The importance of looking after the mental health of school IT teams

The importance of looking after the mental health of school IT teams

Your IT team is an integral part of your school and in our opinion are the champions of 2020. It’s no small feat to bring every aspect of a school online in a matter of weeks to support remote learning, yet IT teams everywhere have accomplished it.

IT teams are at the core of every system and every piece of technology that keeps your school running. However, while the job is rewarding, there are certain aspects that can contribute to a big problem with mental health that is common within the tech industry.

Studies have found that a person’s job has a big impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Despite this, there is still a real disinclination to address mental health issues (particularly in the IT sector).

Nevertheless, the increasing popularity of mental health awareness days, such as RUOK? Day and World Mental Health Day are important reminders that is imperative to recognise and acknowledge aspects of the job that can impact the mental wellbeing of IT professionals.

IT work is often mission critical, time sensitive, and complex, which results in an “always-on” culture within the IT sector. If email, the internet, or systems go down, business stops – and all eyes are on IT to fix it, ASAP.

IT teams are always on call to fix issues as they arise – servers/ hardware can die at any time and hackers are not typically considerate of sleep schedules. So, it is understandable that when the availability and security of school data is at stake, it’s hard to fully switch off.

The Myers-Briggs Company (2019) conducted a study about the “always-on culture" – the culture in which we are now always accessible, our phones are always within reach and therefore work is. They found being “always-on” was a double-edged sword – an enabler and stressor. For example, participants who were able to access their work emails and calls after hours were more engaged but also more stressed. Twenty percent of people said that they felt mentally exhausted and 28% reported that they could not switch off.

In critical environments like this, separation of work and home life is essential. Without a healthy balance, it is easy to become consumed by work.

An unhealthy amount of stress can also arise from the unrealistic expectations some stakeholders have. This is often driven by a lack of understanding of what is possible, the time it takes or how much it will cost.

IT teams are encouraged (and often expected) to do the impossible, and unfortunately the reality is when they pull off the near-impossible, it only results in more requests for the near-impossible.

Trevor Ciminelli, Information Systems Coordinator at Chairo Christian School, shared his insight with us.

“Sometimes the IT Teams are kind of in this dark corner, they’re not part of any decisions, they just get told by the school to do things.”

“IT Teams should keep a communication channel open with leadership so that they can be part of the decisions, rather than decisions being handed down by people who don’t fully understand what they are asking.”

So how do you address this kind of culture and the mental health of your school’s IT team? The biggest recommendation is to set healthy expectations. If there is someone in your team who is constantly online and contactable at all hours of the night; perhaps talk to them, is their workload too high? Are they stressed about work?

Make sure you give IT teams the opportunity to take professional development days. Teachers make up the largest part of school staff, so naturally, professional development days, appraisal systems and other support structures tend to be geared towards them. It is important to not limit the support structure for your IT team.

Working in a constantly developing and advancing sector requires constant learning of new skills and technologies. Without proper support channels and professional development opportunities, this can leave IT staff feeling like they cannot keep up or exhausted from the cognitive load.

Finally, encourage the team to find things that help them switch off from work. Whether that is stepping away from the PC, reading a book, going for a walk, playing a computer game, or spending time with their family – encouraging staff to make time for their own wellbeing is paramount.

Above all, if you have any concerns for your own or someone else’s mental health then reach out. ‘RUOK?’ have some great ice breaking questions and roleplay scenarios so you can see how to best address these kinds of conversations.