Mental Health Within a Software Team

Person A never thought he would be the type of person to suffer any form of panic attack. He had always considered himself a low-stress, laid back individual taking everyday as it comes.

Then, one day, driving home from the office, it happened – a powerful and mind bending attack resulting from bouts of anxiety as a result of a face paced and and often stressful senior position within a software team.

Often feeling isolated, Person A was not alone.

According to a recent survey nearly one in five software developers say that they struggle with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or both. And while there are plenty of reasons for this statistic,  it’s an issue that Person A took upon himself to explore – for his own mental health, and that of his team and lastly family members.

So, if you’re managing a software engineering team today, what changes can you make to be conscious of your team’s mental health?

Here are some key takeaways from our conversation with Person A:

Be Open About Your Own Mental Health

The first and most fundamental change that Person A made to his management style was also the scariest—he told the truth. After he had his first panic attack, he knew it was something he needed to talk about.

“Anxiety can happen to anyone and often we suppress the need to talk about the issue.”

After he discussed his own personal challenges with his team, it became easier for him to prioritise his own mental health, and suddenly habits starting to change for the better.

He started taking note of the items that developed happiness, such as eating better food, getting more exercise, and making time to relax.

This had an such a positive impact on his development team. Soon, his stress levels decreased and his colleagues felt more comfortable talking to him about the way they were feeling. Morale generally improved, and his team became more communicative.

Most importantly to Person A , the team started to reflect the values that are the most important to him in building software.

“Its important to put in a good days work and understand that it is good enough,” he said. “All of my employees know that the work they’re doing is good work, it’s enough, and it will still be here tomorrow to carry on with.”

Take Positive Feedback Seriously and Negative Feedback Lightly

As software engineers, we focus on things which are broken and are paid as such to fix them.

As a result, it’s hard to focus on what’s going right within a project.

Person A noted the importance to reverse that trend so he could emphasise the areas where his team was doing their best work.

He started to go out of his way to point out things which were going good in a project, and focused more on praising his co-workers. He knew that most of their day would be spent on things that aren’t by any means perfect, but he wanted them to walk away from the day with the feeling that their work was still great and their effort was appreciated.

“We’re not going to have a culture of finger pointing here,” he told us. “We’re going to have a culture where, when we release a bug, we figure out how to get it fixed, who it affects, how we can make it right for them. It happens to everybody.”

Managing Mental Health For Engineering Teams Is About Managing Expectations

The idea of psychological safety is essential for software engineering teams looking to improve their mental health, and psychological safety is built with a simple formula:

  • Set clear expectations
  • Communicate directly
  • Treat your team with compassion

If you do those three things above, your team will become more comfortable talking to you about mental health issues they may be feeling, allowing you to better support their needs in the workplace. Once you’ve built that culture, it becomes your job to continually reinforce the fact that they belong on the team and you’re grateful for them and the work they do.

As Person A told us, “Nobody wants to work in an environment where they feel like they’re the low person on the team. If you’ve made it this far and been employed by CodeFork, we know you can do the work and know you can do it well.”

Here are a few other key lessons from Person A:

  • Lead by example: If you don’t manage your own mental health effectively, you can’t manage your team’s.
  • Find time every night after work to “shut off”: Person A makes shutting off his work brain a part of his nightly routine. This allows him to truly unplug and focus on his personal life and family without distraction.
  • Focus on doing your best work and being your best self.