In 2017, Joseph Thomas a software engineer at Uber's San Francisco headquarters committed suicide. At his job, Thomas worked long hours, expressed he felt immense pressure at work, was scared of losing his job, and admitted to a psychiatrist he was having panic attacks and constant anxiety.
His widow, Zecole as well as his father, Joe blame Uber’s aggressive work environment. This ultimately set off an investigation into the company and made the ride-sharing giant a cautionary tale for what can go wrong within Silicon Valley.
Today, tech companies are heeding this story as a warning by implementing measures to support their software development teams.
According to an article in the International Journal of Social Sciences, by Dr. Ramyashilpa Nayak, software professionals experience “significantly higher than the level of anxiety of mechanical professionals.”
“It has been pointed out that high performance requirements with high technology can exercise a dangerous influence on the human personality,” Dr. Nayak writes. “Anyone who is constantly working or playing with computers is at risk.” His article suggests that software developers often experience anxiety, stress, burnout, fatigue, muscular tension, and even problems in concentration.
According to Stack Overflow’s 2018 Developer Survey, nearly one in five developers say that they struggle with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or both.
So what are businesses doing to mitigate these alarming, yet extremely common reports?
Open Sourcing Mental Illness (OSMI) is a non-profit organization raising awareness about mental health in the tech industry. The organization also hopes to reduce stigma surrounding depression, anxiety, and other mental health illnesses.
OSMI volunteer and senior full-stack developer at NPR, Nara Kasbergen suggests that “those at the management, director and C-suite levels of the organization need to convey the message that the company cares deeply about its employees' health and wellbeing (and signal that their understanding goes way beyond providing a ping-pong table!).”
One company taking its developer's mental health seriously is Ukraine-based Swedish provider of IT consulting services, Beetroot. “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,” the company shared in a post.
Beetroot also has its own dedicated psychologist and HR representative, Vova Vovk who has led the charge in protecting developers' mental health.
Vovk has a range of tips for developers experiencing pressure. These suggestions include shifting between focused and unfocused thinking to keep one's mental health stable. “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,” he writes. “It will give your brain the break it needs to process the information you uploaded during the focused work.”
His other tips include working out, connecting with team members by talking things through and getting oxytocin flowing through the body by cooking "something tasty in the office kitchen.
These suggestions are great but also indicate that great measures need to be taken that place the onus of responsibility on the company, rather than the people.
One initiative that seems promising is Anxiety Tech, an annual conference focusing on mental health in the tech industry. Now in its third year, the conference has given a voice to mental health professionals and employees in the tech space who share ideas on what can be done to further ensure the wellbeing of tech workers.
As the tech industry continues to garner more scrutiny for its treatment of workers, it’s clear companies need to make room for the mental health of their developers, before it’s too late.