Mental Health a Year into the Pandemic
It’s been over a year since Panorama Education became a fully remote company in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Since then the double whammy of work days being filled with staring at faces on a screen and a constant stream of concerning world news has had a large impact on mental health. After writing about mental health during the pandemic a year ago, it’s time to revisit that subject again. What follows are a few key mental health topics that we talked about on the engineering team. By talking about these things, we hope to become an organization that better supports mental health and gives team members information that helps them better care for themselves.
This article is written by an engineering manager. I am not a mental health professional, and this article should be read with that consideration. I have a strong interest that anyone who needs help from a mental health professional is able to get it. What you read here is written with that goal, and is not intended to be a substitute for that help.
Also, nothing in this article is intended to imply there’s a magical solution to resolving mental health issues. Acknowledging that, a key theme shared here is that it is important to get help when it’s needed, even if that help will look different and will have varying efficacy for everyone considering how unique all of our mental health stories are.
Stigma around Mental Health
The article Mental Health at Work — Why Stigma Is a Workforce Health Issue eloquently expresses a core problem found at many companies:
Mental health conditions are common and treatable. So why don’t we talk about them as openly as physical conditions like diabetes or asthma? Because of stigma — negative stereotypes about mental illness that persist both in and out of the workplace.
Even in the most progressive workplaces, many employees keep their conditions secret. They may be afraid that being open about them will hurt their reputation, compromise work relationships, or even jeopardize their job. This can prevent employees from seeking help and getting better.
The article goes on to report some startling statistics that result from this stigma:
- 75% of employees have struggled with an issue that affected their mental health
- 80% of workers with a mental health condition say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking mental health care
- Mental illness is the single greatest cause of worker disability worldwide
- 62% of missed work days can be attributed to mental health conditions
- Turnover rates are higher for depressed employees, who are 20% to 40% more likely to become unemployed because of their condition
These stats show us how many people are struggling and need help, but are less likely to get it because of stigma around mental health issues. One of the best ways to improve this is to have honest conversations, which is why talking about mental health is so important. We can build on those conversations to better support team members and reduce fear that admitting to having mental health issues will have negative repercussions
However, not every team member wants to openly discuss their mental health. What can we do to both allow everyone to talk about how they’re feeling and also give them some level of privacy and psychological safety? That’s where the Spoon Theory comes in.
The Spoon Theory
Christine Miserandino created the “Spoon Theory” as a metaphor that helped her quickly express the energy levels she had while living with lupus. Since then it has become a way for people dealing with all kinds of chronic physical and mental illnesses to abstractly express how they’re feeling. Making the Spoon Theory part of the ubiquitous language of a team can give a tool to communicate energy levels without sharing more than team members want to.
Being “low on spoons” has become a shorthand that some team members use. By giving everyone an abstract way to share about mental health struggles and burnout, we can move past stigma to figuring out how to best support that person. This may mean they take some time off, we shift around work tasks, or we proceed in a meeting with that knowledge in mind. This also allows more substantive conversations to happen in manager 1x1s about what kind of support a team member needs.
As everyone becomes more comfortable talking about their spoons, some people who would not have said anything before now may, meaning they are less likely to be on their way to contributing to one of the above stats. As that ripple effect grows, we’re closer to our goal of being an organization where mental health stigma doesn’t exist.
Even as we try to support team members dealing with the mental health strain of the pandemic, the allostatic load the pandemic causes continues. Allostatic load is the wear and tear on mind and body that results from chronic stress. In other words, the pandemic is reducing the amount of spoons everyone has, and those spoons are not easily coming back.
Talking about this is important because restorative interventions must be driven by the individuals feeling the load. Helpful practices include:
- Getting enough quality sleep
- Getting social support
- Improving self-esteem
- Focusing on wellbeing
- Improving diet
- Avoiding drug and alcohol consumption
- Getting enough exercise
The Catch-22 is that it’s more difficult to take care of yourself while feeling allostatic load. Exercise and healthy eating will help, but when you’re tired and depressed, some couch time with junk food gives a short term pleasure boost. Once again, talking about this problem gives us the best chance to understand it and try to take steps to feel better.
Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
As stated in Improving Emotional Intelligence (EQ), emotional intelligence or EQ is the ability to understand and manage your own emotions and understand those of the people around you. People with a high degree of emotional intelligence know what they’re feeling, what their emotions mean, and how these emotions can affect other people.
There are five key elements to it:
- Social skills
EQ is another key topic to discuss because the more we understand how we feel, how others feel and the interplay between the two, the more likely we are to communicate and collaborate in ways that are positive and constructive.
A big component of EQ is the fact that we’ve evolved in such a way that we process everything through our emotions first. An example of this is what happens if some unknown object is thrown at you. Trying to actually analyze if the object is dangerous is too slow. Instead, you have an immediate emotional reaction to act for your safety. Similar emotional reactions occur constantly as we try to quickly process the numerous events in our daily lives.
Understanding this helps improve how we collaborate. For example: when giving a code review, knowing how feedback is likely to be received allows for adjustments such that it is more likely received in the intended way. Conversely, having empathy for a reviewer’s feelings can lead to more patience with feedback and ability to constructively talk about how it could be improved in the future.
Applying EQ to our numerous work day interactions is all the more important as we deal with ongoing allostatic load and having fewer spoons. Without doing so, frustrations are more likely to boil over, resulting in morale dropping and mental health challenges increasing.
A theme of this post is that open discussion about mental health reduces stigma and leads to more likelihood that those that need help will get it. Becoming more informed helps us better understand what’s going on with our own brains and the brains of others. In that spirit, a suggestion for the team was to read Matt Haig’s Reasons to Stay Alive. It’s a book that can help us gain empathy for the struggles others may be having, and it can encourage those in need to get support if they are reluctant to do so.
With vaccines becoming more widely available, there’s hope that we will return to something closer to normal in the near future. Until then, we must be constantly mindful of the impact these trying times have on our coworkers and on ourselves. Even after we reach some hopeful day of new normal, mental health struggles will still exist for many. If we can openly acknowledge that and support everyone who needs help, we will all benefit from being part of a community where everyone has a better chance to contribute to their fullest potential. For Panorama, that means we will be more likely to have continued success in our mission to make a difference in the lives of students, hopefully giving them the support they need to reach their full potential as well.
If you’d be interested in being part of that mission, please check out our careers page.