We need to talk: well-being in the tech sector

A circle of chairsIn 2013 I attended the wonderful DevOpsDays in London. On the first day there were a series of Ignite talks: a terrifying ordeal where the speaker gets five minutes to talk about something while their slides advance tyrannically every 15 seconds. I always watch them with a mixture of awe, angst, and terror that someone will eventually force me to do one. They range from the mundane through the muddled via the baffling to the fascinating. On that day, Mike Preston gave a talk called ‘Burnout—the elephant in the room’. The audience was silent and in thrall.

Mike spoke passionately about his own experiences, and of the silent problem of overwork leading to people becoming demoralised and disconnected. It was such a brave thing to do in front of his peers: it’s a small community, and in a less sympathetic environment it could have been a career-limiting move. Later I proposed an open space to discuss this further, and it was so well attended that the room filled beyond capacity; almost depressingly full, one could say. The session quickly became impromptu group therapy as, one by one, its attendees told stories of sudden and catastrophic burnout. One man went out for lunch one day, later finding it impossible to return. Another told us how, every day before work, he sat in his car and cried. Every day. I had the impression that this was the first time many of the group felt able to tell these stories. It was heartbreaking.

Last week I went to DevOpsDays Amsterdam, which turned out to be the best conference I’ve ever attended. There was a great mix of technical and cultural discussion (not to mention the beauty and character of the city itself). There was also a keynote speech by John Willis called ‘Karōjisatsu’ (here’s a video of John giving the same talk in New York). Karōjisatsu is a Japanese term for suicide through overwork, an extension of Karoshi (death through overwork)[1]. The talk was paralysingly powerful. John’s blog, which inspired his talk, is even more so. Go and read it now.

During John’s talk the twitter feed behind him was lighting up with praise. Phone in hand, at first I was angry:

…and then, feeling a bit more constructive:

Despite the flippant tone, I was absolutely serious. There are so many questions that need to be answered, the main one being just how common a problem is this? I don’t have access to academic databases any more, but this comprehensive paper and its references never mention the tech sector as at high risk of suicide… and yet—anecdotally at least—the problem is real and potentially widespread. It’s entirely possible that burnout and mental illness are abundant in our industry but, as John pointed out, we are simply rubbish at talking to each other. We need to know what’s happening and how bad it is, and the best way to do that—and to support each other—is to get together and talk about it.

The inestimable Leslie Hawthorn picked this up almost immediately:

I’m hoping very much that something will come of this, and I’ll offer what little I can do to help. But I’m most keen that whatever happens is genuinely useful and offers hope of real progress. I want to see experts: mental and occupational health practitioners, researchers, epidemiologists. I want to see research done, papers written, knowledge gained. An event like this risks sliding into self-pity and half-remembered treatment régimes if it isn’t grounded in science. We need to address this problem and we need to do it now, but we can’t do it alone. If you’re willing to help, or know a good contact, please take a look at Leslie’s GitHub repo and consider joining the Google Group.

Finally: if you need help, ask for help. Talk to someone: your colleague, your doctor, your friend, your parent, the Samaritans. If you’re suffering, someone you know will want to know.


[1] I don’t know what’s scarier: the fact that this happens, or that it happens so often we have a word for it. (with apologies to Broken Arrow)

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One Response to We need to talk: well-being in the tech sector

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