Coding, burnout, and mental health

Paul Johnston
Mar 21, 2017 · 5 min read

I am not an expert in mental health (big disclaimer here!). Some who know my coding ability would say I’m not an expert coder too, but that’s another story.

I think that startups are (mostly) not good for coder’s mental health.

I think that culture needs to change and we need to be far more aware of it.

This isn’t about how your mental health is affected (what kind of issues people have), but why it is affected (causes), and how startups seem to often lead to burnout for developers.

As a CTO of a startup, I have responsibility for a team of techies (it’s not a large team yet, but it’s getting there). I also chat to many other CTOs about their approach to their teams, and I’ve learned a lot, but also have noticed a lot of worries and issues.

One of the worries with coders and startups is burnout.

Startups and coders

Startups often have an expectation that their developer’s are going to work hard to deliver the needs of the business. This is reasonable of course. You are being paid for a job after all.

At least, it’s reasonable if the person doing the coding is actually able to do the work in the allotted time. Very often in a startup, there is little to no project management, and it’s a case of “just ship it asap (yesterday would be great)”.

Often at an early stage this falls on the initial developer(s). It’s not unexpected to find a developer working on their work many more than 40 hours a week. Often many many more than that.

It’s not unusual because usually the domain expert will push for the product/service they want delivered, and often developers are ridiculously bad at estimating how long things will take.

So false expectations get created, and frustration at missed deadlines and code issues (due usually to rushing work) adds pressure to the developers.

The reason that developers do this is that they are often chasing a pot of gold. They are told that if they build the solution asked for, the founder(s) with business responsibility have said that they’ll raise loads of money and everyone will exit with millions.

With the stats as they are in terms of number of startups v number of exits, the likelihood of this actually happening are very low (it’s really unlikely).

Because it’s unlikely, you will find that developers will rarely take on a startup more than once or twice (certainly will be more cautious with experience).

Burnout and Coder mental health

I’m a great believer in coders being human beings. I’ve not yet met one who wasn’t.

They have needs like the rest of us.

Like seeing friends.

And doing their hobbies (other than coding).

Unfortunately, from the outside, tech startups often start with a DNA of full-tilt coding from the very beginning. Often this doesn’t change as the company grows with funding.

It can lead to very unhealthy attitudes (very often from the founders) to work, to time away from work, and it certainly has an impact on family life for anyone with kids.

Not only that, but it puts a value in a person’s output much higher than that person’s health and wellbeing. And that can lead to thinking that some people are more valuable than others.

And if you make your entire life about the job, then you can end up having your friends, and your social life based around work as well. Which can lead to having no external life to your job.

This approach to these people often seems to lead to burnout (certainly a significant lowering of productivity).

The rule of thumb (among the few CTOs I’ve spoken with) seems to be something like 12 to 18 months of working like this will lead to burnout in a lot of people.

I think if you’re noticing a drop in productivity, that person is probably not in a good place.

I don’t think this is healthy.

Specifically for that person’s mental health.

Not an expert

I know I’m not an expert, but I’ve made a commitment to try to ensure that people that work for me have a basic understanding of what is expected of them.

I think these (sort of) guidelines can lead to people being more respected and hopefully can avoid some of the issues of pushing too hard and burning out.

I expect things like:

  1. At least 6 hours of quality work (to their satisfaction not mine) in a day (nobody is 100% productive!!!)
  2. You should have a hobby or interest outside of work that means you spend time with people and that you talk about at work (your dog, table top games, rock climbing)
  3. Go home at a reasonable time every evening (around 5 or 5:30 I’ll sometimes pester them to go home — but I won’t enforce it)
  4. If you do work late, that you’ll take the time out elsewhere (you are contracted not for your entire life, but for a certain number of hours)
  5. Holidays are important! Take them. (I don’t enforce regular holidays/days off as I trust people to take them, but I probably should)
  6. Family time is to be respected and encouraged (I’m the only one with kids in my company, and I am given lots of space for this and am very thankful)
  7. Try to stay healthy (note: not fit, or thin or anything else, just not “ill”)
  8. To ask for help/space when it’s needed (whether a work issue or otherwise)

I’ve put these as positive expectations, not negative ones on purpose. These things are not hard and fast rules, and sometimes I’ll get frustrated, and tell them so, but I think it fosters an openness and respect for people that doesn’t come looking at most startups.

I’m not suggesting people don’t work hard. Most people who work in startups work extremely hard.

I’m suggesting that making people work hard for long periods will have a strong negative impact on that person over time.

For me?

I’m trying to take my own advice. To that end, I’m trying to go to the local swimming pool at least twice a week and trying to make sure I eat dinner with my kids most days, and take my younger kids to school once a week.

It’s not easy, and I work hard when at work, and it’s difficult to turn off. I’m often thinking about work into the evening and even in bed!

These are not issues I have “solved” in my own life, but I’m figuring these things out and I think other people must have these issues too.

What do you think?

I have heard many stories of startups where developers put lots of effort in only to lose money (due to not being paid) or start to burnout and are then discarded by the team.

This cannot be good!

However, failure can teach you a lot as well, and maybe we need to approach failure in a different way.

I’d love to know whether you think my approach is good or not. I’m sure I have a lot to learn.

But I also think it’s a conversation we as startup people need to have. Most CTOs I speak to are worried about this (they often don’t talk about it but when asked, it comes out), but often these people work in scenarios where it’s hard to know what to do because the DNA of the company and the attitude to work is often fixed early on.

Note: Again, not an expert in mental health. Still learning this too. Happy to read other articles about this if you wish to share.

Paul Johnston

Written by

ServerlessDays CoFounder (Jeff), ex AWS Serverless Snr DA, experienced CTO/Interim, Startups, Entrepreneur, Techie, Geek and Christian

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