Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Mental Health 110 - Taking care of yourself

Way back in 2013 I ran a whole series on mental health which included the tale of a guy named Richard whose depression kept him off work on two consecutive years for over 6 months.

Today I want to expand on that story with some cautionary tales within IT, including some of my own experiences, and some hopes of where we might be able to go from here - not only as an industry but also in making conferences more open, supportive places for those suffering from mental health issues.

This blog post will talk about some of my own experiences preventing burnout, and will touch upon people I've had contact with.  I've spoken to a lot of people within IT about this issue over the years.  In this post I'm going to talk a little of stories I've encountered, but aim to protect everyone's anonymity.  Any names I'm using here are not real names.

A few years ago I had a problem.  I was on a project, that was having difficulties.  In truth they needed double the number of BAs and testers to get the project 'over the line'.  We didn't get paid overtime, but we were so passionate about where we worked we were putting in the a lot of extra hours to try and keep up, and not be 'that person who says we can't do it'.

We kept forcing ourselves to work these hours because others were doing them, and we daren't be the weak link that let everything down.  Besides, this wasn't going to be forever.  So we'd sometimes leave at 11pm, or even midnight, knowing our manager had booked a 9am progress meeting with us.

I know I started to get tunnel vision, my testing became weaker.  I was lucky, I got really irritable, and both my wife and a friend at work challenged me on this, and I realised I had a problem.  Oh I didn't at first, and got really angry they were picking on me.  Which kind of helped their case - I was glad they challenged me.  These things aren't easy things to recognise or deal with.

I took it very seriously, I was feeling tired all the time, my head couldn't focus like I'd like, and being snappy didn't help.  So I went to see a counsellor, which helped (first line of mental health defence).  I'd not reached breaking point ... yet. I could ease up a bit and the sessions helped, but I couldn't go on like this forever.  But it was only for a couple of months right?

They suggested I try a monthly mental health group to 'mentally check in' and keep aware if it was becoming too much.  I wasn't really sure about the idea, but thought I'd give it a try.  I turned up quite early and from nerves very nearly bottled out.  I thought of every kind of Hollywood cliche about how this wouldn't be healthy.

But I managed to go in, and what I found was really helpful.  Very much like my experience with Violet, a group or circle are peers with various experiences just trying to support each other.  We'd go around the circle and 'mentally check in'.  We'd talk about how the last month was going, and how we felt.  We could ask questions and give support to the person speaking, and we had a facilitator to try and keep the conversation positive.

Hearing other people's stories really was enlightening, and having a monthly place to check myself was useful when the inevitable happened.  At work, we were trying to maintain ourselves just to get something over the line.  It seemed a relatively near goal, but our deadline was pushed further and further out, but the expectations on us remained.  We were now trying to maintain a sprinting pace over a marathon, and although I was better at setting limits for myself and living with the consequences if someone said I'd disappointed them and let the team down, I was seeing cracks in one of my colleagues, Samantha.  [For the record, I was still working extra hours, just not as many of them as before]

To be clear, Samantha didn't have mental health problems, but she'd a medical issue which had been an issue the year before.  Much like Richard in my previous story, there were a lot of warning signs, but she admitted in hindsight she was ignoring them, hoping to just get the project down, then she'd take care of herself.  One morning she didn't turn up to work - she'd pushed herself until her body couldn't take it any more, and she'd ended up hospitalised for three months.  People didn't commend her valiance at working herself into this state, but were more angry at her for inconveniencing the project than with me for cutting back on excessive overtime.  Although there were some lines of support for her, she was just replaced with someone else.

Back at the support group, we'd have some people come in for several months, some new people drop in.  I noticed we were getting a lot of people from IT into the group, they had different mental health problems, but a similar story to Samantha.  They'd been working in a high stress situation, in hindsight there had been warning signs, but they'd ignored them, then they'd needed to be hospitalised for a while.  A breakdown of one form or another, diagnosis too late of a problem, therapy, medication, trying to put their life together.  Occasionally you'd hear how back at their old company, they'd been replaced and left behind.

It's depressing isn't it?  In talking one-on-one at group, in my workplace and at conferences, I've heard a lot of stories of people struggling with mental health at work.  Not all stories end as dramatically as that, but it's important to remember this is a blight within our workplace.

Many places, including my current workplace, are extremely supportive of people with issues.  But really there is an expectation that if you're having issues, you need to be adult, speak up and seek appropriate help - a doctor or a counsellor is a good start.  Most employers are sympathetic, and have schemes in place to help, from counselling that can be booked without needing to tell management to phone help lines which are all confidential.

During this problem year, I honestly don't know if I had mental health issues per say, as much as I was as stressed as any human being would be.  Our whole team was becoming tetchy and starting to crack, what happened to Samantha was terrifying and sobering.  Because we all were out to impress and break new ground, we didn't say 'no' enough, and we didn't set boundaries.  And because of that we'd feel chastised when we tried to - not healthy.  But to be fair, we put ourselves under more pressure to impress than we were probably put under.

The key lesson of this post is about awareness of not just our mind but our body, and when we're having issues to seek help.  I'd really like to hear less stories like Samantha's in our industry.

During my time in the group I came across the WRAP, that I briefly talked about last time.  It stands for Wellness Recovery Action Plan.  It's a way of recording how we're doing, to look for patterns, and to see (much like with my monthly group visits) if we're getting worse.

As mentioned, I'd love to potentially cover this at workshop with someone at a conference in the future - but you can find a copy here.  You fill it out over time, it's a reminder of how you feel, of things that make you feel better, and things that make you feel vulnerable, and a reminder do more of the former, and less of the later.

You don't have to have depression or a serious physical injury to use a WRAP, you just have to be mindful.  Samantha used something similar to help her recovery after hospitalisation, as has my wife after a severe back injury.

As detailed here, it includes,

  • Daily maintenance plan - reminders of what to do when you feel good.  [For me, it's remembering to get good levels of sleep, for my wife it's starting the day with stretches for her back]
  • Triggers - things that can make you feel worse.  When these happen, you need to look after yourself.  [Using this with a counsellor over my post traumatic stress, I found that violent TV and cinema as a trigger, and one of the reasons I write more and watch less TV at the moment]
  • Warning signs - behaviour which shows you're getting worse somehow.
  • Crisis Plan - when things get really bad, what are you going to do?  [For me, it's slow down, book a counsellor appointment, and talk to my boss - I work for a company which has good support for staff]

The fundamental issue here though is that your wellness matters, and it matters NOW.  You can't keep deferring it, and even if you're an absolutely loyal company worker, the truth is you'll hurt your project more by not taking care of yourself than playing the hero.

I want you to have a positive and well 2017, and I hope I've provided you with food for thought.

Ideas for conferences

I promised my friend Gitte that I'd write this blog post for suggestions on how people with different degrees of mental health can be supported at conferences.

Generally at every conference I've been at there are enough conscientious people to support those having issues, particularly anxiety seems to be the big one.  But it would be great if people felt more supported to sign up to conferences.

Some very elementary suggestions we had brainstorming the idea were,

  • Conference usually have lean coffee in a morning.  We could have a form of support circle for those needing them.
  • Badge emoticons.  Some people with anxiety especially find conference overwhelming, most conferences have quiet spaces which is great.  But having a kind of sticky emoticon that people could wear saying "I'm overwhelmed, don't take it personally", just so people can still attend, have their own space, but not feel they're offending anyone because they don't want to join in a conversation.
  • What seems like an age ago, I used to be a youth counsellor at Christian event Spring Harvest.  Likewise it'd be good to have people with a badge that just says "I'm approachable if you need to talk to me".  A lot of this happens informally anyway, but it's a little more ad hoc.  I tweeted at Let's Test Oz about having an awful nights sleep, and someone talked to me about why.

Have any other ideas, or your own story to tell?  Please feel free to contribute via the comments, and don't be afraid to do so as Anon if you need!

Now Playing - "Rock'n'Roll Suicide", David Bowie
Might sound inappropriate, but I love the line, 'give me your hand, cos you're wonderful'.


  1. What a good point you make that if I were to push myself beyond my limits, I wouldn't get any brownie points for that, I'd just make things worse for everyone.

    I really like your conference ideas. I was listening to the Cucumber podcast with Sal Freudenberg and was struck by what she said about some people needing more quiet time or whatever at a conference. It made me wonder if that's why the Agile Testing Days folks had the designated Quiet Rooms.

    I have a lot to think about both for my own well-being and for how I can help out other people who are wired differently from me. I really appreciate your blog posts on mental health, they help me learn as well as help myself.

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