October 10th is World Mental Health Day, a day to raise awareness and support for mental health issues in our communities.
Almost one in ten developers polled in this year’s StackOverflow developer survey admitted to a mood or emotional disorder. If you work in IT, that number may seem somewhat low; in actuality, one in five people in the US are diagnosed with a mental health issue each year.
Whatever the percentage, the reality is that a high number of people show up to work everyday suffering from disorders like anxiety, burnout, depression and/or isolation, and developers are one group that is in the crosshairs of the problem.
It’s important to note that this isn’t just a developer issue. System admins, DBAs and other IT-related staff may also suffer from a high rate of mental health issues. Management too (at least those that developers directly report to) as they spend much of their time trying to balance the needs of team members, and the mental health issues of team members directly impact their ability to deliver.
Anxiety and Depression
There are a number of forces that together have worked to create an unhealthy mental health environment unique to IT professionals. Let’s start with unrealistic expectations set by the media and others on what a tech job actually entails. Think of those descriptions of data science as the sexiest new career of the decade. Or the emphasis on splashy new technologies that most developers will never get to use.
The reality for many is that the applications they work on are complex and riddled with technical debt. Highly talented people who enter the profession may not really be a good match for the typical bread and butter development work required to keep these applications running. Overtime hours, unending agile release cycles, and the responsibility for complex and critical production systems, ones that process millions of records daily, can trigger anxiety.
“When I have a big deadline and I’m not sure if I can make it I get anxious about it, then I have trouble being productive, then I get depressed because I don’t feel like I’m doing well. Rinse and repeat.”1
Negativity and competitiveness within the industry are other factors. IT staff face a more toxic work environment than in decades past. As organizations try to pivot to a more inclusive and diverse staff it has led to conflicts and stress for developers, sometimes manifested in a gatekeeping culture.
One symptom of this is “imposter syndrome,” the condition where a developer believes that their colleagues are smarter, more talented, and more skilled than they are. Individuals with this disorder live in fear that others will recognize their inferiority. They may hold themselves to extremely high (and unrealistic) standards. For example, the “real programmer” mindset is one where a developer feels that they need to work harder to compensate for their inferiority.
Named for a post on Reddit, a “real” (or “10x”) programmer is one who lives to code, doesn’t consider it work, and volunteers to work 60- to 80-hour weeks for no additional compensation because it’s “fun.” Developers who don’t have these traits are thus not “real programmers.”
It is possible that software development attracts a population with poor social skills or lack of empathy relative to other occupations. Certainly, it is not uncommon to see advice along the lines of “get better at your job” or “stop whining” in developer forums when mental health issues are discussed.
Next Stop, Burnout
Meanwhile, some of the most successful tech entrepreneurs fall over themselves to proclaim the number of hours they dedicate to work each week: Jack Ma extolling the benefits of a 72-hour workweek, Elon Musk weighing in at 80 hours. This is not a schedule conductive to developing software.
Of course, most organizations don’t expect staff to put in those kinds of hours. But there is no end to unrealistic deadlines stemming from lack of understanding by upper management of what even a small change entails. At the same time, developers have to cope with a churn of technologies and languages that makes it hard to achieve mastery over a domain – and once achieved, see it denigrated pretty quickly in favor of the next shiny new tool.
“Having to deal day in day put with incomprehensible bugs in the tools you work with, which every 10 minutes divert you from your main goal (so day in day out you’ve got the feeling you haven’t accomplished anything… is bound to make someone depressive.”2
At the same time, our modern digital workplace is rife with frequent interruptions. Noise from open work plans, Slack, email, and desktop notifications compound the stress.
Companies like to offer remote work as a perk, one that allows developers to better focus on their tasks. However, working from home can have surprising mental health drawbacks. In theory, it is working from a cabin in the mountains or at the shore. More likely, you are camped out in your kitchen, meaning your work is always front and center, preventing any kind of work-life balance.
Remote work can be professionally isolating as well. Workers miss out on the camaraderie from belonging to a group. Even casual associations promote mental wellness. This Washington Post article describes a 2014 study that tested the benefits of so-called “weak-tie” interactions (for example, a short chat with a bus driver or a colleague you don’t directly work with). Turns out these types of interactions increased participants’ happiness, sense of belonging and even physical health.
An Overall Sense of Hopelessness
Developer work has always exacted a toll on mental health. But one thing that is new in the past few years is the growing disenchantment with the promise of tech, a feeling of hopelessness when faced with the negative implications of Big Tech. In a recent NY Times article, former Google employee Meredith Whittaker explained, “The questions that are percolating in the national consciousness are making tech work not as glamorous or as noble as it was. There’s a lot of anxiety. How could you not have that? Tech companies are fueling some of the most egregious human-rights abuses.”
“…maybe the most important thing for people right now may be spaces without technology…. This does not seem like a problem solvable by the means of technology and makes me wonder whether I’ve spent my life learning about technology only to abandon it at some point.”3
Developer, Heal Thyself?
Unsurprisingly, tech’s first attempt to grapple with problems caused by technology is, well, more tech. The NY Times article test drives a few mental health apps, none of which seemed to be promising (and all of which appear to possibly have privacy issues.)
Technology is not going to solve a problem of its own making. Ultimately, there needs to be a change in company culture (and IT culture in general) to prioritize work-life balance. There’s a long way to go. Right now, the best we can hope for is better awareness of the issue and the resolve to fix it.
Resources for Mental Health
There’s a great list of mental health resources on Github.
The site Traumatized.com has a wealth of resources (videos, podcasts, articles and more) from experts in the field of trauma studies.
The Prompt site has a good list of resources for developers.
The Centers for Disease Control lists mental health resources.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a good match for developer personalities.
Adam Culp’s blog post on anxiety is worth a read, too.