This blog dives into some deep thoughts about mental health. If you feel stuck and need help, please reach out to someone and get the help you need. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24 hours: 800-273-8255.
The mental health impacts of a Big Tech job are extreme, though often go unnoticed. Worse, the toxic environment of the job’s demands can often be expected from management. It’s a constant grind, and over the years that has become the norm. It’s an unwritten rule that as a salaried employee in Big Tech, you are effectively on call all the time. This is especially true when you work for a massive company with employees and partners across the globe that you may need to interact with daily. There is no concept of “9 to 5” or sometimes your vacation isn’t even a true escape as people will still text you or expect you to check emails while you’re out. At best, you have management that is understanding of your mental health and helps you setup some boundaries and expectations, but there’s issues with that even still.
I grew up with a traditional work ethic. I had learned to show up to work, do the best you could, make some money, then go home and don’t worry about it until the next work day. I had some pretty demanding jobs in my early days, as well. I once had three jobs at once during my high school years. One summer I would wake up early to beat the heat and go to a local cemetery at 6AM to mow around headstones for eight hours. After that was done, I would go to my mom’s workplace and help with filing paperwork for a couple more hours. On the weekends I worked for a caterer for anywhere from four to eight hours, typically only on Saturdays but the occasional Sunday would come up as well. I was working the most I ever had in my life, but the big difference between then and now was that when I was home, I was home. Work stopped, and I could do something else for a bit and didn’t have to worry about anything until the next work day. I didn’t feel much of the mental fatigue I do now.
It wasn’t until the past few decades that the idea of “going home from work” changed. The introduction of the internet, email, text messaging, and newer collaborative tools like Slack and Zoom entirely changed the concept of “going home”. When I worked for Apple, I never felt like I was actually home – even before the pandemic when work and home were two physically different places. If it was after 6PM and I heard a notification on my phone, the hair on the back of my neck would stand up. Often times it was someone from work asking a seemingly innocent question. While that may seem fine, the problem with something like that is while you are physically home, your mind isn’t. A simple phone notification can send you straight back to work, even if just to answer a simple question. There was really no time to recover, relax, and recuperate for the next day.
To an extent I expected this relationship with Apple when I first started, but I had no idea the magnitude or frequency of it. You often hear of people having to work late and over weekends to finish their projects. Employees are often thanked for the long hours leading up to a successful launch event. There are other anecdotes of this type of culture existing since the dawn of the modern web browser, where people sacrificed much of their personal lives for the sake of making something new and cutting edge. This type of behavior is praised and encouraged – it’s expected that your projects be treated as one of the most important things in your life. In return, you get a decent salary and excellent benefits.
What I found was that the decent salary and excellent benefits came at a much greater cost.
The idea of someone sacrificing time spent with their kids or upending their marriage for the sake of releasing a project that will only be relevant for a year at most is absurd, yet you hear about these sacrifices being made all of the time. It’s part of the culture. In relation to my previous blog, you are expected to make sacrifices for the sake of the project. The project stands above all else.
To share a specific example, there was once a time where I had to get a release done, but our build server went down. The build server needed to be rebooted, but this was during the pandemic when no one was in the office. Furthermore, it was a Friday making it even more unlikely someone was around to do something as simple as press a button to reboot a machine. I was working on trying to find someone, but feared the worst. I notified the team requesting the release of this issue at 10AM to try and offer alternative solutions, but they didn’t respond until 3PM. During that time and lack of immediate response, I had assumed it wasn’t serious and we’d be okay waiting until Monday when someone would be around. To this other team, it wasn’t okay at all. The manager of that team demanded I get the release out, and just ignored anything else I had to say. I pointed out that it took them a really long time to respond to my initial report of the issue and we may have been able to come up with something had they responded. The other team wasn’t buying it. From their perspective, the expectation had already been set, and it was up to us to get our job done no matter the cost. The way the importance of this build was described to me made it seem like the entirety of Apple would collapse if it wasn’t done that day. I explained the situation, and for whatever reason the fact that someone would have to drive to the office, potentially for hours given commute times in the Bay Area, wasn’t a valid excuse. So, not only was my time expected to be extended, we were expected to have someone drive into the office (I couldn’t do it because I lived in an entirely different state as the build server at this time). This may seem outrageous to someone that hasn’t experienced this type of situation, but in the Big Tech world this expectation is normal. The project was more important than anything else. I put my foot down and wouldn’t tolerate the bullying, but my management found someone that was able to reboot the build server and the team was able to get the release out that day. Putting my foot down caused anxiety. I feared that because I stepped away and refused to play that game that I would be seen as a poor performer. I worried that I would ultimately be seen as incapable of doing my job.
As it turns out, they didn’t even look at the release for a few days later.
This wasn’t an isolated event. This was common. The expectations are incredibly demanding, and I found it difficult for myself to cope with it. It became even more difficult to cope with during the pandemic. These were the darkest times of my life, and I found my mind wandering some pretty dark paths. I was always anxious, I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning, I began gaining weight due to lack of motivation for any physical activity and finding comfort in food, and ultimately my tolerance for any other frustration in life was completely diminished. Any small thing would send my mind spiraling. Something as small as a dirty pot with caked on food that took a bit more effort than usual to clean could send me over the edge feeling like the world would end. It wasn’t the fault of the dirty pot itself, it was just the buildup of everything else going on that left me constantly on edge. Anything seemingly small could push me over. Recovering from these spiraling events wasn’t easy. I would have to take a break and do something like go for a walk, but when it was over I was exhausted.
For the first time in my life, I sought therapy.
Ironically enough, Apple had an employee assistance program that allowed me to have 15 therapy sessions per year. I used all 15 of them over a 16 week period. What I learned in therapy was a lot of coping mechanisms. I learned to recognize the things in life that would cause me anxiety and how to deal with it when it happened. I learned to anticipate anxiety in order to try and get ahead of it. I also learned of a concept called “face it, or replace it”. The way the concept was taught was targeting more small scale events. If you need to write an article for example, you could either sit down and power through it or go do something else for a while until you’re in a better state of mind to tackle a chore. What I learned, however, was that my “face it or replace it” was much bigger than that. I either needed to accept that working at a Big Tech company was going to continue being miserable, or I needed to find something new altogether. Anxiety wasn’t the only reason I began looking for a job (I had also moved and didn’t want to go back to Bay Area after the pandemic is over – when or if that may be), but anxiety was a big part of it.
While I understand that technical projects have deadlines and sometimes you need to stretch yourself to get something done or ready for a big public event, Apple took this to the extreme. It was constant. There weren’t a lot of times while I was in a lull and able to recuperate, and what’s worse is that these events of overworking were celebrated – not condemned. That encouragement makes it difficult to suggest something is wrong because it’s held in high regard. If there are two employees that, for the sake of argument, are entirely equal except one works extended hours while the other keeps to a strict 9 to 5, the one working extended hours would be praised and more likely to get promoted than the other that took more care of their personal life.
While Apple does offer assistance with things like therapy, it doesn’t fold these things into actually managing a project or your day to day work. I talked about my mental health with my manager because I brought it up. While I was extremely lucky that my manager was understanding, it concerns me that it isn’t something management is trained to deal with or talk about with their teams. How many employees avoid speaking about the mental health impact of their work stress for fear of appearing to be a poor performer? I certainly did, but after therapy I realized that I was sacrificing a lot for what ultimately amounts to a poorer life.
There is no reason to sacrifice anything for the sake of working at a Big Tech company. None. The glory of having a Big Tech company on your resume isn’t worth it. You could get paid all the money in the world, but if you find yourself stressed and full of anxiety all the time, that money won’t do anything for you. It certainly didn’t for me. I’d get off work and just be unhappy. If I took a vacation, I noticed it would take a few days for me to realize I could relax for a bit and actually enjoy the time off. Most weekends I would spend the majority of a Saturday doing something mindless like binge watching YouTube videos because I didn’t have the energy for much else. I couldn’t bring myself to do anything because my brain simply didn’t want to. It was overworked, and it needed a break. Similar to how a marathon runner can’t constantly run marathons, our brains need time off as well – preferably frequently enough to avoid complete exhaustion. If you work it too hard, like I did, you’ll end up in a state where it’s really difficult to use it at all. Anxiety and stress will dominate your thoughts, and you’ll miss many opportunities to enjoy life.
What for? For releasing a product that people will only care about for a year until the next one comes around? Fuck that.
I got to a point where I needed to leave and focus on myself. I sincerely hope this culture changes. If it doesn’t, I will never consider going back. My last official day at Apple was just a few days ago, and I can already feel the relief lifting off my shoulders. While there were several coworkers I really enjoyed working with, the environment we were all forced into was incredibly toxic in this regard, and I believe that toxicity is ignored most of the time. It comes from the top. Until upper management realizes that the people working for them are actually human, I expect this won’t change. Management needs to have more open conversations of their employees’ mental health, and take into account what sort of demands they put on their team and how it affects them. I did what I could within my bounds and my direct management, but changing the culture of the world’s most valuable company was just too big a task for me. Ultimately, I just had to leave.
I’m writing this and sharing my story mostly for those people that are in similar situations. I feel like many people are too afraid to speak up about this for the reason I stated: fear of being marked as a poor performer unable to keep up. Any management that thinks that way isn’t deserving of their role. I want these people to know that they are not alone, and I want you to get help if you need it. Take a moment to focus on yourself for a while, and find out what it is you truly want. Would you rather spend extra time trying to get that product out that will quickly be forgotten, or would you rather spend a bit more time with your spouse, kids, pets, learning a new hobby, or reading a book?
If you find yourself in this type of situation, please do what’s best for you and get help if you are feeling stuck or overwhelmed. You can also reach out to me via Twitter or LinkedIn (links below). I’ll continue blogging about this topic with advice on how to navigate mental health challenges that helped me, but ultimately the best choice for me was a complete change of environment altogether. Don’t dismiss that option for yourself if you are in a similar situation.
You managed to explain clearly what a lot of us have felt.
I was definitely in that situation. And I left too. While I am nostalgic of some aspects of the work and the awesome and talented people I had the privilege to work with, yourself included, I was not mentally able to continue running in the hamster wheel. Now I learn wood working in the bay area, and I don’t have a knot in my belly every morning.
In your example, I hope the faulty server wasn’t one I put up myself (if it is, I deeply apologize).
I hope you feel a lot better and that our paths will cross again.
Jake, thank you for sharing this. I think mental health in tech is a huge elephant in the room. Burnout is beyond common but rarely talked about.
I was in the middle of writing an article when I stumbled on your story (which is similar to so many others). BTW. It’s not only big tech, this problem of companies of all kinds of walks of life.
I think the whole tech industry has this problem because everybody is trying to push an envelope. It’s good for a business (in a short term), it’s terrible for people and for a business (long term). That being said, businesses can survive by replacing employees.
We (employees) can’t survive, because you can’t replace exhausted and riddled with anxiety head.
P.S. Good for you realizing that something has to change. It was a good decision to leave.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s not uncommon.
It’s not unlike this story from an Amazon dev: https://pastebin.com/BjD84BQ3
Couldn’t agree more, Jake. I left my role as head of DevOps at an ecommerce startup about a year ago for largely the same reasons – relentless, non-stop, on-call and stress, and management who never appreciated or cared how hard the team worked and how burned out we were. I was miserable all the time, fighting with my spouse, etc. Fast-forward a year, and I’m working a contract job for more money and way less stress. Even took my first actual vacation (i.e., no contact with work at all!) for the first time this summer. American employees need to learn to get their priorities straight, and prioritize happiness and time off over money, and career advancement. And American companies need to learn that they better start treating their workers better, or “The Great Resignation” will screw their ability to operate their business.
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