5 ways to improve the mental health of software developers

Improve the mental health of software developers
Improve mental health for software developers

Lorna Mitchell is Director of Developer Relations at Aiven, a software company that combines best-of-breed open-source technologies with cloud infrastructure.

With World Mental Health Day right behind us, I thought about how the tech industry can be a tough place to stay mentally fit. Working remotely, especially in unprecedented circumstances, can make a difficult situation worse. I've been working remotely in tech for over a decade, and I'll share my tips on how fast-paced tech startups can take good care of their software development talent.

Software development at its finest is a creative endeavor. Developers need a certain level of comfort to produce quality work. Boring tasks, noisy offices, and too many meetings can take a toll on productivity even at the best of times.

However, health is something more fundamental, almost at the lowest level of the hierarchy of needs, which includes mental health. Software developers need their brains to be in good shape to do the work they do, and sometimes when things go wrong, we can see it in our colleague's code even before the real problem is reported.

The distributed nature of remote boot machines makes this more difficult. When you work remotely, the office features that can help you support the well-being of your team are missing. Not just the free fruit and coffee or the beanbags; it can also be more difficult to notice when a colleague is going through a difficult time. When we're not in the same place, it's harder to spot who's late, who's leaving early, or just seems a little...flat.

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It's also harder to check if someone is okay when there's no conversation about the water cooler. However, if you're unsure about someone and wondering if you should check with them, my advice is to always reach out. As remote teams, we need to communicate more, and when it comes to mental health, it's better to say something and find out that someone is fine and you didn't care about anything, rather than them reaching a breaking point on their own.

Give the gift of autonomy

I have worked remotely, by choice, for a selection of employers large and small, as well as my own independent consultancy, for over a decade. What I value most about working from home is the flexibility, especially when my work is more on the manufacturer's schedule as a software developer.

I discovered several tricks that helped me do more of my best work, like working out at the gym at 11am. m. after an early start at the office or putting dinner in the oven before the last meeting of the day. This ability to have a little more "life" along with work has been beneficial to my own well-being, especially during times when I have been struggling.

In Daniel Pink's book "Drive," he explains how autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the main drivers of motivation. Motivation, recognition, and trust are keys to successful software development work. Being empowered to contribute to a larger goal using your skills is very rewarding, and for startups where there is usually more freedom to choose and prioritize work, this can be very satisfying for developers.

However, 83% of developers report burnout, according to research from Haystack, so be careful to set realistic expectations for your software developers. It's harder to get them home in a reasonable time when there's no physical office, so those expectations need to be set carefully, especially when there are flexible work schedules and it's easy to let big projects take over.

Education says you care

Developers are lifelong learners; they have to be because the industry changes very quickly. They constantly invest in themselves, their knowledge, and their skills.

As an employer, you can also invest in them as individuals. Some companies offer generous budgets for training or time off. I once worked for a small software company that didn't provide a budget to study but could set aside one day a month to learn something and help yourself to the textbook shelf or order an hour-long tutorial from someone. more to start with a new topic. It didn't cost the company much, but I felt like they wanted me to be successful.

Freedom to work

Rewarding developers with money doesn't work as a motivator, but giving them time and trusting them to use it for something other than direct product engineering work can have a big impact.

Google uses a famous approach of giving 20% ​​of a worker's time to spend on whatever they find interesting. It even produced some useful products, but the main point is that the developers felt involved and trusted in the work. Atlassian is also famous for doing something similar, with all employees working around the clock on projects of their choosing, producing amazing innovations and improvements that would never have otherwise occurred.

Many developers spend much of their time on open-source projects. I've had a few attempts to explain this to people in other professions, and it turns out the hacker culture is puzzling.

Developers, however, identify strongly with this world, with 91% of developers saying open source is in their future. Giving developers permission to contribute to open source can make them feel more valued. Those open source communities can be an important part of a developer's social and support networks, as well as their identity, which is critical to their overall well-being.

Lessons from open-source

Our modern workplace has a lot to learn from open source in the way we allow others to participate alongside us on projects. Open source projects serve as a reasonable model for how a truly remote workflow might work.

Some of the building blocks of our software world were built by people who knew each other only from the mailing list or the IRC channel. The software was built, but, perhaps more importantly, strong connections were made.

Today's remote software teams, whether remote by choice or circumstance, have far more impressive tools available. Collaboration and source control tools are now more than just a mailing list, and we can all stay in constant contact via text, audio, or video chat. We can even pair programs remotely using screen sharing or tools like VSCode Live Share.

However, all this connectivity can lead to additional stress and notification fatigue. Remember that software developers are all different; one person's work style will not be exactly the same as another's. Open source projects work in a way that is respectful of everyone's time and without much expectation that a person will be present at a specific time, rather, than within an expected time window.

For remote teams doing advanced tech work, scheduling as few meetings as possible that leave long periods to think, and setting expectations for how quickly someone is expected to respond to Slack messages, can really help. provide a quiet work environment.

Work-life balance

When the pandemic cut us off from our daily commute, many were left with less-than-ideal work setups. Parked on the couch or kitchen table, and possibly with other family members nearby, it was surprisingly difficult for many of us, with rising levels of exhaustion widely reported.

Even if your developers have been working from home for a while, it's never a bad idea to check if they need a monitor upgrade, a replacement power supply, or even a new keyboard. Many employers now offer work-from-home quotes, but a little goes a long way when it comes to making sure your developers have the tools they need.

Take the time to socialize together at work. Embarrassing corporate team building is hopefully a thing of the past, but a few simple online games can lighten the mood. If your company offers an EAP (employee assistance program), make sure all your employees know about it and how to access it. It's worth reminding managers that the programs are there for them too, not just the people on their teams.

When it comes to mental health, a startup can be a tough place to be. They are fast-paced, with frequent changes and plenty of plates to keep turning. My best advice is to take care of each other, and it's not just about managers taking care of the people who report to them. We can all contribute our grain of sand by watching over others and taking care of ourselves.

When we get burned, there are warning signs before it happens. We need to find ways to make our work sustainable in the long term and something we do alongside our healthy lives. Easier said than done, but busy startups need to take the time to remind their employees that they matter.

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming or killing themselves, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides free, confidential, 24-hour support. , 7 days a week for people in distress. , as well as good practices for professionals and help resources in prevention and crisis situations.

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