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What tech layoffs can teach us about wellbeing at work

April 16, 2023

With hundreds of thousands of people around the world being laid off from their jobs in tech - with some finding out only after having their badges fail to scan or their laptops locked remotely - it’s time to think about what this means for mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.

After burning out of my first job so badly I was diagnosed with Addison’s - a condition I was only able to reverse after months of medical leave - I re-joined the tech industry in 2020. As a former employee at Amazon - where after an internal leak CEO Andy Jassey just announced their second round of layoffs for a total of 28,000 - I was part of the prestigious Ads org, which outgrew most other orgs to become their fastest growing revenue stream. I joined the team in the first year of the pandemic, and during my tenure at the company Amazon Ads posted its first £32bn in quarterly revenue. Off the side of my desk, I volunteered teaching mindfulness and mindful movement to more than 500 Amazonians through Mindfulness@Amazon, a community started by Kelly and Brigitte for which I acted as an ambassador alongside my full time role in marketing.

Amazon paid lip service to employee wellbeing, and I remember an initiative on our team called “Fun Fridays” - or something similarly alliterative - where every few weeks or so we got a half day off on Fridays to spend as we pleased. To be fair to my team, their RTO policy was more than generous and decided at the director level - and I got to spend most days working from the comfort of my own home. However, I witnessed far too often the lack of follow through on their commitment to become “Earth’s greatest employer”, and ended up leaving the company in June last year to pursue my own dream of becoming a wellness entrepreneur.

Fast forward 8 months and here I am reading another string of layoff posts on LinkedIn from former colleagues and friends. Which begs the question - what can this extended period of job cuts tell us about mental health and wellbeing at work, particularly in a sector that led the way in this field?

The surge in tech growth throughout the pandemic led to a hiring boom alongside a newfound focus on mental health at the workplace, with most employers stepping up to support their workers with flexible policies and WFH stipends. But that didn’t age well, and now key players in the industry are struggling with “bloated” workforces as well as macroeconomic headwinds. Post-pandemic and pre-recession is a tough spot to be in. 

Mental health programs and wellbeing initiatives are the first to take a hit in an economy plagued by budget cuts, with Google’s director of mental health & wellbeing among the 12,000 let go during the January 2023 layoffs. But I would argue that in a time where we’re asking people to do the jobs of one or two others in addition to their own, we need to prioritize these initiatives - not axe them. The message is clear: dropping share prices will always trump mental health. These companies are saying with their chests that wellbeing at work is a nice-to-have, not a business imperative - something to throw out at the first sign of unhappy directors.

Since I started out on my own, I’ve been told countless times by VPs and CEOs that wellbeing at work is the purvey of “quack” Instagram therapists, that Bring Your Dog to work day suffices as a mental health initiative, and - worst of all - that there’s “just no budget”. So, if our employers won’t take responsibility for their role in our burnout and our struggles with anxiety and stress, what can we do for ourselves?

As employeess, part of the reason this is so terrifying is because the tech industry and big tech in particular have always been associated with high job stability and job security. Watching entire teams and departments being let go like this, it’s that clear people are being laid off with absolutely no regard to their individual contribution to their organization - which means we’re sacrificing our health and overworking ourselves to become indispensable, when that’s impossible. So what can we learn?

No job is worth your physical and/or mental health. Having an identity outside of work is a protective factor against burnout (check out @therapywithabby for more on this). You deserve a culture of psychological safety, no matter what your employer explicitly or implicitly tells you. This is the bare minimum. There’s no way to outwork these layoffs, so prioritizing your wellbeing and standing by your boundaries is your best bet.

Tl;dr: Employers, if your organization isn’t built on a foundation of wellbeing, you’ll be on the wrong side of history. Employees, if you’ve been laid off or are struggling with survivor’s guilt, put yourself first.

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