You would think that an IT professional could switch to remote working smoothly.
But that’s a misconception, according to Jack Stevens, senior product manager at IT services company Publicis Sapient.
“I just had an anxious feeling all of the time,” he says about the start of the lockdown in the UK.
His role involved a lot of teamwork and ad hoc conversations and when lockdown began, the only conversations he would have with his colleagues were using video conferencing tools.
“I get a lot of energy from being around other people and just suddenly didn’t have that anymore – everything has to be conducted through screens and it just doesn’t provide me with social interactions that I have any interest in being a part of for the long term,” he says.
Mr Stevens struggled for a number of weeks with his sleep, his productivity dipped and he constantly felt exhausted. He was constantly worried that he would be laid off as he only joined the company a year ago, and this combined with remote working, made him work longer hours as he battled with presenteeism.
“I spent time working on a project four weekends in a row, 10 to 14-hour days, and I don’t think I did any more work than I would have if I was working a normal 9 to 5 job, but it was a way of making up for the fact that people aren’t seeing you,” he says.
His employer Publicis Sapient says it provided employees with a number of resources “to help them manage their mental health and wellbeing in these uncertain times”, including free subscriptions to the mindfulness and mediation app Headspace, and access to trained mental health first aiders who offer support “and a confidential ear if needed”.
Mr Stevens says he is in a much better place now, having cut his working hours, and feels he has a better work-life balance.
His case is not unique – more than a third of tech professionals (36%) have seen their mental health deteriorate as a result of the crisis, according to a May survey by tech recruiters Harvey Nash.
For over a third of those actively concerned about their mental health, it is the first time in their lives that they have experienced that worry. The two key reasons cited by respondents were having no time to personally switch off (46%), and the worry of losing their job or contract during the pandemic (41%).
The crisis has meant a lot of extra work on IT professionals. And while job monitoring sites have said that the sector is one currently in growth, that can be a double-edged sword for tech personnel.
“Offices were told to go 100% remote working immediately and all of the tech workers – who were already under the stress and strain of having their foundations rocked – suddenly needed to make sure they could pivot their entire focus to accommodate their companies’ needs in record time,” says Amber Coster.
She set up her company Balpro with a mission to help businesses with employee wellbeing in mind, after burning out herself years ago working for a tech start-up.
“For a lot of those tech workers helping to pivot to remote working, there was a lot of adrenalin and purpose, but this was fairly short-lived because after the workforces were made remote, the question for IT staff was ‘now what?'” she says.
IT professionals, like everyone else in the country, had to then get to grips with managing their usual full-time job, as well as other responsibilities which changed in light of the pandemic.
“I’ve been remote working for a number of years, but working from home during a crisis has been far more difficult,” says Stu Hirst, cloud security engineer at Just Eat.
“There was a 10 to 12-week period where my two small children, wife and I were all in the house together all day and there have been days that have been hugely stressful,” he says.
In the Harvey Nash survey, for 32% of those with children, caring for and home-schooling their children was cited as the main cause of their stress.
This is made more challenging because there have been fewer outlets to unload stress or to get a break, and because there’s still a constant pressure to keep systems working remotely.
“Given the nature of an entire country working from home, keeping those IT systems working and functional is far greater than it was before – we have to make applications and collaboration tools work and that’s where IT teams in particular have a lot of pressure placed on them,” Mr Hirst says.
But Ms Coster says that she is reluctant to blame remote working for having an impact on mental health. She believes it is up to managers to enforce boundaries around remote working.
“Presenteeism exists when you’re in an office where long hours exist and it’s very easy to get into that slippery slope when remote working,” she says.
Like thousands of other workers, many staff in the IT sector were furloughed or let go altogether.
“A lot of technical workers did a load of work when everything hit and then half of the team are then told they’re going to be put on furlough, which means you’ve got a smaller percentage of that group carrying an even larger burden,” says Ms Coster.
For those that have been let go, the outlook is also bleak, and this is affecting mental health.
Sam Reynolds accepted a job offer with Storm Technologies in January, and worked his notice period at his previous employer Whistles until March. When he began working at Storm, it was in a remote working environment and two and a half weeks into his new role, he was told he would be made redundant.
“That was a hard pill to swallow – at the time my wife and I had a four-month-old baby, and we were looking to move house so that all went out of the window,” he says.
At the time, Mr Reynolds believed he would find a new job but as time has gone on he believes the market has worsened.
He has been applying for six jobs a day over the last four months, paid to revamp his CV and has undertaken a number of courses such as his ScrumMaster – a project management certification sought by many professionals working in IT – in order to give himself an edge over other applicants.
But he doesn’t feel all this has helped.
“There’s definitely been times where I’ve wanted to cry but it’s not something I can control, there’s nothing more I can do,” he says.
Even for those in work, support for mental health issues can be non-existent – half of employers don’t provide formal support for mental health issues, and one in seven tech professionals describe their employer as unsupportive on mental health issues.
Bev White, chief executive of Harvey Nash, believes employers need to review their mental health support measures, and provide virtual support through dedicated webinars.
“It is also important to encourage staff themselves to share their own views and experiences on the topic through blogs and vlogs,” says Ms White.
“In addition to getting the right support in place, you also need to change the culture so everyone feels that it’s their responsibility to look out for their colleagues, and take a real interest in how they are.”