By Clint Boulton
Senior Writer, CIO | OCT 29, 2020
Managing mental health has become a necessary burden for IT leaders during the pandemic. The following tips may help reduce burnout and get employees the help they need.
As the coronavirus spread across the United States, leaders at software vendor Elastic became concerned about potential burnout of its employees. To mitigate issues that could impact the mental health of its staff, the company sped up its implementation of Ginger, a software platform that enables employees to quickly connect with a behavioral health coach or licensed therapist via text chat or live video.
In addition to onboarding Ginger a full quarter before planned, Elastic also increased promotion of information about its employee wellness and assistance programs and telehealth solutions on its corporate wiki, says Leah Sutton, senior vice president of global HR for Elastic, whose enterprise search products are used by Walmart, T-Mobile, Adobe and others.
Elastic is among thousands of enterprises fortifying support for employees’ mental health and wellness. Sixty percent of CIOs are putting mental health programs in place to support their staff, according to more than 4,200 IT leaders surveyed for the 2020 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey.
Risks to mental health
Even before the pandemic, one in five Americans grappled with a mental health condition in any given year, according to Forrester Research analyst Arielle Trzcinski. But the pandemic, which has killed over 200,000 people and crippled the economy in the U.S. alone, has sent stress levels soaring. Moreover, social unrest is mounting as a contentious 2020 Presidential election looms.
The risk of burnout is particularly high among IT workers, most of whom have put in extended shifts to ensure their business peers can work effectively from home. And IT staff, themselves working from home, face daily disruptions in trying to strike a balance between job duties and assisting students in schooling, among other domestic tasks. Staff, accustomed to working in close-knit, agile teams, can also feel isolated from their colleagues. The strain of remote work, compounded by pandemic and other stressors, is bad for both mental and physical health. In addition to posing long-term consequences for individuals, this impacts productivity and business performance.
Fortunately, IT leaders have awakened to this issue, according to Gartner analyst Christie Struckman. Since mid-March, Struckman has fielded more than 350 inquiries from IT leaders about how to deal with the emotional toll The New Normal is taking on teams. “It is definitely top of mind,” Struckman tells CIO.com. “They ask, ‘What can I do to help my team?’”
How to manage your team’s mental health
On that score, Struckman and Trzcinski offer advice for IT leaders.
You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first is the first piece of advice Struckman offers CIOs in how they can take care of their teams. “What are you doing to take care of yourself first? From a physical standpoint, it’s exercise, sleep and eat healthy,” Struckman says. “What are you doing to fill your cup up, so you have something to give?
Be vulnerable. IT leaders can destigmatize mental health issues by opening up to teams when they are struggling, Trzcinski says. Struckman advised a CIO who worked briefly from his car because of his home situation to share that information with his teams. When he did, his team shared their own horror stories about challenging work environments. This empathy instills camaraderie.
Recognize the warning signs. CIOs should also learn to recognize signs of stress, anxiety and depression. Slouching, fidgeting and bags under the eyes are classic warning signs, but some people are adept at hiding these warning signs, so pay close attention to your teams, Struckman says.
Listen to your staff. “How are you doing?” is likely to elicit different responses now than it might have 9 months ago, so managers need to be prepared to field those answers and redirect employees to appropriate sources, says Trzcinski. The good news? Employees, particularly Generation Z and Millennials, want to talk about mental health with their employers more now than ever.
But not all of them will. To with, Struckman advises CIOs to “listen for differences.” For example, consider the employee who offers, “It was great,” whether you ask him about a meeting or dinner. But if this employee says one day, “This has been a long, hard week,” something is clearly off. Or maybe someone isn’t speaking up as much as they normally do. Try to pick up on these differences with 6 to 10 direct reports to hone the skill.
Promote resources. Studies show that employees want their employers to provide more information on mental health support and services, so enterprises should make sure to detail available mental health services, how much they cost, as well as digital solutions that can support mental health, Trzcinski says.
Cut down on the virtual meetings. People sit in more meetings now than pre-COVID because IT leaders are trying to replicate the office environment virtually using Zoom, Microsoft Teams or an equivalent tool, Struckman says. But this takes employees away from their actual work, which results in them working into the evening or on weekends, decreasing time spent taking care of themselves or their families. “Employees need time to get their work done within a normal set of hours,” Struckman says. The solution is simple: Cut some meetings out.
Get more creative about giving employees time back. And while CIOs are shedding meetings, they might offer “Meetless Mondays.” Leaders might also decree no meetings before 10 a.m. or after 3 p.m. Also, try to virtualize other aspects of the job. For example, if you’ve got an RFP out that requires team comments, put it in a collaborative workspace with a deadline for staff to submit comments, Struckman says.
Take the temperature of your team, virtually. Initiate a pulse survey that asks staff how they’re doing, as well as what types of mental health support they’re open to. This can help inform what sort of mental health platforms or solutions you invest in, says Trzcinski.
Pick a mental health solution. IT leaders should work with HR to help pick platforms that are right for their employees, both based on the pulse survey and prevalent mental health conditions, according to their health insurance provider. Tools include targeted digital programs, virtual therapy and mental wellness platforms, which Trzcinski details here.
The bottom line
Unaddressed mental health conditions lead to increased absences, high staff turnover and poor performance and medical spend, say Struckman and Trzcinski. When some clients tell Trzcinski that they don’t have the budget to invest in resources to support mental health, she tells them that they can’t afford not to. “It’s about acutely understanding when people need help.”