A story about how managing our mental health helps is improve our work outcomes (as well, just generally, life)
As a software developer, my stock and trade is my ability to reason about the problems that our clients are having, abstract and model them in software so that the computer does something reasonably similar to what the client intended and deploy that abstraction to consumers.
It stands to reason then that, like any other tradesmen, it’s a worthwhile investment to take care of and improve that ability. Mental health, then, becomes not only something to aspire to in our own lives but additionally a solid business investment.
Please note: This post is based on my and my colleagues experience of mental health. It is not something in which I am well versed, and I am simply trying to make the case that teams should make it a priority in their planning.
If you are struggling with an issue please reach out to friends and family, and your local health provider. If you know of a good health provider or additional documentation, please add it in a response to this article.
On being mental
One of the many unique quirks of the English language is that mental has two polar opposite meanings:
- of or relating to the mind; specifically : of or relating to the total emotional and intellectual response of an individual to external reality. Merriam Webster.
- Someone who is silly or stupid, usually for attention and in a random or sporadic way, involving nonsensical references and actions. Urban Dictionary.
Such is the duality of the relationship that we have with our mentality. Mental health seems to be somewhat of a taboo topic; we do not consider the affect of our own mind to betray us in our lives — indeed, we actively shy away from the possibility.
However, mental health plays a fundamental role in our we approach the world.
As expressed by Google, mental health is a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being. However, it is not clear what it is to be mentally healthy. In a discussion with colleagues, we determined that when healthy we are:
- Generally happy and satisfied, content with our world.
- Able to deal with stress and unexpected situations well, making good judgements under pressure.
A solid investment
Much like other health outcomes mental health does not come cheaply, or easily. Indeed, much of the way our lives are structured seems driven to sacrifice our health in favour of productivity. However, as the nature of our work is changing (particularly in software development) it makes sense to reevaluate the trade-off between health and productivity.
Healthy people make healthy services
Software development, and I guess perhaps other knowledge driven industries, are unique in that the amount of time that is spent facing a problem is not indicative of how far we are progressed to a solution. Most of my workflow looks about like the following:
The vast majority of my time is spent thinking, rather than simply outputting chunks of code.
It is this chunk of time that is highly influenced by mental health. On a day with no sleep and skipped breakfast, I can spend a whole day chasing rabbits down holes, looking for a particular bug. I’ll go home, get a solid night sleep, eat a solid breakfast and I’ll realise as assumption I made was wrong, commit the fix and deploy by 11:30am.
Investing in ensuring that our mental health is well maintained and looked after reaps significant increases in productivity; in many cases by an order of magnitude.
Healthy people make happy people
Much aside from any sort of business investment, healthy people are happy people. It is our duty to our fellow human — be that a colleague, partner or family — to promote a sense of well-being in them, and create an environment where they can prosper.
It makes our lives fundamentally better to both be healthy, and be around people who are also.
Unfortunately, mental health is unique in one particularly perverse regard; as our health degrades we are unable to see that we are suffering. Taking care of our mental health seems easiest when we are healthy! However, there are things that we can put in place to help prevent us from losing track.
Setting up simple safety mechanisms that help you determine when you’re overloaded. Things such as:
- Skipping meals or sleep.
- Missing appointments with friends and family.
- Working more than your work contract states, or more than your colleagues. This should be ~40 hours, approx.
- Missing commitments such as emails, meetings or other deadlines.
- Finding yourself apathetic as to whether the chunk of work you’re completing is successful.
- Missing time that you’ve set aside for yourself to unpack
Among my colleagues we all have our own safety mechanisms. Personally, I find that my mental health slips most quickly when I am sleep deprived, as does my ability to determine it — i prioritise sleep over almost all other things.
Because it’s so difficult, perhaps even taboo, to discuss mental health it’s also often difficult to see how different things impact it. However, those of us who are well accustomed to the demands of a position we can proactively spot things that are likely to impact our colleagues. Things like:
- Aiming for 100% productivity. It’s unreasonable — humans cannot do this.
- Requiring people work overtime “just this once” to deliver a feature or service.
- Progressively slipping into working longer hours
- Setting unreasonable expectations on work output, or passing expectations between people.
These are traps that are extremely easy to fall into while planning. It is not that, during planning, we are actively disregarding peoples health — rather simply deluding ourselves into thinking that “this will be a one time thing” and that “the team is probably going to be handle it” and that “we’ll do better in future”.
Protip: no one ever does. The future is now, we’ve already fucked up more times than it’s worth remembering and we already know enough to be better.
In the modern world it is only through our ability to reason that we are able to prosper. Absent a good mental health plan we are unable to be our best selves; or worse, we are even unaware that we are not healthy. Investing in mental health is a fundamentally good idea, and doing so will determine the success of our selves, our companies and our community.
- Manu Ruelke with whom I had the initial spirited conversation.
- Others at Sitewards who continually remind us of the importance of taking care of these things.
- The Magento community, in particular Rebecca Brocton, Sherrie Rohde and David Manners who continually highlight the importance of this topic.
- Rebecca Brocton and David Manners additionally, as they were kind enough to review a draft of the post.
- Many others from whom I draw life lessons, the full list of which would be longer than this article.