't send or answer e-mails at 2am if possible • Be receptive to feedback on your own performance • Be a good listener • Be open to talking about your health and mental health
  58. Other action items for managers • Make sure your employees

    understand their benefits and what mental health treatments are covered • Revisit your hiring practices with an eye to mental illness and neurodiversity • Make sure your employees feel valued and are on projects that they find fulfilling and empowering • Get the OSMI handbooks (leanpub.com/u/osmi) • Consider offering the Mental Health First Aid training
  59. Mental Health First Aid (mentalhealthfirstaid.org/.ca) • In the US: ◦

    8 hours over 1 or 2 days ◦ US$50-100 per person • In Canada: ◦ 12 hours over 2 days ◦ CAD$150-200 per person • Community grants or student discounts sometimes available
  60. ALGEE, the Mental Health First Aid action plan

  61. What must we do together?

  62. Support marginalized people in tech • Chronic harassment, bullying, and

    microaggressions can lead to depression, exacerbate eating disorders, and cause or worsen other mental illnesses • Even in tech, women are still judged by their appearance • People from marginalized groups feel they have to over-perform (to counteract the "lowering the bar" myth), which leads to increased stress and a greater likelihood of burnout
  63. Embrace neurodiversity • Mental disorders like ADHD and autism are

    the result of natural variations of the human genome • "People with differences do not need to be cured; they need help and accommodation instead." • Some of our greatest inventions are attributed to people with atypical neurology • "Mental illness gives me superpowers." - Ed Finkler • hbr.org/2017/05/neurodiversity-as-a-competitive-advantage
  64. Things we can only change as a culture • Working

    ourselves to death - the over-emphasis on hard work, and stigma against vacation and healthy breaks • The need to always be available by phone or e-mail • The peer pressure caused by social media • The belief that you must be in Silicon Valley to succeed • The stigma against talking about our feelings • The idea that engineers don't have empathy
  65. “Empathy is the antidote to shame.” - Andrea Goulet (@andreagoulet)

  66. "Empathy as a Service"

  67. There is no app for this

  68. “I could do so many awesome things if only my

    own head didn’t get in the way.” - Ed Finkler (@funkatron)
  69. Resources Want to help? • reach out. ask. listen. tell

    your friends you care. • osmihelp.org • mhprompt.org • if-me.org • mentalhealthfirstaid.org/.ca • crisistrends.org Need help? • talk to someone: a friend, relative, counselor, etc. • forums.osmihelp.org • suicidepreventionlifeline.org or 1-800-273-8255(TALK) • PEI: 1-800-218-2885 • Ontario: dcontario.org • Quebec: 1-866-277-3553
  70. Questions? Thoughts? Comments? nara@nara.codes @xiehan osmihelp.org/donate dedicated to Ni Mu