The mental health of engineers is a much more discussed issue than ever before. And rightly so. It’s not only an important topic on a human level, but engineers actually finding joy and meaning in their work can have an incredible business impact too. We spoke to two "people experts" about their strategies to manage developer mental health.
Who we spoke with:
Dr. Ross Nelson
A 2019 survey published by Stack Overflow found that nearly one in five developers admits to struggling with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or both. Within even the most progressive tech companies, engineers can often be isolated or siloed. Combined with the pressure to push projects forward under intense timelines and the volatility of the tech industry — which has only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic — we are seeing a long-overdue focus on developers’ mental health.
It comes down to a mixture of awareness and concrete action, and we spoke to a human resources leader and a psychologist to better understand how team managers can create productive and efficient teams without sacrificing the mental health of its engineers and developers.
Communication is key - but what does that mean?
Communication takes a lot of forms, and a team leader needs to be aware of not just the message being conveyed, but to whom, when, and how it is being conveyed. It’s something Beth Steinberg has spent her 20-plus career studying.
Steinberg has been a human resources lead at Fortune 500 companies like Nike, Nordstrom, and Electronic Arts as well as start-ups such as BrightRoll, SunRun, and, currently, fintech company Chime. She has seen team leaders and managers with the best intentions send the wrong signals, or what is known as "accidental diminishers" — seemingly positive actions that can easily backfire, such as the propagation of a 24/7 mentality. "I've seen it in every single company I've been at," says Steinberg.
There's a sense that being completely responsive all the time is a good thing, but it actually puts pressure on your team that can be really negative.
The "always-on" personality often works in tandem with performance reviews intended to motivate and inspire but instead cultivate a culture where flawlessness is the only acceptable result. "If I hired an engineer to do some work for me and they met my expectations, I would be satisfied. But that's not really how it works at a lot of companies," says Silicon Valley-based psychologist Dr. Ross Nelson, who has treated people in the tech industry both in his private practice and as an onsite health care provider for the likes of Microsoft, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Symantec. "'Meets Expectations' is seen as below average. And that's why people are getting put on performance improvement plans for meeting 'Most Expectations' and that's just really kind of a messed up system that sets people up for extra stress.”
One of the most vital skills is leading by example. "There's a fine line between perfectionism and a healthy striving for excellent work," says Dr. Nelson.
Unhealthy perfectionism leads to behavior such as staying at work really late and working heavily on weekends.
If this behavior is consistently promoted, adds Steinberg, that is the culture you will reap. "People take their cues from what gets rewarded. People tend to skate to where the puck is." Steinberg recommends scheduling email responses so that even if you're working at 4:00 AM, the email won't be sent to the person until the opening of business that day. It’s a small signal that a 24/7 work life is not expected or encouraged.
No Code Left Behind
In a rush to scale, startups often must change the course of their product in order to achieve product-market fit. Or, as 2020 has taught us in swift and brutal ways, sometimes factors well beyond a company’s control can cause projects and resources to be cut. This can mean a lot of hard work left unrealized as projects are killed and efforts directed elsewhere.
"A lot of people went into engineering careers in order to try to make an impact on the field and in their space," says Dr. Nelson.
They may work for months on end on something and then that day the company makes a business decision to not produce the product. And it's a sense of loss. Showing respect, celebrating what was accomplished, and what can still be taken away as a result of the hard work can be crucial for team morale.
Given circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic—where no amount of planning could have prepared companies for the abrupt closure of society—Steinberg points to active communication efforts as a way of mitigating the effect of lost work. “The culture we have at Chime is, if we feel something isn’t right, we will reach out and ask people if they’re OK and ask what we can do to support them. I think it’s made a big difference in terms of people’s ability to feel safe coming forward with something that may be a difficult subject, like their own mental health.”
This mixture of practical necessity and emotional intelligence is at the core of positive and constructive team communication. “Team leaders and managers have a number of options to support their teams when they are ‘sunsetting’ a project,” says Dr. Nelson. “When it comes time to communicate this with the team, it's important to both share the practical facts and justification as well as sharing genuine compassion.”
Provide resources and build psychological safety
For someone in Steinberg's position, assisting a team's efforts to be open and accessible has to be one other thing—visible. While engineers may know they need to focus on their wellness, making it a reality means managers need to make the resources easily accessible for their team. At Chime, Steinberg partnered with a tool called Modern Health, to provide all employees with access to meditation and stress management tools as well as coaching sessions and, if needed, therapy. The feedback she received was unprecedented.
"One of the engineering leads said to me that one of his new employees mentioned to him that he's never seen an executive leadership team care so much about employees' mental health. I don't know 10 years ago that I would have heard that from an engineer."
Enabling pathways for team members to communicate with managers, with human resources, and with their peers is a vital part of a supportive culture. Says Dr. Nelson: "
There’s a term that was coined a few years ago called 'psychological safety,' which is basically the concept of giving your team permission to make mistakes and to advocate for them to speak up and feel safe.
Rather than having them think, 'If I speak up and talk to my boss, maybe I'm going to get fired' or 'If I make one error on something or my coding isn't absolutely perfect in every possible way, I'm going to be in trouble’.”
Allowing for pressure relief valves through open forums, health, and wellness activities, and open lines of communication cultivated by strong leaders will help alleviate burnout, foster a healthy culture, and allow teams to weather unpredictable and unprecedented roadblocks. Or as Dr. Nelson puts it, “The concept of psychological safety can help management and people who are in the field promote an environment that allows people to feel a lot better."