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Behavioral Health in Tech: The Unintended Impact of a Risk-Taking Culture

by Becky Blackler


Even before COVID-19, global rates of anxiety and depression were on the rise by 15-20% annually, affecting an estimated 264 million people, or an estimated 1 in 5 adults, around the world.

COVID-19 has only exacerbated this growth. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation Study conducted in mid-July, 53% of adults in the United States reported that their behavioral health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the coronavirus, an increase of 21% of those adults surveyed in March 2020.

The technology industry, a driven, problem-solving force of nature, has risen to the challenge of behavioral health access and care, counting almost 1,000 behavioral health tech startups across the globe. And while technology certainly plays a role in awareness, education, and connection with resources, an app can’t solve for the most powerful of forces – a trusted, psychologically safe culture that talks openly, and provides support for, behavioral health.

Where Tech Culture and Behavioral Health Collide

Tech has a culture that we all know and love. It’s an industry filled to the brim with driven personalities who thrive under pressure, deadlines, and meeting the next goal, benchmark, or deliverable. Whether they’re racing to bring a life-changing product to market, or they’re quickly working to solve previously unsolvable problems, the tech industry is known for its commitment, creativity, and speed.

At its core, the tech industry is filled with hard-working risk-takers, willing to put everything on the line to build a company, establish or disrupt a market, and be the leader of that market in two years or less. However, the speed, risk, and uncertainty of this industry has unintended, but measurable, impact on the behavioral health of its employees:

  • 57% of tech employees reported significant stress and burnout as a result of work1
  • 1 in 5 IT employees admit to abusing pain-relieving drugs for non-medical use2
  • 50% of tech industry entrepreneurs are more likely to report a behavioral health condition3

The Signs That Your Team Might Need Some Help

How might these impacts be presenting in tech employees? While some employees can appear down, sad, extremely nervous, or agitated, many times, people suffer silently, and instead present through unscheduled absences, increased sick days, or presenteeism.

What does this mean for the company? According to a 2018 study by the American Heart Association, companies lose $17,241 per year in incremental healthcare and productivity costs for each person with a major depressive disorder. A 2019 mental health report from Unum demonstrates that behavioral health issues can have a significant impact on job performance, mainly through lack of focus, irritability, lower productivity, missed work, tension with co-workers and slower career advancement.

What’s even more disconcerting is why these employees aren’t speaking up. According to a Paychex study of more than 1,000 employees:

  • 54% of respondents said they felt uncomfortable talking to their managers and supervisors about behavioral health
  • 30% of respondents feared that discussing their behavioral health could lead to be fired or furloughed
  • 29% of respondents thought discussing their issues could cost them a promotion

So what can be done to help employees in the tech industry? Just as they take risks in their work and career, give them the safety they need to take a risk and discuss their challenges with behavioral health.

Fostering Psychological Safety in Uncertain Times

Psychological Safety is defined as a ‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’

In a workplace culture, this means that employees feel safe and supported in surfacing and openly discussing their behavioral health journey.

For example, leadership should:

  • Directly address the negative and worrisome impact of the health crisis
  • Acknowledge employee concerns about quarantine, family, and job instability
  • Recognize that this time is unprecedented, which naturally leads to vulnerability
  • Be bold and firm in decisions, despite personal anxiety

In summary, it’s about having the courage to have tough conversations, being transparent about your own challenges, while also supporting, encouraging, and coaching your own employees to share their own concerns, without fear of retribution.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to share more advice, resources, and guidance on how technology companies can lead the creation of psychologically safe cultures, including how anxiety and depression impacts technology teams; supporting neurodiversity in technology; and supporting employees during times of insecurity.


1 App Blind survey, 2018 | 2 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2018 | 3 Michael Freeman, 2015

Some of the topics we cover can be difficult. For free and confidential support, call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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