5 Ways To Improve The Mental Health Of Software Developers – TechCrunch
With World Mental Health Day right behind us, I thought about how difficult the technology industry can be to staying sane. Working remotely, especially in unprecedented circumstances, can make a difficult situation worse. I’ve been working remotely in technology for over a decade and I’ll share my tips on how fast-paced tech startups can take good care of their software development talents.
Software development at its best is a creative endeavor. Developers need a certain level of comfort in order to be able to do high-quality work. Boring tasks, noisy offices, and too many meetings can affect productivity even in 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 a good brain to get their job done, and sometimes when something isn’t going well we can see it in our colleagues’ code before the real problem is even communicated.
The distributed nature of remote startup teams makes this difficult. When working remotely, the office lacks the features that can help support your team’s wellbeing. Not just the free fruit and coffee or the bean bags; it can also be harder to notice when a coworker is having a hard time. When we’re not in the same place, it’s harder to tell who is late, early, or just looking a little … flat.
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It’s also harder to check if someone is okay without a water cooler talk. However, if you are unsure about someone and are wondering if you should contact them, I always advise reaching out to them. 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 that you don’t worry about anything, rather than pushing them to the limit on their own .
I’ve been working remotely for more than a decade – volunteering for a selection of employers, large and small, as well as for my own freelance consultancy. What I like most about working from home is the flexibility, especially when my work as a software developer is more on the manufacturer’s schedule.
I’ve discovered a number of life hacks that have helped me get more of my best work, like getting a gym in the oven at 11 a.m. after an early start in the office or putting dinner in the oven before the last meeting of the day. This opportunity to have a little more “life” outside of work has been beneficial to my own wellbeing, especially at times when I have been struggling.
In Daniel Pink’s book “Drive,” he discusses how autonomy, control, and determination are the main drivers of motivation. Motivation, recognition and self-confidence are the key to successful software development work. The ability to use your skills to contribute to a wider goal is very rewarding, and for startups, where there is usually more freedom to choose and prioritize work, it can be very satisfying for developers.
However, according to a study by Haystack, 83% of developers report burnout. So set realistic expectations for your software developers. It is more difficult to send her home at a reasonable time when there is no physical office. Hence, these expectations need to be set carefully, especially when there is flexible working hours and large projects can be easily taken on.
Education tells you that you care
Developers are lifelong learners; they have to be because the industry is changing so quickly. They constantly invest in themselves, their knowledge and their skills.
As an employer, you can also invest in them as a private individual. Some companies offer generous training budgets or free time. I once worked for a small software company that didn’t have a budget for studying, but you could book a day of the month just to study and either help yourself from the shelves of textbooks or after an hour-long tutorial from someone otherwise ask to start 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 isn’t a motivator, but giving them time and trusting them to do something other than direct product development work can go a long way.
It is well known that Google uses the approach of spending 20% of an employee’s time on anything they find interesting. It even produced some useful products, but the main point is that the developers felt involved and familiar with the work. Atlassian is also known for doing something similar: all employees work 24 hours a day on projects of their choice, producing surprising innovations and improvements that might otherwise never have been delivered.
Many developers dedicate a large part of their time to open source projects. I’ve had a few attempts to explain this to people in other professions and it turned out that the hacker culture is confusing.
However, developers identify strongly with this world and 91% of developers say that open source is in their future. Giving developers permission to contribute to open source can make them feel more valued. These 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 can learn a lot from open source by allowing others to participate in projects with us. Open source projects serve as a reasonable model of how a truly remote workflow can work.
Some of the basic building blocks of our software world were built by people who only knew each other through mailing lists or IRC channels. Software was developed, but, perhaps more importantly, strong connections were made.
Remote software teams today have much more impressive tools at their disposal, whether of their own free will or by circumstance. Source control and collaboration tools are now more than a mailing list, and we can all stay in touch at all times via text chat, audio or video calls. We can even pair programs remotely using screen sharing or tools like VSCode Live Share.
However, all of this connectivity can lead to additional stress and notification fatigue. Remember that software developers are all different; One person’s style of work will not be exactly that of another. Open source projects work in such a way that everyone’s time is respected and not much is expected that a person will be present at a certain time – rather within an expected time window.
For remote teams doing advanced technology work, scheduling as few meetings as possible that leave thinking time – and setting expectations of how quickly everyone should respond to Slack messages – can really help create a quiet work environment create.
When the pandemic stopped us from our daily commute, many were left with less than ideal work attitudes. Parking on the sofa or at the kitchen table and possibly with other family members nearby was unsurprisingly difficult for many of us as increased levels of burnout have been reported frequently.
Even if your developers have been working from home for a long time, it’s never a bad idea to check out if they need a monitor upgrade, replacement power supply, or even a new keyboard. Many employers now offer work-from-home budgets, but a little is enough when it comes to making sure your developers have the tools they need.
Take the time to socialize at work. Hopefully, degrading corporate team building will be a thing of the past, but some simple online games can lighten the mood. If your company offers an EAP (Employee Assistance Program) make sure that all of your employees know about it and have access to it. It doesn’t hurt to remind managers that the programs are there for them, not just the people on their teams.
When it comes to mental health, starting a startup can be a difficult place. They’re fast moving, with frequent changes and lots of plates to keep turning. My best advice is to take care of each other – and it’s not just managers who take care of the employees who report to them. We can all do our part by taking care of others and taking care of ourselves.
When we burn out there are warning signs before it happens. We have to find ways to make our work sustainable in the long term and to be something that we do alongside our healthy life. 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 thought of harming or killing themselves, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) offers free 24/7 and confidential support for people in need, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to provide support in prevention and crisis situations.