Addressing Burnout and Anxiety in the Tech Industry

In March 2021, anonymous chat app Blind surveyed thousands of tech workers to find that 68% of respondents felt more burned out than they did when working in an office, compared to just 7% in February 2020.

A full year into remote work, it appeared that the dynamic of working from home had turned into living at work. 

“What’s unique to the data science field is the sheer amount of information one has to handle,” said John Dooney, SHRM-SCP, who has 20 years of experience as an HR practitioner. “They also tend to have high workforce stress levels in the IT world.”

It’s easy to assume that tech workers may have had a simpler transition to remote work because they were familiar with virtual technology, but the additional hours and social isolation affected many employees’ well-being and relationship to work. 

Prevalence of Tech Industry Burnout and Anxiety

According to more data from Blind, the pressures of remote work — specifically the high number of video calls — are causing employees to feel stressed, anxious and burned out. In fact, 77% of professionals said they were tired of Zoom calls. Staring at a screen for hours is known to be bad for eyesight and mental health, but the added dynamics of information overload and emphasis on productivity has turned an individual issue of mental health into a systemic one. 

“People are just so overwhelmed, employers are so overwhelmed by the pandemic, no one had a chance to really respond the same way, and that created stress in this field,” Dooney said. 

Stress can manifest in many physical and emotional ways, and it’s up to employers to know the signs in order to respond quickly and effectively.

  • Employee burnout signs include cynicism, detachment from work, feelings of dread or hopelessness, increased exhaustion and fatigue and lack of sleep.
  • Anxiety, on the other hand, can include restlessness, irritability, impulsivity and feeling out of control. Both outcomes of stress can lead to difficulty concentrating, completing tasks and staying motivated at work.

When any form of stress goes unaddressed or unmanaged, it can lead to severe mental health outcomes that need professional or clinical intervention.

The Differences Between Burnout and Anxiety

Though the sources of burnout and anxiety are similar, they can lead to very different manifestations of mental health needs.

Burnout appears as:

  • Disengagement
  • Loss of motivation and hope
  • Feelings of depression and latency
  • Apathetic or unreactive emotions
  • Cynicism and dreadfulness

Anxiety appears as:

  • Over-engagement
  • Loss of stability and security
  • Feelings of urgency and hyperactivity
  • Overly reactive emotions
  • Irritability and impulsivity

Both burnout and anxiety stem from:

  • Longer hours working or being online
  • Less work-life balance due to remote work
  • Video-chat fatigue and exhaustion
  • Information overload from constant meetings
  • Functional and social isolation from colleagues
  • Lack of recognition or clear feedback

Source: Burnout Prevention and Treatment, HelpGuide.

When employees feel cynical about work or unmotivated to do their best, it can lead to withdrawing from responsibilities, taking their emotions out on others, procrastinating or feeling unable to start new tasks. Similarly, feelings of anxiety can be contagious as companies send mixed signals about job security, performance expectations and more.

Many data scientists work in teams, so when one person is feeling the effects of burnout, the outcomes can spread to other parts of the team or organization and make more employees feel defeated, trapped or helpless. 

Help is available, though, and employees may feel more comfortable or confident in asking for help if they’re informed and aware of the accommodations available to them. 

Asking for Accommodations for Burnout and Anxiety

The Americans with Disabilities Act protects employees with a qualifying disability — which can include mental health concerns — and ensures their right to accommodations in the workplace. 

Accommodations vary by workplace, and employees should know which ones are available to them. By law, employers are supposed to make those accommodations known, especially if they suspect that an employee could benefit from them. 

Frequent Accommodations for Mental Health

  • Additional paid time off gives employees time to rest, take care of personal needs and recharge.
  • Employee assistance programs offer professional counseling at an affordable rate or for free.
  • Flexible work hours allow workers to schedule work during times they feel the most productive or functional.
  • Assistive technology makes working more accessible or comfortable, such as standing desks, screen readers or extra monitors.

One of the best things companies can do, according to Dooney, is be consistent with their provisions of accommodations, which can be achieved by making information regularly available and a perpetual topic during staff meetings. 

“It seems like kind of a small thing but really becomes a big thing,” he said. “It can come from a staff meeting, or it can come from the president of a company that’s recognized this, because what they’re trying to do is keep their workforce.” 

There are many opportunities for human resources professionals and company executives to provide direction as they build a culture of openness and support.

How HR Can Support Managers and Employees

  • Hold periodical trainings. Each time new accommodations are available or processes change, make sure managers know how and where to access them.
  • Communicate with new hires. Make sure new employees know what’s available to them since they might lack the context of what more tenured employees know.
  • Send proactive messages. Reach out to all employees about accommodations and changes to company policies to ensure everyone has access to the same information.
  • Check in with managers. Regularly meet with managers about team changes, capacity and morale.
  • Survey employees directly. Ask workers how they’re doing, and collect data that can inform new company policies or accommodations.

Most large tech companies handle accommodations through their human resources departments, which have formal processes for taking accommodation requests. Smaller requests that don’t require HR approval may be carried out by a manager, such as flexible work hours or frequent well-being check-ins. Either way, workers should come prepared with a few items that employers are likely to ask for.

What Employees Should Know Before Requesting Accommodations

  • Formal paperwork may need to be filed.
  • Getting a clinician’s recommendations can help.
  • Identify some accommodations you’d like to be given.

Employers aren’t looking for proof of a diagnosis from a clinician, and in many cases they aren’t allowed to ask for private health information. However, Dooney said a note from a physician or mental health counselor with necessary accommodations can help workers feel confident about their needs and give managers clear expectations.

Formal processes exist to protect everyone involved. Documenting requests may feel formal or intimidating to employees, but having a record of communication between workers, managers and HR can ensure that requests are treated fairly and consistently.

How Managers Can Support Employees and Prevent Burnout

Managers have the opportunity to be an advocate and source of support for their direct reports, which starts with being approachable and building a culture of open communication.

“Try to get the employee to open up so they realize this manager is there to help them,” Dooney said. “Don’t just assume they know they could just come to a manager and talk about things that might seem a little bit more personal.”

Dooney recommends managers regularly check in with employees about how they’re doing and try asking questions in different settings, such as individual meetings for confidentiality, online forums for anonymity or surveys for collecting large amounts of data. 

Questions Managers Can Ask to Measure Burnout

  • How are you coping with work lately?
  • Do you have clarity about what’s expected of you at work?
  • How familiar are you with mental health accommodations available at work?
  • What current accommodations are benefitting your work environment?
  • What additional resources would make it easier to do your job?
  • How comfortable are you with approaching your manager for help?

Surveying with regularity can help employers identify patterns among employees related to morale, mental health and potential changes that could help with retention. 

Requiring employees to return to the office may spur multiple worries: “It may be that the employees are concerned about whether they might be laid off, whether or not they were concerned about their parents, or that their spouses might get COVID,” Dooney explained.

With the Great Resignation resulting in a deluge of Americans leaving their jobs, workers are considering options that lead to lower stress and greater satisfaction.

“E​mployees may be more apt to look at how well they were treated during this pandemic,” Dooney said. “Companies that were standing by employees and managers [who] took the time to have those conversations will probably retain their employees.” 

Resources for Managing Burnout