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Maintaining Mental health on Software Development Teams

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Key Takeaways

  • A growing number of developers are experiencing work-related, mental health disorders. These include stress, exhaustion, fatigue, and loss of motivation.
  • The cognitive sphere (which consists of thinking, senses, imagination, and memory) can send signals when your mental health is deteriorating.
  • Problems in the emotional sphere often influence the effectiveness of the cognitive sphere. Unfortunately, finding the source of emotional imbalance is more complicated than simply analyzing cognitive skills.
  • Mental stability can be achieved under the condition of well-functioning and balanced cognitive and emotional spheres.
  • The needed balance can be achieved by shifting between focused and unfocused work, physical exercise, team-building, and maintaining high oxytocin levels.

Work-related anxiety and mental disorders are becoming a common challenge among tech companies. According to the International Journal of Social Sciences, software developers have a considerably higher chance of experiencing fatigue, burnout, anxiety, and stress, compared to their colleagues who perform mechanical tasks. Deteriorating mental health not only threatens the wellbeing of employees, but the companies’ overall productivity. Researchers from the Institute of Software Technologies in Stuttgart found that mentally-exhausted or depressed developers produce a lower quality of code and tend to miss deadlines. Today, tech companies are realizing the importance of mental health and taking action to ensure their dedicated development teams stay healthy and sane.

Here, at Beetroot, we strive to create a homely and comfortable atmosphere that minimizes the pressure felt on our teams. However, despite our best efforts, there are still challenging times. We recently spoke with our HR representative and psychologist, Vova Vovk, about mental health. Vova shared indicators of psychological well-being and tips on how to help developers can remain sane while being productive.

Let’s start by defining mental health. The World Health Organization describes mental health as a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community. As you can see, our work greatly influences our mental health. This is not a surprise, as we spend the majority or our time at work and, inevitably, it will affect the way we feel.

In order to understand the relationship between programming and mental health, we should look at the theory behind it. Our mental health is composed of two spheres — cognitive and emotional. The neurophysiology of our brains can be compared to a computer. For instance, computers have a system of input/output — a keyboard, a webcam, a mouse, etc. — which corresponds to our five senses. The computer’s processor is the same as our thinking, the video card corresponds to our imagination, and the operational memory — to our regular memory. These four elements are the basis of the cognitive sphere. But, what sets us apart from soulless robots is our emotional sphere;our feelings and desires. Let’s discuss each of these components and how they affect our mental health.  

The Cognitive Sphere

Input/output system

A well-functioning input/output system is characterized by a fast and effortless reaction to external irritants. In other words, if you perceive external information without feeling discomfort, your mental health is stable. Reactions can differ from person to person, since some enjoy working in a buzzing open space, while others need total silence to concentrate. However, if you start feeling stressed when the light is too bright, the noise is too loud, or by Susan’s continuous and unsolicited hugs, there is probably something off with your cognitive sphere.

Memory

Multitasking is familiar to all of us. Our brain is a single-core processor that can only handle one task at a time. When we talk about multitasking, we generally mean the number of things  kept in your memory simultaneously. If this number is decreasing, it could be a symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome or neurasthenia. When we are in a constant state of exhaustion or overloaded with strong emotions of stress and anxiety, it affects our memory. If you begin having a difficult time remembering things,  it can be a signal that your mental health is not okay.

Video Card

Imagination is crucially important for creative jobs. The ideal creative process looks like this: information is uploaded to your brain, it zimmers for a couple of hours or even weeks, then creative results are produced by your video card. Unfortunately, surrounded with deadlines and eager clients, our imagination is kept in overload and pushed beyond its limits. We are doing our best to squeeze out a creative idea every hour or so. Our brains can temporarily compensate for the stress and productive work needed, but at the end of the day, we will eventually burn out. If you feel zero motivation to be creative and your ideas are no longer bringing you joy, your video card may be overheated and in dire need of a break.

Processor

Most of us are familiar with the IQ test. But, what you may not know, is that it doesn’t actually show how intelligent you are. Instead, it shows how well you are able to think. For a mentally strong person, it shouldn’t be challenging to solve simple puzzles or count backward from 20. However, if you are chronically tired, anxious, or depressed, the speed of your thinking process slows down and you can have a difficult time solving the simplest equations. You may also have a feeling of discomfort or lingering headaches from thinking too much.

The Emotional Sphere

Things are more complicated with the emotional sphere. The cognitive sphere is directly related to our physical health (the level of vitamins and glucose), and psychological health (the levels of anxiety, stress and depression), which are both easy to understand using medical tests. But emotions are complex and can’t be calculated. Let’s look at the four basic emotions: sadness, fear, anger, and joy.

Sadness is directed at the past. We use it to cut ties with the emotional connections from situations that have already passed. For instance, you made a move for work, felt sad for a season, then accepted it and moved on. It is important that we can let go of the past, instead of re-living it again and again. This is why we need sadness. Fear, on the contrary, is directed at the future. Its purpose is to help us brace ourselves for whatever is going to happen next, such as a meeting or an upcoming project launch. However, if too much is at  stake or if the upcoming situation is too dangerous or complicated, then fear can slow us down. Our brain will overly agonize, picturing thousands of possible scenarios and trying to find solutions for each of them.As a result, we waste too much of our energy and aren’t able to perform effectively in the here and now.

Anger, as well as joy, is an emotion of the present. Anger’s mission is similar to the mission Tom Cruise has in most of his movies; to protect and to achieve results. We need anger to define our personal boundaries. It can also help us build will power for achieving our goals. Finally, we use joy when we feel satisfied. Even a small accomplishment, like cleaning the dust off your table, can spark  a bit of joy. Whenever we complete a task, our brain re-loads on a neurophysiological level, produces opioids, and gives us the energy to carry on.

The emotional sphere is ancient and powerful, and it affects our cognitive potential. If we are too sad or excited, too furious or petrified, our cognitive skills can slow down. When this happens, it is important to remember that there are no "bad" emotions. They are all useful and necessary under certain circumstances. It is when they spiral out of control that we need to seek intervention. Whenever you feel your mental health is deteriorating, the first thing you should do is test your cognitive skills. If they are lagging, it might be time to check your "back-end" (the emotional sphere) and see if anything is off course.

How Coding Affects Mental Health

When developers begin coding, they leverage all four basic elements of the cognitive sphere. Feelings and perceptions are needed to download data from the screen into the brain, our thinking is then activated to process the data, imagination kicks in to help find creative solutions, and our memory stores already existing solutions for us to use when they are suitable. A developer’s work is closely related to engineering, which also requires focused thinking. The modern scientific theory assumes we are only able to work in a focused setting for 2-4 hours. Of course, our brain is rather flexible and adaptive. It actually allows us to  work productively while being overloaded, for 1-3 months. However, if someone continues assigning an excessive amount of tasks to be processed during those 2-4 hours of focused thinking, it will likely throw developers into an abyss of chronic exhaustion.

Tips for Coding Hard and Staying Sane

1. Focused and Unfocused Modes

In order to protect our mental health, it is important to not push ourselves beyond the cognitive daily limits. In reality, this is easier said than done. One way to keep your mental health stable is to shift between focused and unfocused thinking. For instance, you can spend two hours doing something important, like participating in stand-ups or intense coding, then move into unfocused thinking by working on mechanical tasks that do not require complicated solutions. It will give your brain the break it needs to process the information you uploaded during the focused work.

2. Don’t Forget to Workout

Physical health is an integral part of mental health. Even minor things such as sitting in an uncomfortable position can lead to spasmodic neck vessels or squeezed nerve fibers. This can  hinder our brain from getting enough oxygen and glucose. It is important to take short breaks and incorporate quick workouts every hour or so. If the mere thought of push-ups makes you sick, at least take a walk around the office from time to time.   

3. Teamwork is Everything

The atmosphere on a software development team is important, especially when things get emotional. You would feel sad if your favorite team member suddenly left the project, or you might feel angry if the annoying QA stayed. Either way, the energy from the cognitive sphere (which you need for work) would be sent to the emotional sphere instead, making you unfocused and unproductive. In order to keep the internal atmosphere balanced and healthy, it is important to talk things through. This is why team-building is so important. You can discuss questions that are bothering you, mourn things that happened in the past, and share your concerns about the future. It seems simple, but these basic steps can help sustain an emotional balance.  

4. Get Oxytocin

We wouldn’t say that positive emotions should cover up the stress of constantly narrowing deadlines, but they certainly help. One of the most oxytocin-fueled places in the office is the kitchen. You can gather with team members, cook something tasty, and shift from focused thinking to unfocused. It is much healthier to relax for an hour break in the kitchen than to try frantically solving the next task while struggling in focused mode.Interacting with others can also help. Even if you aren’t comfortable with hugs, the simple act of sitting near to your teammates and eating might be enough to refresh your focus. From a psychological standpoint, these type interactions create a feeling of safety and comfort, while helping us build the resilience needed to cope with stress.

Like any other job, programming can be stressful. If you keep pushing through without breaks, you will eventually find yourself completely worn out and unmotivated. We encourage you to find specific ways to  recharge your emotional batteries. If you feel your mental health is getting out of hand, never be afraid to ask for help.

About the Authors

Lena Kozar, is a copywriter and content creator at Beetroot with experience in covering topics on software development, mental health, team building and leadership. She likes applying her writing skills to create fascinating texts that showcase the daily operations, challenges and wins of software development teams in Ukraine.

Vova Vovk, is a Full-stack HR and People Partner at Beetroot with an extensive experience in building sustainable, resilient teams. Having profound knowledge in psychology and applying agile techniques, Vova helps companies develop a comfortable and productive working environment. He has a master’s degree in medical psychology and educational management.

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