October 11, 2019

Stress in tech: "I was a mess for large periods through anxiety"

It's the last day of Mental Health Awareness week, so Sifted spoke to startup employees and founders struggling under the severe pressures of startup life.

Sam Shead

4 min read

Stressed Female Designer Works At Computer In Modern Office

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that someone kills themselves every 40 seconds. That’s a shocking statistic, and sadly, for some people their jobs can play a role when they decide to take their life. 

Stressful work environments exist across all industries but in recent years the tech sector has been called out as being one of the most challenging to work in, whether you’re at a buzzy startup in growth mode, or a large corporate with layers of politics. 

Aggressive chief executive, crazy targets, long hours, and unpaid wages can all lead to stresses and strains that can trigger mental health problems. 


Given it’s Mental Health Awareness Week, Sifted wanted to share a few experiences of people working in the tech sector. 

The Googler

Ex-Googler Jonathan Barker told Sifted that he would wake up two to three times a night to check his emails and see if there were any urgent issues that needed to be dealt with. 

“This happened for about a year, and I was a mess for large periods through anxiety and lack of sleep,” he says. “I think it’s not uncommon.” 

While Google didn’t spell out to staff that Barker’s level of attentiveness was expected, his kind of behaviour was rewarded more often than it was questioned, Barker says, adding that “responsiveness was a highly regarded trait”.

The Founder

Alex Depledge cofounded on-demand cleaning startup, in March 2012 before selling it for a reported €32m to Helpling in July 2015. 

It’s a story of success, but the road was a bumpy one for Depledge, who struggled with her mental health along the way and has openly talked about her experience of burnout. 

“I ended up burning out in a spectacular fashion,” Depledge told Sifted’s Kitty Knowles earlier this year. On this occasion, Depledge was referring to her time as a consultant at Accenture.

The Chief Operating Officer

Between September 2014 and December 2015, Emerson Osmond, the cofounder and chief strategy officer of social media analysis platform Maybe*, had a horrendous experience at London startup Fling — a controversial app that allowed people to send out photos to random strangers. 

“Fling had a toxic chief executive who would use bullying and emotional blackmail as a management tool to get their way,” Emerson told Sifted. “Many employees post being at Fling described the experience as akin to being in an abusive relationship where the abuse was mental and not physical.”

Emerson says he lost his self-belief and his confidence in himself and his abilities. “It left me questioning what it was that I had done to endure the onslaught that I had experienced. It took me time to get my confidence/self-belief back and realise it was not me.” 


What’s worse is that while at Fling, Osmond didn’t feel like he had anyone he could talk to about his issues. “I was a C-level employee and members of the board were made up of the family and friends of the chief executive so any attempt to speak with them was met with a perceived sympathy, but in effect, nothing actually changed,” says Osmond, who feels a sense of guilt for not stepping in to help others at the company. 

Osmond says that people working in startups need to remember that they don’t have to suffer in silence. 

“Remember that no job, no matter how glittery the potential future unicorn rainbow might be, is worth risking your own well being,” he says. “Ultimately just be nice and respect one another. That does not cost you anything.” 

The Product Manager

Seàn Finnegan is a product manager at delivery software startup Lineten and is aware of the consequences that startup life can have on a person’s mental health. 

“When I say my own mental health hasn't been affected that's probably not true when I consider the drinking culture that inevitably leads to late nights, lack of food or bad choices, and ultimately a 'low' feeling whilst at work,” he says. “I have seen others fall victim to the pressure and ambiguity of the venture-backed startup land.” 

Finnegan says that he saw one of his former project directors literally spiral before his eyes as he was stretched too thin. 

So remember...

Your job isn’t everything. Switch off when you get home, spend quality time with your friends and family, and open up with people if you are feeling stressed. If you don’t, your mental health could suffer as a result.