"It started in high school. Anxiety. Self-harm. Thoughts of suicide.

“At the time I thought, oh, it’s just hormones and growing up and all the things that happen in high school,” recalls Amandah Wood. “I got a little bit better heading into university. But my last year of university was when it really hit me.”

Fortunately, Wood reached out for help, launching herself on a journey of self-discovery about mental health, self-care and wellness.

Today, at 29, Wood is passionate about work culture and work-life balance. She is also an advocate for mental health awareness and support, especially for those like her who work in the tech industry.

“There is something about the tech industry,” says Wood, a coder, founder of the Ways We Work digital publication, and member of Shopify’s Employee Experience, Diversity and Belonging team in Waterloo. “There’s always this feeling like you need to be doing more, you need to be working harder, you need to be two steps ahead all of the time.”

Wood’s experience and outlook align with a key theme promoted this year by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health: there is no health without mental health. 

The alliance is the organizing host of Mental Health Awareness Week in Canada (#MIAW20), which runs this week and culminates Oct. 10 with World Mental Health Day.

Data from the Canadian Mental Health Association indicate just how common mental health issues are across all sectors of society:

    • In any given year, one in five people in Canada will experience a mental health problem or illness.

    • By age 40, about 50 per cent of the population will have or have had a mental illness.

    • Approximately eight per cent of adults will experience major depression at some time in their lives.

    • Anxiety disorders affect five per cent of the household population, causing mild to severe impairment.

A number of studies also suggest that workers in the technology industry are at greater risk to experience mental health issues. For example, a 2019 report by the British Interactive Media Association found that 52 per cent of those working in the British tech industry have suffered from anxiety or depression at some point, and tech workers are five times more depressed than the general population in the United Kingdom. 

Some of the reasons are obvious: Tech moves at Formula-1 speeds and the competition is relentless. Wood, who is also a certified life and career coach, has given a lot of thought to the tech industry work environment. She has some additional insights into why tech work might impact mental health more than many other work environments:

    • The hustle culture of startup life. While the buzz is great, the always-working mode is not sustainable over the long run, says Wood. Good employees can burn out, especially when a startup scales but retains the everything-is-urgent work culture.

    • Ambiguity. The very nature of tech work – innovation, new approaches, disruption – is ambiguous. This can be stimulating, but it also ratchets up the stress level.

    • Lack of processes and supports. The freewheeling, whatever-works approach of startup culture is empowering but, over the long term, a lack of workplace processes can impact employee wellness and productivity.

    • People leadership. Young leaders may have terrific skills and energy, but they may not yet have developed a full grasp of the complexity of managing a diverse group of individuals, or the impact of workplace stress on workers and productivity.

    • Always-on connectivity. The pressure and impulse to stay connected through your phone, laptop and social media. Sometimes you just need to unplug and take a healthy break.

“And then there is the pandemic on top of all of this,” adds Wood. “You have all of those factors and now you have to figure it out from home, and you have to do it isolated from your community, and maybe you’re doing it with children (to look after).”

Despite the mental health challenges in tech, Wood is optimistic that employers and staff are more aware of the impact of work culture on health, and the need to make wellness a core part of a successful business model.

“I do think we’re getting better,” she says. “I know at Shopify, for example, we have a wellness team, we talk about wellness all the time – taking care of yourself, educating folks on the signs of burning out or the signs of depression, and offering a lot of education around self-care and wellness.”

In Wood ‘s view, the next big step for employers is two-fold: First, to better address the root causes of stress in the tech-work environment, such as hustle culture, lack of processes, and ambiguity of work; and second, ensure that the onus isn’t entirely on the individual employee to take care of their mental health and find a balance between work and other areas of their lives.

“We put a lot of onus on individuals. And a lot of this comes from not having clear priorities, not having a clear process or structure to support these practices, which is what leads to a lot of the working after hours, overworking, the hustle culture that we see in tech.”

She urges employers and leaders to “model and normalize” healthy work habits. 

“What has worked really well on my team is not just encouraging people to take care of themselves, but actually normalize it and model it yourself, whether you’re a leader or an executive. Something simple, like after-hours work should be the exception, it shouldn’t be the norm.”

Wood also emphasizes the need to make mental health part of the day-to-day conversation. 

“Just talking about it internally,” she says, “everything you can do to educate employees on what signs to look for and what resources to look for.”

Individual employees also need to take responsibility for their mental health. Wood suggests that people who feel distressed should seek help, talk to family or friends, or simply Google what they’re feeling and look at what experts and others are doing to address similar symptoms.

Just the act of telling someone else can make you feel not alone in it.”

There are also lots of things people can do to maintain their mental health, including regular exercise, healthy diets, meditation, yoga, journaling, speaking with a therapist, and just unplugging from the online world for a healthy break each day.

Wood encourages people to experiment with different kinds of healthy activities to find out what works best for them. She also likes a piece of advice that a therapist once gave her: Mental health is like physical health – you have to work at it regularly.

“What I have learned is that it’s something that requires continuous maintenance. And something that you always have to be paying attention to.”"