5 ways to improve mental health for software developers

With World Mental Health Day just behind us, I thought about how the tech industry can be a difficult place to stay mentally well. Working remotely, especially under unprecedented circumstances, can make a difficult situation worse. I have worked remotely in technology for over a decade, and I’ll share my tips for how fast-paced technical startups can take good care of their software development talent.

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

However, health is something more fundamental, almost on the lowest level of the hierarchy of needs, which includes mental health. Software developers need their brains in good shape to do the work that they do, and sometimes when things aren’t going well, we can see it in our colleague’s code before the real problem is even communicated.

The distributed nature of remote startup teams makes this more difficult. When you work remotely, the features of the office that can help you to support your team’s well-being are missing. Not only the free fruit and coffee or the bean bags; it can also be harder to notice when a colleague is having a hard time. When we aren’t in the same place, it’s harder to spot who is coming in late, leaving early or just seems a bit … flat.

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It’s also harder to check if someone is doing all right when there is no watercooler conversation. However, if you are unsure about someone and wondering if you should check in with them, my advice is always to 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 someone is fine and that you were worried about nothing, rather than have them reach a breaking point alone.

Give the gift of autonomy

I’ve worked remotely — by choice, for a selection of employers both large and small, as well as my own freelance consultancy — for more than a decade. What I value most about working from home is the flexibility, especially when my work is more on the maker’s schedule as a software developer.

I discovered a series of life hacks that helped me to do more of my best work, such as a gym workout 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 ability to have a bit more “life” alongside the work has been beneficial for my own well-being, especially at times when I have been struggling.

In Daniel Pink’s book “Drive,” he covers how autonomy, mastery and purpose are the main drivers of motivation. Motivation, recognition and confidence are key to successful software development work. Being empowered to contribute toward a wider goal using your skills is very rewarding, and for startups where there is usually more freedom in choosing and prioritizing 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 send them home at a reasonable time when there is no physical office, so those expectations need to be carefully laid out, especially when there are flexible working hours 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 so quickly. They are constantly investing in themselves, their knowledge and their skills.

As an employer, you can invest in them as individuals as well. Some companies offer generous training budgets or time off. I once worked for a small software company that didn’t provide a budget for study, but you could book one day a month to just learn something, and either help yourself to the shelf of textbooks or ask for a one-hour tutorial from someone else to get you started on a new topic. It didn’t cost the company much at all, but I felt like they wanted me to succeed.

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 famously uses an approach of giving 20% of a worker’s time to be used for anything they found interesting. It even produced some useful products, but the main point is that developers felt involved and trusted at work. Atlassian is also famous for doing something similar, with all employees working for 24 hours on projects of their choice, producing surprising innovations and improvements that might never have shipped otherwise.

Many developers give much of their time to open source projects. I’ve had a few attempts at explaining this to people from other professions, and it turns out hacker culture is baffling.

Developers, however, strongly identify with this world, and 91% of developers say 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 for their wider well-being.

Lessons from open source

Our modern workplace has a lot to learn from open source in the way that we enable others to participate alongside us in projects. Open source projects serve as a reasonable model for how a truly remote workflow can function.

Some of the foundational building blocks of our software world were built by people who knew one another only by mailing list or IRC channel. Software was built, but, perhaps even more importantly, strong connections were made.

Remote software teams today, whether remote by choice or circumstance, have much more impressive tools available. Source control and collaboration tools are more than a mailing list now, and we can all be constantly in contact by text chat, audio or video call. We can even pair programs remotely using screen sharing or tools like VSCode Live Share.

However, all this connectivity can lead to added stress and notification fatigue. Remember that software developers are all different; one person’s working style won’t be exactly like another’s. Open source projects work in a way that is respectful of everyone’s time and without much expectation that any one person will be around at any specific time — rather, within an expected time window.

For remote teams doing advanced technological work, scheduling as few meetings as possible that leave long stretches of thinking time — and setting expectations about how quickly anyone is expected to respond to Slack messages — can really help to provide a calm working environment.

Work-life balance

When the pandemic stopped us from our daily commute, many were left with less than ideal work setups. Parked on the sofa or at the kitchen table, and possibly with other family members nearby, was unsurprisingly difficult for many of us, with increased levels of burnout widely reported.

Even if your developers have been working from home for some time, it’s never a bad idea to check in whether they need a monitor upgrade, a spare power supply or even a new keyboard. Many employers now offer work-from-home budgets, but a little goes a long way when it comes to making sure your developers have the tools that they need.

Take the time to socialize together at work. Cringeworthy corporate team building is hopefully 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 how to access it. It doesn’t hurt to remind 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 difficult place to be. They’re fast-paced, with frequent changes and many plates to keep spinning. My best advice is to look out for one another — and that’s not just managers looking out for the staff that report to them. All of us can do our bit by looking out for others and by taking care of ourselves.

When we burn out, there are warning signs before it happens. We need to find ways to make our work sustainable for the long term and to be something we do alongside our healthy lives. It’s easier said than done, but busy startups must 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 themselves or taking their own life, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.