The High Pressure of Hi-Tech
Posted 16 May at 3:34 pm in Productivity
- There have been two tragic deaths at Google’s Manhattan office in the past two months.
- The world of tech needs to do a better job, as a whole, at prioritizing mental health.
- Job ≠ Life.
The Imperfect Workplace
Enveloped in a high-pressure environment positioned as the perfect job in tech, Google has been struck with tragedy twice in this past year when two employees from their Manhattan branch have taken their own life only a few months apart from one another. It’s a stark reminder to everyone, especially those working in tech, that even “the best” jobs in the tech world come with much more than high salaries and free massages. How does a dream career at the pinnacle of tech lead to an outcome where suicide is answer? What can we, as small business leaders, do to prevent similar outcomes?
We All Want to Make a Difference
The staff at Google and Proper Sky, like most, enter the tech world not with the intention of isolating ourselves, managing servers or patching endpoints, but instead to translate our love of technology into earnestly helping others. There may be stigmas that tech workers face; we prefer to work alone, we’re difficult to understand, we enjoy isolation, etc., but nothing could be further from the truth. People in tech, from what I’ve seen, generally enjoy helping people. It’s what we do.
For techs, the reward comes from taking someone’s technical frustration, sculpting it into a challenge and solving it in a way that satisfies everyone. It is this innate desire to help others, solve frustrations and to extend kindness that defines the tech space. No one starts in tech to get away from people, to be overcome with anxiety, or to be so overwhelmed with work that suicide appears to be the only solution. While we’re far from the in-and-outs of office life at Google, it’s not difficult to assume that Google’s high-stress, perpetually measured, artfully-designed yet highly competitive landscape was, to an extent, a contributing factor to the mental health crisis they’re currently experiencing.
So Did Google’s Employees
While many big tech companies will preach a “work-life balance”, the sad reality is that many employees will experience a “work-is-life” relationship with work. In tech, even in small companies like Proper Sky, it’s easy to measure people by the quantity of interactions rather than the quality.
At Google, employee performance is heavily weighed on the basis of “OKRs“. Employees are made to set goals that, as stated by Google are “ambitious and somewhat uncomfortable”. The idea is that, in shooting for the moon, they will land amongst the stars. The caveat is that since they are working at Google, they should land on the moon 70% of the time. OKR’s are publicly shared and managed, which could create a culture of exceptionalism. For techs, expectations become outsized and inevitable, and metrics can quickly become weaponized.
While Google paints a picture of a nurturing, creativity-inspired campus that provides free lattes, in-house massage therapists and nap-pods, are they fostering a workplace that encourages a “hard-8” or prioritizes kid’s baseball games and dance recitals? If all of the amenities you could ever imagine are found at your office, then why go home? By designing a campus that provides the things employees leave work for, are they then encouraging to stay at work longer?
And how does an organization that promotes health and wellbeing as their top benefit reconcile laying off a full 8% of its workforce for technical employees that already feel overwhelmed whilst simultaneously rewarding its CEO with $240 Million in Stock Options? As business owners we have a responsibility to remember It is the people that work with and for us that create successful companies not just founders. It’s time we stop workplace hero worship. Or companies like mine that idolize these behaviors.
Well they don’t and, for a while, I didn’t either.
There was a time, not long ago, where concepts like “self-care” and “work-induced stress” were ethereal, abstract concepts that lived outside of me and then, suddenly, I couldn’t sleep. My heart began racing the moment I hit the pillow. Simple customer requests turned into night-long ruminations. I developed insomnia, anxiety and light depression. I self medicated and grew to hate tech, and myself. Attending to my family and doing the things I loved fell off and after 20 some years in tech, I felt thrust into a world I no longer understood or cared for.
Slowly, surely, with the help of therapists, meditation, friends and family, I began to understand that my world was a product of my doing. Like Google but in my own way, I created an environment where the pressure was unrelenting, my ambitions became “moon landings” and the expectations I set for my employees were outsized and weaponized. Everything became a fire and it was all fire, all the time, everywhere. It started with me.
Turns out though, it’s not just me. In a survey through OSMI, upwards of 50% of tech workers said they have been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition, and 71% of workers said that their overall productivity has been affected by a mental health issue (either diagnosed or undiagnosed)!
It’s time for change.
Where Can Change be Made?
Another business owner, a friend, asked me today “But how? How can I give my people the space for self-care and space for mental health but still run a business? What can I change?” It really is the question. The answer I keep coming back to is because we, as leaders, we just have to. It’s as complicated as it is simple.
We need to lead by example by skipping out early to catch a baseball game or dance recital AND work a little bit later on our customers’ projects. Be kind. Let our employees leave early for a bike ride and hope they pitch in on the client project when they get back. Shut our phones off and let our employees shut them off too. De-stigmatize taking a day off to mourn a lost pet like it’s a bad thing and celebrate your employee’s courage to share their sadness with the team. We need to stop rolling our eyes when an employee “has a flat” and find out why they can’t tell us the truth. Let’s get our folks out the door by 5.
As employers, we need to listen to what our employees are saying, really saying and help them, not by just connecting them with a 3rd party service but to actually figure out how we can improve their lives. We need to articulate to our customers that for us, we prioritize the mental well being of our employees to provide them with the absolute best service possible and that’s why we cost more. We need to de-prioritize profit margins at the expense of over-hiring so that we can have a mentally-healthy workforce that’s ready and engaged. We need to let go of those that don’t “get it”. Google and Proper Sky will be okay if you leave, I promise. But you, you may not be okay if you stay.
Opening up to our vulnerabilities isn’t always easy. We need to remember, and to remind each other, that these very real, very intense feelings of sadness, anxiety and happiness they’re what make us human. The ups and downs, highs, lows, ins, outs, and all around, that is all what makes us who we are. Work is only part of our lives, not what defines it.
Above all else, be kind to yourself, you deserve it. It’s time for all of us to have the courage to reflect on what really matters to us all; laughter, relationships, love, hobbies, family, friends, even solace and prioritize them. We need to learn from Google, from ourselves, identify who’s struggling and make it safe for them to ask for help. No one should take their life because of work, it’s time we act like it. Stop pretending mental health is important. Make it important.