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