My colleagues here in Platform Engineering have written some excellent blog posts previously in regards to technologies, methodologies and best practices. When I was thinking of a topic to address in this blog post, I decided to talk about something that is finally starting to get exposure and become less stigmatised: the topic of mental health, particularly in IT. What follows is an explanation of my experiences, what finally pushed me to get help, and what I found worked for me. This post is not intended to act as a guide or provide advice; I am writing it so that hopefully others will see that talking about this is something we should feel comfortable doing.
2017 was the first time I had ever heard of the R U OK? Day and, honestly, of all the days I needed someone to ask that question it was that day. I had joined my workplace a few months prior, and being intimidated by the sheer breadth and depth of skill within the Platform Engineering team, I felt a crushing need to prove myself. I also fully acknowledge I have impostor syndrome, too. While my workplace never asked or expected me to, I was working unsustainable hours and placing a large amount of undue pressure on myself without asking for help.
The morning of R U OK? Day I had a meltdown at my desk. I couldn't focus on work and I couldn't keep a hold on my emotional state anymore. I decided to head home early as I couldn't work, and I wasn't in a suitable state to be at a client site (pro tip: crying at your desk isn't a good look while at a client site). I went home and stayed in bed for a few hours, unable to do anything, until I got a call from the project manager who had an issue which needed resolution in order to go-live (the PM was unaware of my situation at the time). So, I ended up getting out of bed and forcing myself to attempt to work. I got the issue resolved, and around 7PM my mum called me to tell me my uncle had passed away. The night finished when I finally completed documentation required for go-live around midnight. I should also point out that I could (and should) have delegated these tasks to someone else, rather than try to do it all myself.
I am not saying all of this to garner sympathy, nor as a comment on RU OK? day as I believe it’s a fantastic initiative and applaud Gavin Larkin for his work, nor is my company stressful to work for (it isn't); in fact they have specifically enforced various policies around ensuring a healthy work/life balance as well as personal wellbeing.
I recounted this story to point out the fact that I put too much pressure on myself. It took something as drastic as a mental breakdown at work for me to finally open up to my manager. The minute I did I was treated with support, understanding and an attitude that has been rare in my career and workplaces. What began was a process of self-reflection, understanding and action to deal with my issues.
When I finally opened up to my Partner in Platform Engineering, he put me in contact with our People and Performance (P&P) team, and one person in particular who has worked with me over the course of last year. Being honest about what was going on helped me to take the first step on the journey of recovery. My P&P contact walked me through each step of the process along the way: talking to a doctor, utilising our Employee Assistance Program (EAP) service and taking time off work as needed. It was important to make sure I only returned to work when I was ready, as well as putting in place techniques and processes to ensure I could avoid a repeated episode. My GP has also been incredibly helpful and specialises in mental health, which I appreciated.
Mental health isn’t the career death sentence it used to be. I have been working in IT for over a decade, and when I first started there was no way I would have felt this comfortable discussing my issues, let alone putting my name on a public blog post. Thanks to initiatives such as Movember and R U OK? Day, as well as organisations such as the Black Dog Institute and Beyond Blue, there is recognition of mental health problems as a legitimate health issue akin to cancer or diabetes. The days of “have you tried just not being depressed?” are numbered. The implementation of EAPs in many organisations has helped legitimise mental health issues in the corporate world and provide a confidential and impartial pathway for employees to utilise.
I would say that, in general, those of us in technology can tend to be inquisitive, self-driven and try to solve problems on our own. Many books and studies have also found that men are especially prone to this behaviour. As a result, we can tend to find it difficult to open up about issues, or have an attitude of “I can fix it” until we can’t (one of the purposes of this post).
I fell in to this camp, and it took a breakdown for me to finally get help. I am not shy about my experiences these days. I have had several physical illnesses in my life and my mental illness is just as legitimate and no more embarrassing for me than my hyperthyroidism or hypertension.
In Australia, the suicide rate for men is three times that of women. Women have a higher instance of experiencing depression and anxiety, but are more likely to seek help. EAPs and training for management are crucial in tackling this. I still believe we have a way to go--as the statistics indicate--but it is encouraging to see more and more initiatives, services, fundraisers and key figures opening up and bringing light to the topic.
Exercise is another process which helped tremendously. While it can be very difficult to get the motivation when I am in a bad state of mind, the reality is that I feel better once I am finished. Exercise works on two levels: first, the release of endorphins biologically improves mood. Second, it gave me something to focus on, rather than the constant barrage of intrusive thoughts.
Going back to the IT side of things, it really doesn't help that we spend most of our day sitting at a desk. This sedentary lifestyle is not great for our bodies and needs to be tempered with active exercise. I definitely didn't do enough, so I found a form of exercise I always enjoyed: skating.
Taking Time and Acceptance
I needed an initial few weeks off work. It made me slow down and take things one day at a time. Being able to unwind and start to really analyse myself and what made me tick helped me to plan a way forward.
It was during this period that I realised the importance I placed on others’ opinion of me and the standards I apply to myself. I expected things of myself which I didn’t expect of others. I compared myself to a subset of what I see of others lives. People choose to display on their social media profiles what they want, which can be carefully curated and--in some cases--manufactured. Comparing myself to someone else is neither beneficial nor fair. Realising this and recognising that I should only compare myself to my own values helped me a lot.
I do not feel embarrassed talking about my issues, as I have accepted them as valid health problems. It is my hope that in being open with my issues I can plant the seed of acceptance and openness in others who have similar experiences.
Warning Signs and Checkpoints
One of my main issues was largely around how I viewed my own performance, and tending to assume the worse. My P&P contact suggested I put in place regular feedback sessions with my stakeholders to ensure I get regular and constructive feedback. I have found this helps as I have concrete evidence of my performance, rather than making pessimistic assumptions.
Second, I have learned to recognise warning signs and act on them early. I have tried to pull back on volunteering for tasks (with mixed success). A more sustainable workload has helped to avoid the overload I previously experienced, too. I know that when I start to get easily irritable, or have difficulty making decisions about mundane choices (such as what to cook for dinner), this is a warning sign.
Similarly, when enjoyable activities aren't enjoyable, this sets off alarms. At this point I know I need to take a step back and understand what I need to do to resolve the problem. Sometimes this is delegating or asking for extensions, other times it's alone time and exercise. Whatever the solution is for me, I am in a better position now to handle it and avoid future breakdowns.
In this blog post I have outlined my experiences and the things I found which helped me. As stated, it is not a guide for others; there are professionals for that. I wanted to show that it is OK to talk about mental illness and that there is help/solutions for it. I still deal with it, but now I am in a much better position to handle this illness. The help, understanding and support my managers and colleagues gave me was so influential in helping me reach this state. If you are thinking about reaching out to someone but aren't sure, I encourage you to do it; I am very glad I did.
If you or anyone you know is feeling down or at risk of self harm, we encourage you to use the following services:
13 11 14: Lifeline 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention
https://www.lifeline.org.au/get-help/online-services/crisis-chat - Lifeline live chat, 7:00PM-Midnight, 7 days a week (AEST).
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_suicide_crisis_lines - Suicide crisis lines for all other countries