Mental health and the culture within IT

Information Technology Professionals Association (ITPA)

By Nathaniel Mitchell
Monday, 03 August, 2020

Mental health and the culture within IT

The current global climate and the COVID-associated effects of sudden isolation and distancing are bringing mental health issues to the forefront of people’s minds, and it’s a topic that is being discussed more and more in the public sphere.

Doing any kind of social activity in public that involves close proximity to others — shopping, dinner, drinks — is seen as a source of stress.

But what about within our working lives? In the IT sector there does not seem to be the same level of discussion and concern. In some cases there can even be attempts to ridicule the negative effects the changed circumstances are having on people.

I think there is a culture — maybe even a toxic culture — which has come from the early days of IT. It’s a culture that said if you were working in this sector then you are required to be strong and to not worry about mental health, feelings and so on — if you did, you were a geek, a nerd, a loser, beneath your peers. And that it was not a place for women.

Based on my own personal experiences and those of my friends, co-workers and acquaintances, this culture definitely exists in IT.

It comes in many forms, such as not seeing females as being able to compete technically with the males; laughing at, teasing and being disrespectful towards people who have mental health issues or who are not the right kind of ‘man’; an us-versus-them attitude that says you can’t be a real IT worker unless you know certain systems, programs or other obscure knowledge.

I have seen people that come into the sector bright eyed and bursting with excitement, only to become despondent and disappointed. Their passion for the technology has not died, but their love for working with it has perished from the stress, the attitudes and the culture.

This is exacerbated by the attitudes of clients, who sometimes consider IT workers to be not worthy of respect until they are needed.

How many times have we seen friends or colleagues who have gone through a rough patch in life, where they have been noticeably sad, depressed or just indifferent? They are forced to put on their ‘customer service smile’ while simultaneously copping outbursts from clients who may be experiencing their own bad days or rough patches.

If their smile cracks, they are usually reprimanded for not being professional or for not providing proper customer service.

I’ve had times where I’ve experienced health scares plus way-out-there life curveballs, all within a short timeframe, only to be told by management that it was unprofessional for me to be looking sad and depressed at work.

Why is it acceptable to be reprimanded for not being happy?

Do we, as the colleagues, friends and family of those who work in IT, need to stop and ask them honestly if they are okay and if there is anything we can do to help? Even if that’s just to have a 10-minute break away from work with them.

What do you think? Do we need to stop and ask whether we have a culture issue? And if we do, how do we identify it so that we can build solutions?

Nathaniel Mitchell is a director of the Information Technology Professionals Association.

Image credit: ©

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