Tech’s Depression Problem

by Stephanie Dodaro

depressed techieStress in the tech industry is a well-known occupational hazard, affecting everyone from interns to founders. Whether you work in a startup or a relatively established tech company, the pressure to constantly innovate and compete at all levels of business can be overwhelming. For many, their work becomes their life, and their identity and sense of self-worth get inextricably tangled in job performance.

Ironically, the very traits that make entrepreneurial types so successful can leave them vulnerable to depression–a recent UCSF study found that they experience much higher rates of mental illness than the general population. And for those prone to depression, the chaos and stress of the industry can trigger an episode or exacerbate the illness in those that already suffering from it.

In an industry where 90% of startups fail, founders feel compelled to keep driving projects forward, no matter the cost. Too often, they keep stress issues and depression to themselves. However, left untreated, major depression can worsen and sometimes become life-threatening.

Constant Reinvention
In the tech industry, not only are products constantly changing, the tools you use to create the product are continually evolving, and employment landscape itself is volatile. “In my father’s day, people worked up a prescribed corporate ladder of titles and promotions,” says Rachel T., a longtime HR tech executive. “They didn’t have to constantly reinvent themselves, or the ladder. These days, change is the new normal and expectations are sky high. A lot of people, especially younger ones, come to tech looking to revolutionize industries or work on legendary projects right out of the gate.”

Even in relatively established tech companies, the pressure to not only keep pace with technology, but to innovate, grow, manage your reputation, and satisfy investors means that the bar is constantly being raised. In an effort to keep up, companies are constantly adding new positions, changing job descriptions, and hybridizing roles. Workers also jump to other companies at an unprecedented rate; according to a recent FastCompany article, the average employee tenure at Google is a scant 1.1 years and at Amazon it’s one year. Employer culture varies and some are more supportive of a work-life balance than others. However, in this generally chaotic industry where the expectation of 24/7 connectivity and the late hours at the office are worn as a badge of honor, it’s easy to lose perspective.

Great Expectations
There’s tremendous pressure for tech workers and founders to be successful by their mid-20s. Companies and investors keen on finding the next Zuckerberg favor young people with big ideas and stamina, who may also be content working for less. Young founders are expected to build and champion their startups at a time when they have the least life, managerial, and business experience.

To complicate young adults’ ability to cope with the tech environment, research shows that the brain is not fully developed until age 25. During the early to mid-20s, the pre-frontal cortex, which governs many executive functions including risk management and planning, is still maturing. The brain is also still in the process of insulating nerve fibers and pruning rarely used synapses to increase efficiency. Young adults may find it difficult to weigh choices, make positive decisions, and set and achieve goals. While risk-taking may be advantageous in the tech world, it can be more difficult for young people to figure out when to pull back or change strategies.

The early 20s is also typically when the onset of mental illnesses occurs. Unlike those with diseases like diabetes or asthma, people with depression don’t necessarily display outward symptoms and their conditions can go unrecognized, by themselves or others, for years. Depression robs you of perspective and replaces it with relentless pessimism and self-blame, which not only makes it difficult to accurately assess your work environment and job performance, but also your state of mind. Young adults may chalk their feelings up to industry pressure, as they might not have the experience or brain maturity to recognize that their behavior is out of the norm.

While older tech workers and founders in their 30s and 40s have greater experience and brain maturity, they also experience rampant ageism, and are more likely passed up for job opportunities or promotions. Those with families or aging parents, or who seek to maintain a consistent work-life balance, aren’t always able to put in the long hours required to do their work or keep up with changing skills. They can also have a harder time fitting in and networking with younger coworkers. Although the average age of venture capital-funded founders is said to be 38, the perception that younger founders and employees are more desirable persists.

“People from more traditional software or non-tech companies can have a harder time at startups or highly competitive places like Google.” Rachel T. says. “You have to be comfortable constantly thinking strategically, navigating your workload, and negotiating your position in the company. Those from more traditional work environments may not have the experience, ability, or interest in keeping pace. Tech can really undermine their self-confidence.”

Women and people of color have the added stress of navigating an industry in which some big name companies promulgate the oft-discussed white-male-dominated “bro culture,” creating sexist environments and a lack of racial diversity.

Entrepreneurism and Depression
Entrepreneurs may actually be at higher risk for depression long before they enter the stress-inducing tech arena. Cited in a recent Business Insider article, a new UCSF study found that 49% of entrepreneurs surveyed have experienced one or more lifetime mental illnesses, 29% of respondents report having lifelong ADHD and 30% reporting lifelong depression, compared to 7% among the total population.

The study suggests that risk-taking, optimistic, sensitive, creative thinkers of all ages have historically driven the growth and transformation of human civilizations. Yet the same traits that push the “creative class” to blaze trails mean that they burn out quicker and take perceived failures closer to heart. These traits can also put them in vulnerable positions, where their risks lead to financial straits or they hyper-focus on their business to the detriment of their health. Inadequate sleep, lack of exercise, and poor diet, all contributors to depression, can compound these highly stressful situations. In those that are prone to mental illnesses, stress can trigger an episode and the pressure and unpredictability of the tech industry certainly adds to it.

In the chaotic startup environment, where a handful of people are responsible for every aspect of the business, and a missed call or a slightly mistimed release can break a company, one of the few constants is the drive, tenacity, and vigilance of the founders and senior employees. Those suffering from depression may try to plough through their symptoms and put on a good face in order to keep all their startup plates spinning. They may not seek critically needed help due to denial, stigma, inadequate mental health resources, or lack of energy. They may also find it difficult to step away or even acknowledge the problem after investing so much effort, time, and ego into building a company–a well-known condition called Founder’s Syndrome.

Reaching Out
“Most people don’t want to talk about depression, especially in tech. But they should communicate early and often when they need help.” says Rachel T. “It’s critical to get clarity on your priorities, keep perspective, and make sure that you’re taking care of yourself first so that you don’t burn out.”

Many of the more established tech companies, all too aware of the effects of industry stress, are pulling out the stops to keep their employees happy. “It’s a race to the top to offer benefits that reduce stress and a work-life balance,” says Nika P., an HR benefits provider who’s worked at major tech companies. “On top of great healthcare plans and EAP benefits, we provide flextime, commuter shuttles, unlimited time off, extended maternity leave, IVF benefits. We need to retain talent and we don’t want people to say, ‘I left because of stress.’”

“Whether tech workers ask for help depends largely on the person, the position, and the company culture. With the rash of founder suicides and chatter about depression, I’m seeing more reports of stress and anxiety, and requests for our Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) phone number. Although it’s not discussed much out in the open, it does seem like more workers are at least coming to HR with mental health issues. If you’re not at a supportive company, or you’re at a startup where there is no health care coverage or you feel you can’t voice your concerns, don’t accept that you have to keep feeling bad. Educate yourself on the symptoms of depression and look outside your workplace for treatment options.”

Whether you’re simply stressed or are experiencing depression, visit your health care provider to discuss your concerns. Your physician may recommend attending a support group, career counseling sessions, or seeing a psychologist for counseling. If you are experiencing more debilitating or longstanding symptoms, you may also be referred to a psychiatrist, who can prescribe medications such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs for short- or long-term use.

Patients with treatment-resistant depression also have non-invasive brain stimulation options including TMS therapy, an outpatient treatment that uses magnetic energy to stimulate and rewire brain receptors. FDA-cleared in 2008, TMS is effective in twice as many patients as antidepressants, with far fewer side effects.

Certain insurance providers also offer alternative or supplementary treatments including acupuncture, nutritional counseling, or light box therapy.

“Bottom line: If you feel stressed or depressed, look for help.” says Rachel T. “The tech world is an exhilarating place to be, but it’s not worth your mental health, or your life.”