Creating and holding space for employee mental health

November 16, 2021

In case you missed our previous post, we’re spending the month of November having important conversations about mental health in tech—and hosting a panel webinar with industry experts on November 24th. We’ll share best practices for boosting mental health awareness at tech organizations and creating healthy work environments for team members. 

Our three panel experts come from various cultural and professional backgrounds, but I recently spoke with them individually and they shared a common belief: Creating a healthy and safe mental space for employees starts with normalizing mental health discussions at every level of the org


Normalizing mental health discussions

When I asked Sachin Shah, Chief Technology Officer, advisor and Angel Investor, how CTOs and team leads should approach mental health with team members, he stated the importance of starting with self-awareness and consistency.

“I think for CTOs and team leads, it needs to be part of their day-to-day responsibility of looking after people. And that means simply making the conversation around mental health and how not feeling okay is perfectly okay. If, as a CTO, I'm not feeling fine, normalizing that conversation can show the team it’s okay to discuss this. ‘Today I'm not feeling great. I'm not feeling 100% and I need to take time off.’ Setting that example themselves or normalizing it helps everyone.”

Dr. Tarique Sani, Chief Technology Officer and psychotherapist, had similar thoughts when asked about the biggest issue in the current state of mental health in tech: “The biggest issue for me is also a very basic issue. There isn't enough talk happening about it. Speaking about it is still a taboo. I read that at least one in every five Americans will need some kind of help with a mental health issue. If every one in five people are going to have issues they need to discuss, we can’t be squeamish when it comes up. We should start with that. Have more talks about how you are doing.”

Shelley Benhoff, Sitecore MVP and Founder of Hoffstech, LLC, stressed the importance of the conversations going both ways: “We push the fact that education can come from anywhere, both top-down and bottom-up, and the same should be true for mental health conversations. When teams learn from each other—from anybody on the whole team, and respect their work and opinions as well—that really helps confidence. It helps collaboration and comradery. And they have this team that helps them learn and get through things. It makes those bad days easier. The same is true for mental health.” 


Creating safe spaces for employees

Initiating conversations so team members feel comfortable sharing their own situations is a great way to open lines of communication. Something else our experts recommend is finding places to hold space for these discussions. Shelley mentioned a previous employer who used a basic work tool when the pandemic forced changes to interactions. 

“COVID-19 definitely made it a rip-the-bandaid-off moment. Companies had to all of a sudden support a 100% remote workforce and many weren't prepared at all, especially for management. And then on top of that, every employee is, you know, wondering what's going on with the world. One company simply created and then promoted a Slack channel to talk about mental health. And it was really interesting how many people I would have never thought would jump in were sharing what they were experiencing. It became an incredible safe space for candor.”

Sachin said it’s also important to take note of the ways you communicate and how frequently. Clear communication is more important than ever, given the virtual nature of our tools. In terms of Slack or teams or chat, there are increased possibilities of getting the message out of context. And it may not necessarily come across on the other end of the receiving end. It leaves much more room for interpretation as to what that person means.”

He followed, appropriately, by clarifying his meaning. “It’s putting in the effort to interact more frequently than just your one-on-ones. You need to establish a comfort for all parties so those interactions don’t feel stifled or awkward. Everyone needs to be able to be honest about where their headspace is.


Join us on November 24th at 2pm GMT for our Mental Health in Tech webinar


Maintaining SPACE for your teams

Dr. Sani and I spoke for a while about the recently-released SPACE framework, which seeks to measure productivity far beyond lines of code written. Several aspects surround concepts like developer satisfaction and well being as well as communication and collaboration. I asked him if he thought it was realistic to expect large corporations to view these aspects with the same level of importance as things like profitability and successful product launches. His answer was to the point. 

“Realistic or not, it is imperative. If we don’t move away from only quantification of productivity and move on to qualitatively measuring stuff as well, we are going to suffer. Hybrid and remote working is going to be the norm. So we have to learn to measure things in a different way. Focusing on employee well being will increase the quality of work, reduce errors, and create less lag time. Imagine that you're saving time on your QA because more satisfied workers do better work. Less time spent in QA is more productive rather than just churning out greater amounts of poor code. And then the queue reduces what QA will send back which reduces what the developer teams need to rush. Creating mental wellness for your teams increases the quality of work that is outputted at every stage. So it is essential.”

Our experts agree that mental health is being addressed more by orgs and team leads, and that providing safe spaces for healthy conversations is beneficial for both the employees and the organizations. Sachin stated that, “We are doing more than before the pandemic but we certainly can do more still. And we must.” 

Communication builds trust and allows for employees to feel valued, seen and essential. Building a healthy culture remotely can be challenging, but it’s not impossible and it starts with honoring a commitment to your teams to approach their mental health in the same way you would approach their physical health. 


Sign up for our Mental Health in Tech webinar on November 24th at 2pm GMT