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IT industry must open up about mental health

The IT industry is stressful, even without a pandemic. It's time to do more to encourage an open discussion about mental health.

Dave Sobel is host of the podcast The Business of Tech and co-host of the podcast Killing IT. In addition, he wrote Virtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business.

In this video, Sobel puts a spotlight on mental health in the IT industry. He shares information about how the pandemic has affected employee well-being and encourages an open discussion.

Transcript follows below.

I often write these when I have an idea or an opinion, when I have something specific I want to say or something really stuck in my craw.

Today, I just want to highlight something.

It's OK to feel stress, and it's OK to talk about mental health.

I think about a story I told about a year after I sold my MSP. My boss at Level Platforms, Dan Wensley, asked me what was the biggest thing different about not being an MSP anymore. I think I floored him when I told him that it was that I wasn't afraid of my phone anymore.

When I was a provider, my phone didn't ring with good news. It just never did. It always rang when things were bad: some client crisis, some HR issue, some technical problem.

It's not that I didn't get good news. It's just that the good news tended to come in email.

My phone would make me flinch. It was a constant source of tension. The easiest thing would make me stress out. I think I still carry a bit of that with me, to be honest -- my own little version of PTSD.

I did a video called "Don't Start an MSP," and I focused a lot on the business challenges in a provider business. The one I didn't highlight is that working in IT, particularly in support, is mentally tough.

The cliché: "No one calls up the network administrator to tell them that the network is running well. They just call when things break." Clichés happen because they are based on some element of truth.

This is a brutal business on your brain. The criminals have to be right only once. Support organizations need to be right every, single time. Risk management is what we do, and you know what that means? A lot of risks! Risk comes with strain and stress, and it can be intense pressure.

Now let's layer on the stress of business ownership on top of that. Owners of small businesses are where the buck stops, and so the responsibility falls squarely there. Your organization, your reputation, your responsibility. When you're the owner, it lands squarely on your shoulders.

That can be a cocktail for disaster, particularly if you're struggling.

I wanted to highlight a Facebook post by Jason Nelson, owner of a successful MSP. He's also a really nice guy. He posted this week about his own struggle and highlighted:

There's still a stigma we collectively place alongside anyone openly struggling with mental health, and to that end we avoid being honest with each other because, well ... we don't want to be judged or thought of as less than whole.

He went on and added,

I've been working with a counselor and psychiatrist for the better part of 10 years to help me work through anxiety and more recently ADD, and it's made me immensely happier, healthier and more able to enjoy life.

I've actually mentioned before that I have my own bouts of imposter syndrome. "Fake it till you make it" sounds great until you doubt yourself, thinking you really are just faking it. I've quipped to a boss once that you don't do work in community if you don't want to be liked. I saw a therapist, as well, when I was in high school. Some tough family issues to deal with, and I sought help.

The pandemic's effect on mental health

I've cited stress on the show before, particularly this past year. Let's hear the message in data points.

  • Eight in 10 technologists say their job became more complex during 2020, a consequence of quick innovation and a sprawling technology stack, according to a report from AppDynamics. The report included interviews with over 1,000 global IT professionals. The increase in complexity took a toll on IT pros: Eighty-nine percent of technologists say they feel immense pressure at work. Upholding IT through a pandemic, 84% of technologists found difficulty switching off from work.

  • Sixty-eight percent of respondents to a survey by Blind say they are more burned out than when they worked in an office. Blind also found 60% of those surveyed are working more hours than prior to the pandemic.

  • A survey by MeQuilibrium found 22% of managers have low resilience and are at high risk for burnout and PTSD and have taken on 1.7 times more work during the pandemic than non-managers.

  • In a survey from the Conference Board, nearly 60% of workers report concerns about stress and burnout. One third fear for their physical well-being, including getting sick. Another third worry about social wellness and belonging. And despite all this, survey data says participation in mental health programs and employee assistance programs has dropped.

All that data tells me there is so much need to talk about this. And then we find survey data that says not only is it harder but that participation in those programs for support is down.

So, this message is really just about admitting it's OK to talk about this. I've felt a lot of stress this past year. I've struggled with sleep at times, and I've felt overwhelmed at other times. I've worried about money. I've worried about my health. I've worried about my family and my friends. I've worried about my business.

And I have tried to do my part to talk about it, mostly to my friends. I had kicked around a version of this for a while, and Jason's Facebook post was motivation to highlight it. There's lots of ranges of need.

How to seek support, lead discussion about mental health

Let's start that if you are struggling, reach out to your healthcare provider or emergency services now. In the U.S., [you can access] services like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. [Outside the U.S., there are services such as] Canada's Suicide Prevention Service, Australia's Beyond Blue, or the U.K.'s Campaign Against Living Miserably. [You can also call] 911 or 999 services in your country.

Beyond that, [connect with] your healthcare provider or your employer supported programs. Let me observe: These benefits are part of your compensation, and you should always leverage those benefits. Not using them is the same as refusing a paycheck. For IT owners, that focus is to make sure you have these benefits for yourself as well.

And then finally, let's create an open space to have this conversation.

Jason is right about the stigma of mental health. We have concepts of what it means to be a leader, what strength is, what being a "man" is -- and struggling with mental health doesn't seem to be one of them.

I'll be open: January was rough for me. It was depressing and sad, and I struggled with motivation and with discipline. This isn't to say, "Feel bad for me," or to try and equate to others' struggles, but instead to acknowledge we all have our struggles. You might think everyone has their stuff together around you, but that isn't necessarily true.

Leadership can be the time to give space to others. Strength should be the acceptance of one's own flaws. And discussing this issue is important to normalize.

For those watching this on YouTube, I encourage you to put your own story below. If you're listening as a podcast, share or join that conversation.

Because this business is hard enough.

About the author
Dave Sobel is host of the podcast
The Business of Tech, co-host of the podcast Killing IT and authored the bookVirtualization: Defined. Sobel is regarded as a leading expert in the delivery of technology services, with broad experience in both technology and business. He owned and operated an IT solution provider and MSP for more than a decade, and he has worked for vendors such as Level Platforms, GFI, LogicNow and SolarWinds, leading community, event, marketing and product strategies, as well as M&A activities. Sobel has received multiple industry recognitions, including CRN Channel Chief, CRN UK A-List, Channel Futures Circle of Excellence winner, Channel Pro's 20/20 Visionaries and MSPmentor 250.

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