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How can engineering managers support mental health in their teams? Here, Matt Cooper shares five ways to get started.

Feb 7 to April 18, 2023 Group leadership course
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Building and growing teams

Build, sustain, and scale healthy and happy teams

The impact of a toxic workplace on mental health and wellbeing can be catastrophic. The tech industry can be especially challenging, with many engineers working in volatile environments where burnout is pervasive and work-life balance is hard to stick to.

As a new manager, you’re likely already aware of the mental health challenges software engineering presents. In fact, many people choose to go down the management path because they see problems at work. Perhaps you’ve seen how these problems impact mental health, either your own or others, and want to do something to help.

The step up as a new manager can be tough and daunting. It’s a time of change, which might feel positive, but it could also have been brought about by a crisis. You’re suddenly responsible for a team of people, and that probably means having conversations that you haven’t had before. For example, you might not have known that a teammate struggles with depression until your first 1:1 as their manager.

You might be feeling some imposter syndrome around your ability to support your reports’ mental health, and you’ll no doubt be feeling pressure to ‘get it right’. It’s not easy, and there’s no playbook and no quick fixes. However, there are a few best practices I’ve learned through my own experiences. I hope these can help you to prepare yourself.

1. Dismiss your preconceptions

Stigma surrounding mental health is rife, and that presents multiple challenges for leaders. Societal stigma and shame acts as a dampener on all of your efforts to improve wellbeing. It limits engagement and in many cases, makes bouts of poor mental health worse.

As leaders, we should always be fighting mental health stigma in the workplace. That means not just tackling negative attitudes and language, but also making space and encouraging openness. I work to normalize the everyday ups and downs, and create a team where people feel able to take mental health days and communicate their struggles. We should always be thinking of the welfare of our teams, and looking out for signs of poor mental health.

To do that, we need to tackle your own preconceptions. Poor mental health can look and feel different to different people; that makes it tricky to just rely on our own experiences to identify when someone might need help. I take the time to learn about different signs and symptoms of poor mental health, and make the most of the resources provided by charities like Mind or Rethink Mental Health. By improving our ability to proactively recognise problems and triggers, we can unlock the ability to make early interventions, and prevent emotional pain for our teams.

2. Listen before acting

At some point during your management career, you’ll probably need to provide further support to a teammate, beyond prevention. It’s our duty as managers to make reasonable adjustments for anyone in our teams struggling with poor mental health. However, I never try to guess what adjustments are best for somebody. For example, whilst I might assume that time off is a good adjustment for someone struggling with depression, they actually might appreciate the structure provided by a working day. I might also want to support an employee struggling with anxiety by reducing workload, but that can inadvertently increase anxiety if they end up feeling like they’re falling behind.

Our number one job when someone needs support is to listen to them. I make the space to have a conversation where we can explore their needs. I ask open questions to understand how their mental health is affecting work, work with them to identify triggers, and let them steer the process of coming up with a plan. These conversations can be really tough (and we need to be conscious of how they affect our own mental health), but they pay off hugely in the long term.

3. Understand how to get help

After working with someone to identify the support needed, the path to actually accessing that support can be very confusing. Depending on where they’re based, they might have access to external support from their local health system (although in countries like the UK, that health system is stretched to the point of being inaccessible to most). The company may also provide some support through an employee assistance programme or dedicated mental health support partner. As managers, we should know all the signposts and make ourselves available to help secure access to internal resources.

4. Reflect

Conversations around mental health can be really tough and taxing. They often require a lot of emotional labor, and they can stick with you for a while. Whilst it may be tempting to just move on, it’s really important to take time to reflect. I take time to think about what went well, and what could’ve gone better, not just from the perspective of one individual, but also for the whole team.  I always think about what I need to learn, and where I need to develop myself.

5. Protect your own mental health

It’s also important to think about ourselves as managers. Whilst the bulk of this article has been about how we can help other people with their mental health and wellbeing, it’s absolutely vital that we take care of our own mental health. For empathetic people in positions of leadership, it’s very easy to become a ‘sponge’ for the feelings of others, and that can have negative effects. Make sure that you have a support network and an outlet, so that you can take care of yourself and others.