Beth Anne Katz: “I want to make living with mental health conditions easier and more accepted”

August 30, 2021

Mental health is becoming an increasingly critical topic in the workplace, but oftentimes employees don’t know how to navigate mental health needs at work and employers don’t know how to support employees’ mental health. An award-winning mental health advocate and product manager at Microsoft, Beth Anne Katz, knows about the importance of mental health first-hand. At IT Arena 2021, Beth Anne will talk about how to self-monitor mental health and how to create a supportive mental health environment at work. Today, she talks about battling mental health stigma, working on PowerPoint, and navigating through a primarily male-dominated tech industry.

What are the main tasks you as the product manager are focused on?

In my current role, I span the spectrum from traditionally product management to program management responsibilities. This means that depending on where a feature is in the ship cycle, I can spend my time anywhere from meeting with customers to understand needs and pain points, to crafting a product roadmap, to writing technical specs, to working through implementation challenges with the engineers, to looking at telemetry to see if the improvements we shipped created the value we were looking for.

Tell us about the Microsoft product’s main value. What defines your product from other products you had been working with before?

I love Microsoft’s products because of their unprecedented longevity and impact. PowerPoint has been around since the 1980s and is still going strong today, which is an extraordinary timeline for a tech product. I feel incredibly lucky to work on a product that I grew up with. At the same time, I love Microsoft’s continued demonstrated ability to innovate, which has kept Microsoft as an industry leader over its decades-long lifetime. Finally, I think Microsoft has an unmatched culture in tech that makes it such a special place to work at.

You are on the list of the 100 most influential women in Silicon Valley by the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Would you share some tips for the women audience on how to believe in themselves and ruin stereotypes in the tech industry?

Being a woman in tech has been uniquely challenging in my experience. Some tips that have helped me are to find mentors and also to serve as a mentor. Mentoring helps you learn from folks who have been on your team or in your career path before you. One way to find a mentor, and another source of support, is to join women’s employee networks at work. I’ve attended speaker series, networking events, book clubs, and so much more through Women at Microsoft. Another tip is to attend women in tech conferences. Not only is there a ton of opportunity to meet and learn from other women in tech, but it’s one of the only times in tech where you’ll be in a space where women are in the majority. Finally, I’d suggest learning about common pitfalls for women in tech and understanding how to mitigate them, for example learning about glass ceilings and glass cliffs, or statistics like women only applying to jobs if they meet 100% of the criteria while men apply to jobs while only meeting 60% of the criteria. Knowing these have changed my career, for example by encouraging me to apply for more positions, even if I don’t meet all the written qualifications. 

What inspired you to advocate for mental health? What triggered you to go into this sphere?

I advocate for mental health because as a teenager I was diagnosed with a mental health condition. That experience was life-changing and extremely difficult to learn to manage. At first, learning more about mental health was a way to help myself understand my symptoms. When I later accepted my diagnosis and became comfortable being open about it, I learned how much power there is in discussing mental health as a way to lessen the stigma and help others who may be going through something similar. Mental health struggles can be incredibly scary and misunderstood. I want to make living with mental health conditions easier and more accepted, so others don’t have to struggle silently like I did.

Have you noticed how Covid-19 and the quarantine affected your personal and your colleagues’ mental health? What are your tips on how to stay strong mentally when working remotely (and often in isolation)?

Covid-19 and quarantine were exceedingly challenging for mental health. I live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and personally noticed my anxiety becoming worse because of the uncertainty of the pandemic and the fear of contracting and spreading the virus. At work, isolation adds burden, and I also saw folks struggling with being continually around the same people without reprieve or variation, which can be stifling. Further, I saw coworkers, and myself, struggle with setting boundaries around work-life in this new world without physical separation between the two. The tips that have helped me are making sure to create work-life separation, as a commute doesn’t provide that naturally anymore. My dog’s end-of-day walk is often a good marker for me that the workday has ended. Another tip is to make sure to create intentional time for social interaction inside and outside of work, for example, social video calls with coworkers and friends, to ensure that while we’re separated, we’re not isolated.

What is the mental health of the millennials compared with the prior generations?  

I’m not a mental health historian, so I can only speak from personal experience here. My understanding is that the younger generations are becoming more open and accepting of mental health in a way unseen in previous generations. I think we’re seeing this impact in lots of varied ways, like lessening of the mental health stigma and more access to various help resources, for example, new suicide prevention trainings and even online and telehealth mental health resources. Having robust mental health resources and social support within the workplace is, to my understanding, a new trend that is still taking hold in the workplace.

Has the pandemic affected Microsoft products, has it brought ideas for creating new products? Tell us about Microsoft’s life during the pandemic.

At Microsoft, like so many other workplaces, we had to rapidly learn how to work from home at a large scale. This was a major transition. We all had an adjustment period to switch to working remotely, and Microsoft supported us along the way, for example by giving an extra week of time off this year because of the extremely challenging time we’ve all had. I’m appreciative of Microsoft’s agility and support during this huge period of transition and hardship. 

What is the role of employers in boosting the mental health of their employees?  

An employers’ role is to do as much as they can to create a culture of mental health acceptance and support, and there’s a lot of things they can do. Some things to consider are making sure your company has an Employee Assistance Program, or a way for employees to affordably access mental health resources. Employers should also encourage safe spaces for mental health, for example, an Employee Resource Group or Employee Network around mental health and wellness, mental health conditions, or disability. Finally, having senior members of a company talk openly about mental health conditions, when appropriate, can serve as a cultural model for employees to feel comfortable discussing and supporting their own mental health at work.

Can you give us a preview of your IT Arena talk?

In managing my own mental health conditions, I noticed myself using indicators to measure, track, and improve my mental health similar to the way I track metrics for products I’m working on. This talk teaches my process for monitoring mental health using product management techniques. In the end, I also share ways employers can support mental health in their organizations.

Learn more about Beth Anne Katz and her talk.