In times of stress, erections are quick to go awry, Sandra Lindholm, aka Silicon Valley’s go-to sexologist, said. In April 2020, two weeks after COVID-19 lockdowns forced Bay Area techies into civic-minded hibernation, her incoming calls spiked. Pandemic-induced anxiety had wreaked havoc on people’s go-to stress-relief solution, and they needed her help. A Gen Z software engineer was devastated by unexpected rapid ejaculation. A 40-something tech chief operating officer complained of erectile dysfunction, attributing it to the stress of juggling his career and childcare. A management executive confided to Lindholm that her husband’s “COVID” belly was a huge turnoff.
This is standard stuff for a sexologist, but the severity of their complaints was different, Lindholm said. “Life has taken on a feeling of fragility – patients are like, ‘I’m done. I’m out. I just want to enjoy life,” she said. (Their erections recovered shortly thereafter.)
For years techies have trooped to Lindholm to address sexual issues brought on by demanding jobs and an inability to switch off – stressors that never seem to stop. She’s unsurprised tech workers are part of the great resignation sweeping North America. At Amazon Web Services, employee turnover is estimated to be anywhere from 20-50%. In June 2021, Uber had a 20% attrition rate, and according to one study, seven in 10 tech workers said they would consider quitting their jobs this year. As easy as it is to blame pandemic-related burnout for this departure, workers say the exodus is the result of longstanding problems with tech companies’ cultures. While the industry has honed a carefully crafted veneer of purposeful playfulness, with gram-worthy freebies and perks, and six-figure salaries, it belies a culture that proselytizes overwork, encourages secrecy, and punishes dissenting voices. But with these perks scaled back, workers want out, big time. Tech workers Insider spoke to say they are confronting a mental health crisis that is forcing them to reprioritize their psychological well-being at the expense of their well-paid, and often prestigious, jobs.
The pandemic has heightened worker anxiety
Jay Conrod, a former software engineer at Google, said he was thrilled to join the company in 2015. But disillusionment quickly set in.
“I got a lot done, but it was never enough,” said Conrod. “It was a chronic problem.”
Then there was the series of Google scandals ranging from the company’s secret plans to censor search in China to the infamous leaked memo in 2017 by an employee who said men made better engineers than women. There was also a lack of transparency about promotions. Conrod said he saw colleagues passed over for promotion because of their gender, or get underpaid because of their visa status. Employees resorted to sharing a secret spreadsheet of their salary data.
“I didn’t feel entirely safe speaking out about it,” he said. “[People] got fired pretty quickly. ”
Covid heightened his anxiety.
Once, he found himself in his kitchen, holding a knife – he’d been making dinner, but had no recollection of it. It shook him. His brain fog continued. He made silly mistakes and forgot simple words and names. His manager was sympathetic but they were also overloaded. His doctor prescribed anti-anxiety medication, and he enrolled in a CBT course at Lyra Health, via Google’s EAP.
By last fall, Conrod had had enough. Conrod’s career had stalled, with the company offering him no clear path to a promotion. After moving from New York to San Diego to be closer to family, Google said, to remain employed, he’d have to take a 10% cost-of-living pay-cut. In October, I quit.
27-year-old Suket Karnawat’s reasons for leaving Google were more complex; he wasn’t unhappy at work, but said he felt “unfulfilled.” He’d joined Google fresh out of college with the idea that he’d grind for 20 years and retire early. The free gourmet meals, massage credits, and on-site gym sweetened the deal.
But the pandemic made him glaringly aware of everything he’d deferred for ‘another day,’ —- travel, adventures, startup plans. “Covid was this realization that I shouldn’t take anything for granted,” he said.
He didn’t want that anymore. Sure, he saved a ton of rent-free living with his parents, and Google’s generous WFH stipends and a remote team terrarium-building (his team were shipped kits, which they built on
as instructed by an external provider) were nice, but he questioned what he was bringing to the world.
“I had to (leave) or I’d forever be unhappy.”
“I had to (leave) or I’d forever be unhappy.”
After he quit in December 2020, his mom struggled with his decision. “I’m the child of Indian immigrants and working at Google (was) very prestigious.” One year on, Karnawat is happily developing his own startup focused on “intentional technology,” and has no regrets.
“I have my ups and downs (but) I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” he said. “‘I’d love it if I don’t have to go back to a job ever again.’
Tech workers are leaving to find more ‘meaningful’ careers
Karnawat’s mindset mirrors a growing number of young professionals prioritizing wellbeing – 81% of Gen Z say they’ve left a job for mental health reasons, according to a survey by Mind Share Partners, a workplace health nonprofit.
The search for meaningful work is a large driver of techie career shifts, said Thomas Lucking, founder of Silicon Valley Therapy. Lucking noticed a 25% increase in patients concerned about their work life balance. “People are saying, I’m stressed out, I’m burnt out, I’m not sure if this aligns with my life calling,” he said.
Their stress isn’t limited to the global pandemic. Many are also complaining about the impact of the climate crisis on their lives. In response, Lucking’s patients are taking more active steps in their own recovery: One quit his six-figure job to retrain as school teachers. Others chose caregiving over traditional careers. Lucking observed an estimated 10% rise in stay-at-home Silicon Valley dads. “They said that working in tech was a phase of their life that had come to a close.”
Some studies suggest women may also leave tech in droves, citing institutionalized sexism, toxic culture and burnout on all fronts. 38% of female tech workers surveyed by New View Strategies said they’ll exit tech within two years. Only about 10% of women surveyed made over $ 100,000, meaning they’re not entirely representative of women in tech in the bay area, who make an average of $ 125,000. But those numbers are still alarming, especially for an industry with chronic issues of gender diversity. A 2021 report by McKinsey & Company found 45% of women in technical roles have been sexually harassed at work.
Melissa Mazmanian, a UC Irvine informatics professor, and author of Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working, and Parenting in the Digital Age, doesn’t think Silicon Valley’s competitive salaries or other perks will help, especially when retaining women or other traditionally marginalized employees. “We’re navigating this collective trauma, and if you’re taxed out of your mind and you don’t feel seen or valued, why stay?” she said. “Business is a capitalist enterprise. But at times of stress and trouble the inequity starts to ring hollow.”
Over the last year, tech companies have increasingly acknowledged that mental health is a necessary part of compensation packages. A Meta spokesperson said they “encourage” employees to use sick days for “physical and mental health needs.” In January, they upped the wellness benefit for their Metamates – Zuckerberg’s new cringe-inducing term for his employees – from $ 700 to $ 3,000, which covers childcare, elder care, pet care, and physical and mental health activities. Amazon now provides tiny relaxation or ‘AmaZen’ booths to give warehouse workers a place to time out, and in 2021 launched 24/7 mental health support services, via in-person, online, text, or phone to all US employees. “Everyone’s needs are a bit different,” a spokesperson said. Google now offers 35 free therapy sessions to employees. Others offer wellbeing adjacent benefits, such as IVF benefits at Pinterest and SalesForce purchased a luxury ranch in the redwoods to host employee retreats.
But for many, it’s too little too late. Several experts agree that what’s not being said – or demonstrated, which arguably would be more significant – are promises to root out toxic employees, at all management levels, more transparency around pay, or expressing any real ownership or remorse in regards to prior harmful activities. , such as Facebook’s obfuscation of Instagram’s negative effect on teen girls.
In San Diego, Jay Conrod spent his last four months getting to know himself again. He plays with his tabby cats, takes long bike rides, paints watercolors, and enjoys sunset runs by the sea. “It’s the first time (since grad school) I’ve taken an extended time off,” he said. He lives off his savings and his partner’s salary; he’s privileged to have the luxury, he said. For now, he’s “focusing on healing.” Looking forward, Conrod said he plans to work with companies, places where he can make an impact. He refuses to “feel powerless” again. And he’s staying put in ‘America’s Finest City.’ “I chose a place to live that’s inconvenient for commuting, because I expect to be remote. It’s a good change.”