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Simply trying to tackle the issue as it happens is not a sustainable solution, says new research.

As a manager, ensuring that your staff are supported mentally through any issues is vital, not just as a human, but as a person running a business concerned about the bottom line.

Employee mental health is not an abstract issue. One in five workers in the United States say their mental health is only fair – or worse, poor. Those who describe their mental health that way are likely to have more than two working weeks of unplanned absences a year, compared with just 2.5 days for those who say their mental health is good or better. That makes for a $47.6 billion problem.

Why do employers still struggle to support their reports' mental health then? A recent Academy of Management research paper suggests that employers often don’t understand that mental health and mental illness are two distinct issues, says Emily Rosado-Solomon, an assistant professor of management at Babson College, and one of the co-authors of the research.

Your mental health can be good or poor, often depending on external factors such as stress or sadness, and it can pass or change. Mental illness on the other hand is a diagnosable problem that consistently impacts a person’s ability to live and work. Learning to understand these differences, and take steps to change your management approach accordingly, should help unlock better mental health across your team.

Small changes matter

“There are literally hundreds of studies about the specific features of work that are problematic, and that are more or less within an employer's control,” Rosado-Solomon says. “That’s good news: these are things that can be changed.” 

During the course of her research, Rosado-Solomon found that despite there being myriad ways to design and direct work, when employers look at trying to help alleviate mental health problems, they instead focus on individual solutions, rather than systematic problems. “They're looking at individual employees as though the cause of their challenge is not connected,” she says.

One of the main stress factors for mental health issues in work is job design, or the way we think about designing employees’ individual jobs within an organization. When employees lack autonomy and feel as if they have no control over their work, that’s a stressor on mental health. 

Fortunately, Rosado-Solomon sees some unique opportunities for software engineers to alleviate these problems. “In an engineering or a software context, there are a lot of ways to give employees a sense of autonomy, while still getting the job done and still meeting the needs of the company,” she says. “That could be a little bit of flexibility about where they work. Especially in a software context, there is an element of remote work.” 

This consideration is doubly important when thinking about people with mental illnesses, rather than poor mental health. “There are more opportunities for accommodation of people, not just with mental health challenges, but specifically with diagnosed mental illness and with neurodivergence,” she says. For these people, creativity and flexibility in how and where work is done is helpful.

Similarly, employee performance shouldn’t be measured solely on how hard someone works, but whether people meet benchmarks such as key performance indicators (KPIs) – regardless of how or when they did it. Too often, employee performance is measured on absences, rather than outcomes. Changing that “allows employees to take control and have a sense of autonomy about where they work, what projects they work on first, and how they get it done,” she says. 

Employee culture is also important as it can proactively shape a working environment more conducive to good mental health for employees. Despite the diversity, equality, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) policies put in place by tech companies over the past few years, 24% of tech professionals are experiencing racial discrimination in the workplace, according to Dice's 2023 discrimination in tech report – a 6% jump from the previous year. 

Similarly, 26% of respondents in the same study professed to experience gender discrimination, an increase of five percentage points on the year prior. Other underrepresented groups such as those with a disability appear to experience both racial and gender discrimination at higher rates than those who don’t. While the conversation is still ongoing on how we can combat this, it is clear that discrimination plays a large role in negatively impacting employee mental health.

Other elements of the tech industry culture that might pose a threat to employee mental health are companies' often single-minded pursuits of speed and growth at all costs. This competitive and fast-paced industry can wear down on professionals, leading to higher rates of burnout and poorer mental wellbeing.

“We have to be really mindful to have a zero-tolerance policy for harassment and bullying,” Rosado-Solomon says. Putting firm policies in place can help remove any gray areas: the Academy to Innovate HR has guidance on how to develop a practical anti-bullying and harassment policy. “Gender really plays a role in how employees experience their mental health challenges and how those mental health challenges manifest in the world. And men, very specifically, are socialized to not talk about their feelings.” 

Promoting a positive workplace culture with community building activities, while acknowledging that different members of staff will have different work patterns – and crucially, different demands on their time outside of work, such as looking after children or elderly relatives – is vital.

Make it clear

“Employers can help engineers maintain good mental health by being intentional about what they are asking their engineers to do,” says Liz Marquis, senior user experience researcher for developer applications at MathWorks. “While this seems obvious, there's a tendency in the tech world to have a process and platform for every little thing.”

That process and platform overload can itself be taxing for staff as they try to keep track of what they’re meant to do. “This can culminate in engineers spending a lot of their time and mental energy navigating across the multitude of applications, workflows, keyboard shortcuts, et cetera, rather than focusing on development,” they say. “Eventually, this can cause frustration, high cognitive load, and burnout.”

“The biggest pain points often come when it's not easy or obvious to move between apps or find help,” Marquis says.  They try to tackle this in their own work,  mapping and designing workflows that cross developer applications, rather than being limited to within each one. “Good infrastructure is invisible and that's my goal.”

Another issue is clutter, and expecting engineering staff to keep track of it. The sector is already high stakes, and asking employees to carry the mental burden of maintaining old and antiquated systems and ways of working out of obligation is not sustainable in the long run.

“I'm also a huge advocate for taking old or deprecated features or workflows out of developer applications,” Marquis says. “While putting new features in is exciting, it's just as important to take things out to keep from distracting and confusing engineers.”

The end result should always be a simple one, “Let engineers focus on their meaningful work,” Marquis says.