Q&A on Mental Health – Part 1

Disclaimer: I am NEITHER a professional therapist nor a certified medical worker. I am a software engineer writing out of my own ideas and experiences. Please treat everything as a subjective opinion, not as a professional advice!

Background

What is this article all about, right? Good question!

My very dear colleague, Eddy Mugwiza, and I had a pleasure of being guests of Helloworld.rs webinar titled “What is the cost of Mental Health in IT Industry?” (Serbian-speaking readers can watch the recording here).

Before the webinar kick-off, we received a list of questions that were submitted by interested participants (27 in total).

Since we haven’t managed to cover them all, I thought it’d be a cool idea to respond to each one by writing this article. The original owner of the content (Helloworld.rs) has agreed that I can take the list, translate it to English, and have it published here.

Due to the longevity of my answers (have I ever managed to write a short article?) and number of questions (27), I had to split them in two parts. This article is FIRST part, and the second one is being actively worked on is available here.

As stated above, please treat answers as my PERSONAL OPINIONS and by no mean as a professional advice! You have been warned!

NOTE: I’ve tried to ensure to keep the original question intact when translating. This means that I made zero to no modifications to them. You might also notice some seemingly repetitive questions. That’s OK, because I promised that I’ll cover them all!

Questions that are covered in this first part, are:

Q: How to recognize whether the environment is toxic, or if we’re simply not good enough?

This is a rather complex question. The whole concept of “toxicity” (toxic relationships, toxic environments, toxic bosses) seems to become more and more popular.

Let me give you a completely different angle here. What is toxic for one person might be a thriving environment for another. Hence, I’d say the whole concept of toxicity is completely subjective.

The question then becomes – how do I know if the environment I’m in is toxic for myself and my career growth?

My advice would be to start by forgetting the whole concept of toxicity, and focus on the following questions:

  1. Am I growing my career by staying here?
  2. Am I learning new stuff (that I can use to get a better job in future)?
  3. Do I have good mentorship?
  4. Do I have good and supportive colleagues?
  5. Is there a possibility to change departments? Change the project I’m working on? Or make any other change that would give a POSITIVE answer to any of the above questions?

Generally, if anwser to ANY of the questions above is YES, I’d say you are benefitting from the environment. It might not be the perfect one and, usually, grass is always greener on the other side, but if you are GROWING in any way, I’d say the environment is good for you.

The problem is that most of the time, we focus on negative only. And there’s a whole theory behind it called Negativity Bias. It’s a simple experiment really – assume having a Facebook post with 100 positive and 1 negative review, and tell me – which one would you focus on? πŸ™‚

Q: Have you mastered the technique of turning stress to your advantage?

Sometimes, yes. But calling it a technique would be exaggeration honestly. It’d imply there’s a list of steps that you could do in order to take advantage of it.

I’d rather call it – experience and a lot of try & fail. Rinse & repeat.

There are days when I get so overloaded and stressed out, that I literally feel like “Fuck all this shit! Why am I wasting my precious time with this bunch of crap?”.

But that’s the final step of the stress, when it blows out of proportions. And I think at that phase you can’t do much except – stop whatever you were doing (if possible) and just go and do something else (as my colleague calls it – some “brain-dead activity”, like – washing dishes or vacuuming).

What you need to learn is to recognize the red flags. Signals that are telling you that you’re starting to get more stressed. And that’s where the experience part comes in.

So how do I, personally, manage it once I recognize it, and assuming that it hasn’t blown up yet?

For one, I ALWAYS, ALWAYS start by acknowledging it. “Oh yes, I know this feeling. This is it and I know where it leads to”.

By acknowledging it, I think what happens is that I’m creating a mental space to start processing what’s happening.

Next, depending on the severity of the situation, I’d either try to remove myself from it by making a short break (the brain-dead activity) or, if I notice a repeating pattern (e.g. “Why the fuck am I doing this shit at all?”), I’d sit and write about it. Really. Most of the time it’s in my internal Diary (I use Day One app) where I just write the stressful question (e.g. “Why am I taking this shit at all?”) as a subject, and then elaborate my thought process. And trust me, this helps tremendously! And I guess you might call it a “technique”.

But you know, there are times where you just can’t remove yourself from stressful situation (e.g. you are in the middle of the meeting). In those cases, what I’ve learned is to simply suck it up. Seriously. Whatever it is, as much overloading as it seems, it will eventually pass. So I try to stay professional.

Q: How to deal with a person who has an obvious problem, but refuses to even think about getting a professional help?

For one, I can absolutely understand how horrifying this can be. And depending on how close you are, how helpless it makes you.

It’s cheesy, I know, but I’ll have to quote a popular line from Marcus Aurelius here:

“God give me patience, to reconcile with what I am not able to change, give me strength to change what I can, and give me wisdom to distinguish one from another”.

Source: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

You know, the unpopular answer really is – you can’t help a person who doesn’t want to be helped. It’s sad but it’s true.

The wisdom and experience part is being able to understand WHAT is out of your control. And other person’s choices and behaviors are all but under your control!

And trust me, I’ve asked my therapist about this. You see people struggling and you want them good. You know how therapy helped you and you’d just wish to help them as well!

His answer is always really simple — “statistically, it takes around 11 months from the moment you bring up the idea of therapy, until the moment that person decides to do it”.

The best that you can do is – mention the therapy, and offer to be there for them. And that’s the part that you have control over. The rest was, is and always will be up to them.

Q: How do you overcome stress?

I’ve covered the most of it in one of the answers above. Simple answer is – you don’t. You just learn to handle it better. And that takes time and experience.

Some of the things that you CAN do to alleviate it is:

  1. Having a clear focus on WHY you are doing what you are doing (e.g. career growth, financial gains, good mentoring, etc.)
  2. Taking care of your physical health (e.g. exercising, eating healthier, etc.)
  3. Spending more time in nature (no idea why but it does miracle for our mental health)
  4. Doing Therapy, of course πŸ™‚

Oh, and writing helps a lot, you know!

Q: Which books do you recommend on the topic of Mental Health, Stress, etc.?

I personally find biographies and autobiographies to be one of the most useful resources, both for learning how to deal with stress and for fuelling my personal growth.

The reasoning is simple – when you take a person considered to be successful, be it in career, parenting or life in general, and when you take a look into their lives, unless they are full of shit, what you learn is that they went through similar ups and downs, stresses, fears and doubts. And then you eventually learn that, well hell, at least you’re not the only one! And others have survived obviously, so, you’ll be OK πŸ™‚

Some of the (auto)biographies that I can wholeheartedly recommend:

  1. Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull – Ed Catmull is a brain behind 3D graphics, co-founder of Pixar and (used to be) President of Disney Animation Studios. Pretty much a lot of movies published by Pixar (and later by Disney) were (in)directly worked on by him. What fascinates me about this book is the journey and how he went through it. Seeing Pixar going from broke to being sold to Disney, overcoming numerous challenges and stresses along the way, … well hell, this book inspired me like no man’s business!
  2. Walt Disney: An American Original by Bob Thomas – the title says it all. It’s (one of) the biographies about Walt himself, which is claimed to be the best one as well. What a better way of understanding the shit that human minds goes through, rather than reading about life of a man behind Disney?
  3. The Ride of a Lifetime by Bob Iger – I guess you can see a trend here πŸ™‚ Bob Iger was the CEO of Disney for the past 20 years or so. Amazing story of a man who literally NEVER changed his job (yep) and who ended up as a CEO of Disney which was falling apart at the time. And yes, he managed to rebuild it and bring it to a point where it is today. Did I mention that on a FIRST DAY of his job as a CEO, a kid DIED in one of their Disney parks? That’s stressful!
  4. Shoe Dog by Phil Knight – I read this one recently and it’s just one of those books that is HARD to put down. It’s a biography of a guy who created Nike. And hell, I had no clue what a ride of stress and joy was it.
  5. Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey – Loved this one as well. Even though he’s definitely a better actor than writer, I still enjoyed it nonetheless.
  6. On Writing by Stephen King – I knew about Stephen King for a looong time (I guess you can’t miss his books when entering a book store, right?) but I just got hooked to him recently (in the last 2 years or so). Do you happen to know that Shining (the movie) was based on his book – The Shining? πŸ™‚ What I loved about it is that a lot of advices he give on writing can easily be transferred to pretty much anything in life. Hence the recommendation.
  7. Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss – I read this one three times. And will read it again. Tim Ferriss (guy behind 4-hour workweek, etc.) sat down and interviewed number of famous people and asked them about how they got where they got, their daily routines, their fears and struggles, etc. So it’s really a compilation of number of stories which I guarantee you – will motivate you to move once you recognize the same patterns!

Aside from autobiographies, I generally found a lot of “comfort” in Stoicism. Well, reading Stoic literature at least.

What came as a surprise (at first) is that a lot of ideas and teachings from REBT are directly inspired by Stoicism. Yep!

Some of the stuff that I can recommend is:

  • On the Shortness of Life by Seneca – if you’ve never read it, it could be a bit … overwhelming ,so to say. An advice that I can give you is – take your time with it. Read it slowly. Process it slowly. It just needs some digestion, really.
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – what a better way of reading about stress then having a sneak-peak into a personal diary of a Roman emperor? This is a collection of his PERSONAL writings that he never intended to publish and it’s pretty much full of advices he was giving to himself. Word of advice: if you are getting an English version, go for the one Adapted for Contemporary Reader one. You can thank me later.
  • The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson – finally, if you’re up for a modern writing on Stoicism, go for this book with a funny title. The author himself admits that this book is pretty much a modern version of translated Stoic teachings. I can definitely recommend it as well!

Q: Does coming to work, doing my job and going home make me less valuable?

Just to give you a clue for future “research”, what you are referring to is popularly called a “9-5er”. A person who comes at 9AM, does their job, and leaves at 5PM.

Now, to answer this question properly, I first have to peel off some layers that aren’t visible initially.

First of, being employed, in legal terms means that you, as a person, signed a contract with a business entity (your company) where you agree to exchange X amount of your time and knowledge, for Y amount of money. Hence, your first obligation as an employee is to deliver what you agreed on by putting your signature on it.

That means that if you are respecting the agreements from your contract (e.g. coming to work at 9AM, staying until 5PM, delivering the work that was agreed upon) and if your supervisor is not complaining about it, then, by definition, you are doing a GOOD work!

Now, the troubling part of this question is the “am I less valuable” part. And this is something that REBT focuses heavily on, btw.

Being a 9-5er, are you less valuable to your employer? Take my word for it – if you are doing what you are supposed to do, then you are MORE than valuable to employer. As someone who has both employed and managed people, I can surely tell you that I have incredibly high respect for people who are 9-5ers, because I know I can count on them doing solid work; and I appreciate that.

The real question, which is hidden under couple of layers here, is – am I less valuable as a person? And this is a good one to elaborate on πŸ™‚

What you need to understand is that investing in your knowledge, doing longer hours, acquiring new skills, etc., is not really about your EMPLOYER, but about YOU. And if you get those two mixed up, you’ll surely end up in a pickle!

My advice is — if you are OK with where you are and are making a decent amount of money that satisfies you, please, just stay where you are. And don’t even think about it. You are absolutely OK!

If on the other hand you are not happy with your current place, what you really need to do is focus that extra time in finding out what you need in order to GET where you want to be. And then invest those extra hours and extra work in order to get there faster. And that means your longer hours are, again, not about your EMPLOYER but about YOU. And then you’ll end up less stressed and more OK with extra work.

Q: How do you overcome the Imposter Syndrome?

I’m ashamed to admit that up until couple years ago I wasn’t even aware of the “imposter syndrome” (as in – the official term for the “condition”).

For those unfamiliar (as I was), the official definition says:

Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon, impostorism, fraud syndrome or the impostor experience) is a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents, or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve all they have achieved.

Source: Wikipedia

Interestingly, it seems to be more present among IT professionals; especially the highly skilled ones.

So how do you overcome it, right?

I find the answer rather amusing honestly. I think you don’t overcome it; ever. And I think that’s actually how it SHOULD be.

Because, from my point of view, the more skilled and more respected you are, the more anxious you are in order to lose that status (and again, there’s a whole science behind how we are MORE scared of LOSING than GAINING stuff). Hence you try hustling hard to avoid the pain of LOSING it. And unless this is blocking you from moving forward, I actually see no problem in it, really.

This is also one huge reason why i suggest reading autobiographies. Because what you can learn from them is that people who are definitely considered to be COMPETENT, suffered from exact same imposter syndrome, stresses, fears and doubts. And you can likely read that none of them ever overcome it. They just accepted it and lived with it.

And yes, if you’re wondering, I’m also the victim of this syndrome. But I’m just trying to use it to my advantage, by trying to push myself forward every day.

Q: Considering a number of people who end up with anxiety, stress, burnout, and other mental health issues, does it even make sense considering a career in IT?

Well, the underlying assumption here is that other professions are less stressful and produce less mental health issues, right?

I wouldn’t bet on that really. Just ask any lawyer, teacher or doctor about it. I think they’d all trade their jobs for a “more stressful” one in IT.

Generally, as I said in some of the previous answers – it all depends. Depends on where you want to be, what your goals, are, etc.

I can sure as hell tell you about a LOT of people who work in IT and their stress levels are at 0. Like, a flat line.

The general rule that I’ve learned is – if you want to pursue a low-stress job in IT, always aim at larger companies. They always have a huge mix of positions ranging from ultra-low-level stress (i.e. 9-5 job) all the way to Wolf of Wall Street kind of hustle.

Q: Can the burn-out at work lead to problems in private life as well? Problems in relationships, with friends and family? And if YES, how to actually prevent that?

Sure as hell can! I’m a living and walking example of it!

Some of the personal side-effects that I’ve experienced are:

  1. Going completely nuts and becoming unbearable asshole towards my friends (sorry guys!!!)
  2. Crashing my motorcycle and fucking up my knees and arms
  3. Breaking up a long-term relationship in favor of pursuing the “playboy lifestyle”, as I used to call it at the time

Yes, it CAN and it WILL affect all areas of your life. So make sure to prevent it and for crap’s sake – seek professional assistance!

Q: How to make a clear balance between business and private life?

I’m afraid I’m probably the worst person ever to answer that question.

I’m just AWFUL at making such a distinction. Awful as in, a lot of times I get pissed at work, I’d usually bring that home. I would be aware of it, but it didn’t help. I’d still be an unbearable asshole. And working from home just exaggerated it.

What helped me a bit is combination of self-control and communication towards my partner. Self-control in terms of – “just fucking keep your mouth shut, idiot” and communication in terms of – “Babe, I’m really feeling stressed out so I need some time to wind-down”.

I’m not saying it WORKS all the time, but that’s what I generally tend to do. And it works out; occasionally.

On the other hand, if you ask my girlfriend about it, she’d tell you that it’s absolutely possible and piece of cake to do. So maybe she should be the one answering this question …

Q: Should the companies start offering paid therapy as one of the benefits?

I generally find the topic of “company should do X” a bit ungrateful. And this is really an acquired experience. Because, when I was a Senior Developer, I’d usually complain about my boss being a dick because he’s not doing X. Then I’d become team lead and I’d start complaining that my manager wasn’t doing Y. And finally when I moved more towards management, I started realizing why the hell my team lead and previous manager were not doing X and Y you know. What’s more, I’d now find my direct reports complaining about MYSELF not doing X and Y.

You get gist, I hope? It’s the same thing with companies. In Serbia, we have a saying that roughly translates to – “it’s easy to swing with another person’s dick”, meaning – it’s easier to complain than to actually understand WHY someone is (not) doing something.

So, to go back to the original question – should companies start paying for their employee’s therapy? I guess it’d make sense, yes. But is there a VALID reason behind why they are NOT doing it? There very well could be!

Q: Why, in your opinion, is the subject of ‘going to a therapy’ such a taboo topic?

Probably for the same reason why pornography was a taboo; until it wasn’t.

In my opinion, it’s a matter of weird combination of culture, upbringing, complicated politics and socio-economic situation.

I’ll speak about what I’m most familiar with – why I think it’s taboo in Serbia. From what I’ve witnessed, therapy is usually associated with “being insane”. Like, if you have serious mental health issues, you go to a therapist, and sometime you might even get institutionalised.

Also there’s that weird belief (at least in Serbia) that you are supposed to solve your problems on your own. And if you really think about our history, it’s probably rooted somewhere in there. Because, for most of it, we were constantly having issues that no one was going to help us solve, hence we just calloused ourselves to the point where we think that we are OBLIGED to do it now. Which is a pity, btw.

There’s a really interesting quote by Max Planck (called Planck’s Principle), that was summarized into a single sentence — “Science progresses one funeral at a time”. Hence, give it a bit more time and we’ll get there πŸ™‚

Q: How can the company help an employee who is going through a burnout? And what can an employee do to prevent it in the first place?

Let me answer the first part of the question first – how can the company help employee who is going through some rough times.

My general, very unprofessional opinion is – this is something that employee’s manager is supposed to notice in the first place. Hence it’s not the company matter, but a manager-reportee one.

Now, I can only speculate on the answer and about what I would do.

I believe that manager should, during the regular 1:1s, notice that something is off with an employee. Which, again, assuming that they have built some professional relationship already, shouldn’t be such a problem. Hence, I’d start by boldly bringing up the question of – “is everything OK? Is anything wrong?”. Like, plain, bold, direct question really.

Now depending on openness of the person, some would probably overload me with everything that’s happening, while others would require some more digging.

Next, depending on WHAT it is, I’d usually either suggest them to seek some professional assistance (which is a no-brainer given that I’m the one whose been doing it regularly for a while now) or simply ask if they need me to reduce their workload so that they can solve it by themself.

What I generally find hard to REFRAIN from doing is the eternal sin of trying to play a therapist.

So, in theory, what I think you SHOULD do (if you are a manager to a person going through some bad times) is offer assistance in seeking therapy and/or offer to reduce their workload until they deal with whatever is going on.

On the other hand, I also happen to be familiar with cases where people play victim in order to avoid being judged for their lack of performance. So it might be a good idea to consult with your HR professional as well!

On the other hand, what can you, as an employee, do to avoid the burn-out? I’ll answer that one below, under “How to prevent a burnout?“.

Q: Is it normal to feel overwhelmed with programming? Given the sheer number of technologies, information and fast changes, is it normal that we simply feel helpless? Feeling that we are simply stuck and no matter how much time we invest in trying to stay up to date, we are still lagging?

Oh dear God, yes!

Not only do I think it’s normal, but I sometimes seriously wonder how the hell we collectively aren’t going completely mad!

Let me tell you something. Something that I’ve, funny enough, heard about today. Evolutionary-wise, we aren’t built for this shit. Our brains haven’t been structured to deal with this information overload.

And not only that, but do you happen to know what many DO believe we are built for? Hunting and gathering (fruits)! Yes. Really. According to many sources, our brains have evolved yet to a point where hunting and gathering fruits is our primary occupation. And we’re talking about ~15.000 years ago here. Double-time before pyramids and other stuff came around. Yep.

So, to re-answer your question of, is it normal? Hell, not only it’s normal, but it’d probably take at least another 10.000 years for us to evolve to a point where we COULD understand everything that is happening NOW.

But a main question here is – how to DEAL with it and how to stay afloat, right? My honest advice here is not to worry too much about it. Really. If you are thinking about changing your job in a near future, absolutely go out and refresh yourself with whatever the heck the latest tech trends and frameworks are. But if not – just focus on staying good with whatever your company is doing. And don’t worry too much about it πŸ˜‰

Q: How to prevent a burnout?

Simple! Just make sure to take care of your mental health and pay-off your mental debt πŸ™‚

On a serious note, I think it really boils down to taking a good care of your Mental and Physical health and, on top of that, making sure to be a part of healthy environment (no matter how healthy you are, the environment can play a determining factor as well!).

So, what do I recommend? Well, for one, I’d recommend reading everything above. Next, I can recommend only what I’ve personally been trying to do so far and, at least until now, I’ve managed to escape a second burn-out.

In a nutshell, it boils down to

  1. Taking care of your physical health — I exercise every morning before going to work, and, except for Fridays, which are pizza and coca-cola days, I eat pretty much clean most of the time
  2. Taking care of your mental health — aside from regular visits to a therapist, I believe that meditation and journaling help tremendously
  3. Learning by experience and understanding when’s the time to pull the break a bit — easier said then done but, as I’ve mentioned in one of the previous answers, best way of preventing something is to recognize all the red flags that are pointing to it.
  4. Fighting the negativity bias — this one is extremely hard, but, people claim it’s just practice. Trying to break situation into OBJECTIVE facts, rather than focusing on the negatives helps tremendously. I’ll give you an example – yes, there’s a high chance your boss is a dick who doesn’t listen to you, but, objectively it could be that he’s taking 10x the pressure that you are and out of 5 shitty options, he chose the least shitty one to tell you. Again, it’s not easy, I know, but it’s doable.
  5. Taking regular time-outs — short-breaks, hobbies and vacations. You just have to give yourself time to relax. I personally enjoy reading and watching TV shows, and I was just lucky enough that my GF loves the same things. Obviously, writing is a huge passion of mine which is one of those things that is both exhausting and relaxing in a weird way.

Summary

It was one hell of an experience answering all these questions! I loved it!

What might be of interest to you is that, as you are reading this, I’m working hard on translating and answering the second part of the questions (12 of them in total!).

Until that is finished, how about checking some other relevant articles that I’ve published? πŸ™‚

If you like this one, you might be interested in Part 2 as well.

Other stuff you might like:

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2 thoughts on “Q&A on Mental Health – Part 1

  1. This is such a good article on mental health. Great advice for overcoming the imposter syndrome and preventing burnout. Thanks for the great book recommendations. Can’t wait for Part 2.

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