Mental health as a product person

Imposter syndrome, depression, and anxiety are just some of the mental health challenges facing us in the workplace. Let's be better together.

Mental health as a product person

This post originally appeared on Mind the Product on October 19th 2019 it was co-written with Martin Eriksson.‍

Today is World Mental Health Day, and as we both struggle with mental health it’s a good opportunity to speak out and reflect on the issue of mental health at work. In this blog we’ll share our own personal experiences, and consider how mental health problems such as imposter syndrome, anxiety, depression, or stress affect us as product people.

Imposter Syndrome

We talk a lot about imposter syndrome. In fact, Martin opened last year’s Mind the Product conferences by sharing how he suffers from imposter syndrome, and suggesting that, as product people (and therefore generalists in a specialist’s world), we’re likely to suffer from imposter syndrome more than most.

As it turns out, Martin’s not alone in his experience of imposter syndrome or these views.

At Mind the Product London last year, Rik Higham shared research showing that 70% of us suffer from imposter syndrome. In her opening keynote in San Francisco this year, Denise Jacobs encouraged us all to try and banish our inner critic. And Facebook’s Julie Zhou has written about impostor syndrome, its impact on her work and how it meant she spent the first few years of her professional life trying to ‘master the art of pretending‘.

The most important thing to take away from all of this is that you are not alone.

We all feel like imposters from time to time and while it’s easy to be discouraged by this, it’s actually something we should embrace. The more we can be open about it, and embrace the uncertainty that comes with it, the more we can leverage it in our work. We don’t need to know everything, and it’s ok to admit when we don’t.

Depression and Anxiety

Product managers can also find their mental health being put under pressure due to the isolated nature of the role in tech culture, constantly having to make decisions and being seen as ultimately responsible for the success and failure of the product. This constant pressure to be right, all the time, and to feel good about the decisions you’re making, adds up.

Of course, this pressure won’t lead to depression or anxiety for everyone, but it can for some, and these things are hard to talk about. Not least because many people see depression as “feeling sad”.

Anyone who’s suffered from depression knows that this description is beyond inaccurate.

Depression is sometimes referred to as a “black dog” and, just like a real dog, it always follows you around. It needs to be embraced, understood, taught new tricks, and eventually brought to heel. Elizabeth Gilbert does a really fantastic TED talk on fear and creativity that parallels the black dog analogy on depression.

Eli has made a conscious decision to openly share their feelings of inadequacy, depression and struggles with mental health – and we both decided to tackle this article together in an attempt to widen that conversation in our chosen craft. We chose to do this because it starts with being open about these challenges – and while they’re certainly not unique to product people, how we experience them can be different, and we’re certainly in one of the more lonely roles in a tech organisation.

It doesn’t end there

Of course, imposter syndrome, depression, and anxiety are just some of the mental health challenges facing us in the workplace. There are a number of other ways you, your friends, or colleagues might be suffering at work – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) lists over 150 potential diagnoses for those suffering from mental ill-health. Many of these illnesses are complex and co-morbid, and while the stigma around anxiety and depression is improving, more complex problems are still poorly understood and heavily stigmatised.

You are not alone

Whatever you’re struggling with – let us say it again, you are not alone. The UK Office of National Statistics estimates that 1 in 6 workers is dealing with a mental health problem such as anxiety, depression, or stress, the Centers for Disease Control estimate 70% of US adults struggle with mental illness, and the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 1 in 13 globally suffers from anxiety. Long hours, isolation, and stress in tech make all of these struggles especially pervasive in tech companies.

How to help yourself

The good news is, that not only are we’re getting better at talking about mental health, we’re getting better at listening too.

The launch of Public Health England’s (PHE) new mental health campaign “Every Mind Matters”, and the release of its new advert, caused the NHS mental health website to crash earlier this week as people flooded to the site to see the short film, narrated by Royals Harry, Meghan, William and Kate. The initiative itself has been launched to support people in feeling more confident about taking action in relation to mental health. Through it, you can access a range of useful information and resources.

Here are some additional ways to look after your mental health:

Allow Acceptance to Help

Research and experts say that acceptance can help depression and anxiety. It’s extremely difficult to do anything else as long as you’re fighting or denying the fact that you’re struggling with mental health issues. If you can learn to accept that depression and anxiety are along for the ride, you can be in the driver’s seat.

Find a Support Group or Therapist

Men are especially susceptible to mental health issues. In the UK, 76% of suicides are committed by men and suicide is the biggest cause of death for men under 35, but you do not have to suffer in silence.

There are entire groups such as Better Help and The Calm Zone dedicated to helping men take up therapy and live better lives. What’s more, there’s no shame in finding support from a professional therapist who can help you to work through these problems.

We’ve both had therapy and it’s helped us immensely. It’s just important to know that therapy is a process – it might never be done done (insert product manager joke about the definition of done here) but the journey is just as important as the destination. Every accomplishment means we discover some new work to be done, (you should really click this link, it’s worth it) just like in the work we do.

Build a Brag Sheet

Write a weekly summary of the actions you’ve taken and their impact. A great example of this is Cassie Robinson’s WeekNotes. This has had a really positive effect for Eli, whose been able to create a distinct reporting style that provides a written record showing impact at work.

Find Your Peers

It’s only slightly tongue in cheek when we say that ProductTank – the world’s largest community of product people with chapters in over 185 cities around the world – is therapy for product people. Because our role can be so lonely, it’s incredibly important to find peers we can share with, confide in, and learn from. So, whether you join one to share your own challenges, listen to someone talk about theirs, or just share a drink afterwards, it’s priceless.

Expand Your Circle

As well as finding support within your peer group, it’s just as important to find support and help outside it. If you regularly hang out at tech meetups, and all of your friends are product or tech folks, it can be hard to see how much value and experience you have, so mix it up. One study recently cited by MSNBC shows that If you develop friendships with those outside your field or area, you can keep a better sense of the big picture.

Volunteer or Teach

There’s nothing like learning, and one of the best ways to prove you know something is by teaching. Whether it’s a new skill or a hobby, give yourself the ability to show mastery in something and give back to others along the way. We know a product manager who volunteers with helping immigrants learn English, and another that works for a charity focused on Alzheimers. Looking outside yourself and your problems can help you find perspective and show you that you have earned skills you might be taking for granted at work.

How to help others

Perhaps you’re not struggling with your own mental health issues but know someone who is. Or, maybe you are but still find that helping others, in turn, helps you. There are plenty of ways to offer support to those who need it. Here’s just a small selection.

Show that you Care

There are a few high-visibility ways in which you can help if you’re a product leader or employer. First, make it obvious that you care about mental health at work. Check out the Where’s Your Head At? campaign for helpful advice and resources.

You can also get some great tips from Roisi Proven who shared how to help others without losing yourself at ProductTank London. She believes it all comes down to leveraging one of our product superpowers – empathy.

Invest in Listening

Active listening is step one on this journey if you’re trying to help. You’re not going to get any further than the surface if you’re not truly listening to others. Lisa Rogoff shares how to be a better listener to our team members and customers.

Talk to your team about their whole selves

If you’re a manager, see what Patrik Ward had to say when he shared how to have more human one to ones that allow your team members to open up about themselves, and talk about the full picture – not just work.

Make it Safe

Psychological Safety is a strong advantage in tackling mental health issues at work. Your team has to know that it’s safe to bring themselves to work. But the behaviors that create psychological safety for our teams and the behaviors that bring us rewards and recognition as individuals are often fundamentally at odds with each other, which is why it’s so important to work on continuously.