Strategies for IT Business Leaders to Manage Employees’ Mental Health

Business leaders should look to identify common mental health stressors faced by employees and implement some low-cost strategies to help ease those strains.

Dr. Sagar Samtani is an Assistant Professor in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University (IU) and a Grant Thornton Scholar. His research interests are in cyber-threat intelligence. Dr. Samtani is also an executive advisory council member for the CompTIA ISAO. Edlin Garcia is a Ph.D. student studying mental health literacy in the School of Public Health at IU.

Business leaders have had to navigate through a lot of external challenges in the last few years— COVID-19, Log4j, Russia/Ukraine to name a few. To compound matters, they’ve also had to worry about the mental health of their employees as well. Being inundated with negative perceptions and the constant fear of the unknown can exacerbate an employee’s stress responses. Prolonged stress responses can be detrimental to an employee’s physical and mental health. These issues have forced business leaders to figure out how to best manage worker shortages, lack of team morale, and increased personal emergencies. Below we provide some common mental health stressors that employees often face and some low-cost strategies that business leaders can consider implementing in response.

Related Resource: 5 Strategies to Address IT Pros’ Mental Health

1. Evaluate the Impact of Night Shifts

Stressor: Night shifts are essential in the IT profession. Finding personnel who are night owls and thrive in second or third shifts is possible. Yet, there is more need than there are available people for the night shifts. For some employees, some guidance on how to set up a daily routine might be all they need. Others might find themselves continuously struggling to adapt to a nocturnal schedule as they attempt to stay alert during the late hours at work but end up feeling exhausted and mentally drained. These employees might benefit from a switch in their shift.

Strategy: If you notice an employee during the night shift is unable to stay alert and focus during their shift, have a conversation with them to understand where they are at. Are they sleeping 7 to 8 hours after their shift ends during the day? Do they have a daily routine? It takes time to set up a consistent schedule and for one’s mind and body to adapt to a new routine. Or it might turn out they are not a good fit for the night shift and want to know their options for rotating out into a day shift. As a leader, transparency regarding the existing processes for getting personnel on and off the night shifts is key.

2. Host Workshops to Identify Concerns

Stressor: Employees may often wish to help out other employees who may be having mental health concerns. However, caring employees may not have the appropriate knowledge, training, or background to effectively approach an individual in crisis. Ultimately, this lack of knowledge can result in a culture where employees are unaware or unable to proactively address situations before they get out of hand.

Strategy: Your role is not to diagnose or provide treatment to those in need. But it is important to know how to screen someone who is extremely stressed. Consider hosting a workshop or inviting a mental health training instructor (e.g., from the Mental Health First Aid program) to a company event to bring awareness of the signs and symptoms experienced by individuals.

3. Encourage Response Packages to Decompress

Stressor: Addressing significant events such as those listed at the top of the blog can result in a mental or emotional “high.” Systematically and thoughtfully cycling off this high or coming down safely and soundly are essential to ensure that employees maintain a steady emotional state.

Strategy: Encourage your colleagues to enjoy all those non-IT-related activities they love when off the clock. This could be simply listening to their favorite music, unplugging, hanging out with close friends. Healthy ways to decompress are necessary and vital for the mind and body.

4. Share Resources to Cope with Stress

Stressor: It’s natural for a person to want to find ways to reduce their stress levels. The coping techniques, some positive (e.g., meditation, breathing exercises, etc.,) others negative (e.g., alcohol and illicit drug use), that are available are also very accessible. Negative coping mechanisms, such as alcohol result in short-term reduction of stress, but when overused can exacerbate negative stress symptoms and have negative implications at work.

Strategy: If you observe an employee whose day-to-day functioning has been negatively impacted, take a moment to privately share any available resources you have with them. This might include a dedicated line to text, call, or a virtual visit (e.g., tele-mental health) to speak to a counselor or other mental health professionals who can provide them with an opportunity to learn positive stress reduction coping mechanisms.  You don’t have to be a mental health expert to provide your team with information that can help them connect with the people who are.

5. Flip the Script: Quick to Praise, Slow to Blame

Stressor: Many stressors can exist within the workplace environment. Two that are regularly experienced by IT professionals include long hours and the pressures to meet the demands of the job description. This usually means IT professionals are quick to blame, and slow to praise when things go wrong.

Strategy: Leadership can help mitigate some of the workplace stressors their employees might experience. One being cultivating a positive work culture. This includes having open conversations, acknowledging when exceptional work has been done. A little praise when earned can go a long way. Therefore, consider flipping the script: Quick to praise, slow to blame. 

Conclusion: What Are the Benefits?

Cybersecurity operations and IT organizations are often run as a team sport. Therefore, it stands to reason that the captains and coaches of those teams have a moral obligation to ensure that the mental health of the team players. Key reasons for organizations to invest in their employee’s mental health include retention, employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction, product quality, avoid burnout, excess turnover and most importantly, help preserve a strong mental health posture for employees.

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