Tech Workers Are Suffering From a Silent Epidemic of Stress and Physical Burnout

Why taking care of workers is good for business

Photo: Joyce McCown/Unsplash

Three years ago, I couldn’t stand for any period of time without my lower back seizing up. I had chronic nerve pain running from my left shoulder to my left wrist. It was bad enough that I couldn’t sleep. I was at least 20 pounds overweight and more out of shape than I had been in a decade. I was 35 years old. My physical condition was not what I would call optimal.

I had fallen into the hustle trap. At the time, I was head of product for a tech company, and the long hours had caught up with me: 80-plus-hour weeks, with late nights on my laptop, sitting hunched over on my couch. A complete lack of exercise and poor nutrition. Things had gone south surprisingly quickly and without my full awareness.

The nerve pain was the tipping point that sent me to my primary care doctor, mostly out of fear that I had some significant neurological issue. Before sending me to a neurologist, the doctor suggested physical therapy. So that’s where I started—and I started slow: basic exercises, some stretches, and some walking. I put six months into therapy, and it eventually fixed the nerve pain. But the journey had just begun. Physical therapy was over, but the factors that took me to the breaking point were all still central to my life: long work hours, impending deadlines, constant computer work, and “tech neck.”

The culture of tech pushes people harder and harder, but we don’t think about the physical effects of that labor.

My experience is not unique. An anecdotal survey of my immediate professional network of designers and engineers came back with 50% of them suffering from some level of repetitive stress injury. Similarly, 50% of the people on the product team I was leading at the time were simultaneously in physical therapy for back and shoulder issues. While hard stats aren’t easy to come by, a study in Sweden corroborates my anecdotal data, showing that “around half of those who work with computers have pains in their neck, shoulders, arms, or hands.”

The culture of tech pushes people harder and harder, but we don’t think about the physical effects of that labor. If we were athletes, where physical health is vital to success, the thinking would be completely different. Sports organizations have entire teams dedicated to physical training and support for their players. But while it’s easy to understand why this investment is critical for an athlete, it’s much harder to make that connection for knowledge workers sitting in an office. We aren’t frequently required to tackle co-workers in the hallway or run 40-yard dashes to determine who gets access to a conference room. (Though maybe you do if you work at ESPN.com.) This makes it easy to ignore the long-term physical toll of our work.

Culturally, we view the physical requirements of a job through the lens of how strenuous the individualized actions are to complete, like lifting boxes, running laps, digging ditches, or hitting jump shots. We don’t think about it in terms of aggregate impact. As a result, these sorts of injuries aren’t really discussed. When no one perceives what you’re doing as physically demanding, it’s embarrassing to talk about being injured. It’s like telling someone you hurt yourself getting out of bed. Add to that tech companies’ expectations around their employees’ time, and this becomes something few people want to announce to the world.

The roots of this issue sit deep down in the way we approach work in many sectors, but especially in technology and its surrounding industries. A recent AdAge article found that 65% of employees at ad agencies are suffering from burnout. Similarly, in 2018, a piece in Forbes put 57% of tech employees in the same boat. Fixing this means rethinking our ceaseless drive for efficiency and output, and worksite wellness programs aren’t going to cut it.

When my back fell apart, the company I was working for had lots of wellness amenities. A two-story gym on-site offered several weekly classes. Chiropractic, including an on-site chiropractor, and massage were included in our benefits package. Nonetheless, half the product team was in physical therapy.

While these options were available, finding the space and time to use them was a different story. For sports organizations, there is a clear path from injury to lost revenue. Physical health is critical to getting the job done, so those organizations are built around it, and activities related to maintaining physical health are simply part of the work. In tech, health and wellness is just another carrot used to recruit prospective employees, no different than a foosball table or kombucha tap. It’s a fancy add-on available if you have time, but good luck finding that—we’ve got features to ship. But while the path from injury to lost revenue is not as clear in tech as it is in sports, that doesn’t mean it does not exist.

A 2012 study from the Liberty Mutual Research Institute ranked the top 10 causes of workplace injuries and their resulting economic impact. Repetitive stress injuries came in ninth, with a $1.8 billion annual cost for companies. You can’t pin all those losses on the tech industry, as the study pulled data from injury reports across sectors, but given the evidence that 50% of those who work on computers report pain issues, coupled with the tech sector’s growth since 2012, it is very likely that the economic impact of these issues has grown significantly. There is also a good chance the number has been grossly underestimated. Because of tech’s culture, my guess is that many of these issues go unreported and potentially untreated. The tech industry is the epicenter for the world of GaryVee-inspired hustle porn, where temporarily embarrassed billionaires kill themselves to earn some kind of social badge of honor. In that world, there is no room for sleep or a social life, let alone physical injuries. And companies hoping to move fast and break things embrace and reward this mentality with gusto.

There is nothing fun about slowly losing your quality of life in the machine of iterative product development.

We become culturally conditioned to think of these issues as just the price of doing the work, not as an occupational hazard or some abnormal outcome that should be reported. I didn’t report my issues through workers’ comp, and my guess is many others do not as well.

In this way, the issue takes on a different flavor than you might see in other industries. For much of the manufacturing world, health and safety is a big part of the conversation, with labor groups, OSHA, and other regulatory bodies working to ensure a safe environment for workers. In tech, it’s a silent epidemic. And while the consequences may not be as outwardly dire as losing a hand in a piece of industrial machinery, there is nothing fun about slowly losing your quality of life in the machine of iterative product development. Additionally, research from Harvard suggests that health issues related to workplace stress and burnout represent an additional $190 billion of health care expenditures each year and contribute to 120,000 annual deaths. So there’s that.

My physical burnout moment became a forcing function for me to keep myself at a certain level of physical fitness. I’ve since developed a routine that helps me keep things under control, but it requires time, effort, and conscious intention. If I slip for too long, issues creep back in.

What if we recognized that time and effort as a requirement of doing the job in the same way we recognize the need for athletes to take care of themselves? Instead of a nice-to-have perk (if you can find the time), we could acknowledge that wellness is foundational to individual success, even for jobs that might not be considered “strenuous.” Like an athletic organization, the health and wellness of all employees should be a central pillar of organizational structure.

I’m not saying tech companies need to have massive training facilities or two-a-day workouts, but we need to get real about creating work schedules that prioritize breaks and create space for actually using those wellness perks. This means establishing realistic expectations of employee hours and, most importantly, structuring deadlines that support those expectations. This may sound crazy or expensive, but I would argue that a lot of our ideas about “what works” for business are flawed, grounded more in archaic traditions and outdated beliefs than actual data. Case in point: this recent experiment from Microsoft where the company shifted to a four-day workweek in Japan and productivity jumped by 40%. Turns out taking care of people is good for business. More of that, please.

Thanks for reading! Join my free newsletter for more thoughts on design, technology, and society delivered straight to your inbox: https://designlikeyoumeanit.substack.com/

My newsletter: https://designlikeyoumeanit.substack.com/ | Director of Entrepreneurial Design @cmci_studio | Founder @ Design Like You Mean It

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store