On This Page:
During the pandemic years, we heard a lot about burnout, depression, and work-related anxiety among healthcare givers. But what about software engineers? Recent statistics are giving us a more thorough and accurate look at what it takes to stay sane while programming and managing code-based projects.
Mental Health Trends in Software Engineering
It’s no secret—throughout IT and business, serious stigma is associated with anything suggesting mental health lapses or ongoing problems. Here are some worrisome statistics gathered by the Society of Research Software (UK):
- Within the field of software engineering, stress, anxiety, and depression are particularly common. Approximately 17% of surveyed software engineers experienced one or more of these conditions at any time.
- Only 13% of employees surveyed would be comfortable talking about mental illness at work. Fear of speaking up prevents software engineers from asking for help.
No matter how knowledgeable and experienced you might be in software engineering, mental health difficulties can still provide the “gotcha!” that stops or slows your professional growth. In a 2021 survey, the staff at Slack gathered data measuring the effects of stressors on tech sector workers in 2020. Survey respondents confirmed that
- 51% had been diagnosed with a mental health condition.
- 57% reported burnout.
- 71% said their productivity was reduced by a mental health issue.
What’s happening? Think of it as psychological whiplash. The global pandemic rapidly relocated numerous workers from familiar offices and routines to at-home work, many for the first time. When surveyed, newly at-home workers admitted to feeling lost and increasingly isolated. As the months of pandemic passed, these new work-at-home stressors added high anxiety to the ongoing pressures that software engineers already dealt with at the office.
Signs & Symptoms Software Engineers Should Watch For
Poor mental health can affect your job performance, which can take the form of poor communication with peers and supervisors, loss of stamina, and compromised concentration when performing routine tasks. Any combination of these problems contributes to lost productivity. The causes? Lots of stress and a reluctance to talk about it.
If you’re a working software engineer, you’ve experienced at least some causes of work-based stress, which include:
- Long Workdays & Weeks: This time commitment eats into family, social, and community activities.
- Crazy-Short Deadlines: Sometimes these deadlines are assigned without consideration from group leaders.
- Technology Catch-Up: Keeping up with new developments in tech is a time-consuming game that never seems to end.
- Insufficient or Legacy Resources: Poor resources can ratchet up the stress level at any workplace.
This is an incomplete list, of course. Some items are project-related, and others might be a permanent part of your work environment.
With burnout, you simply cannot recapture the energy, motivation, and optimism you might have had as a junior software engineer. No matter what your achievements and skills might be, all you can manage is a “meh.” There is nothing left in the tank. In the words of that classic R&B ballad, “The thrill is gone.”
When you look for burnout, watch for these emotional and physical symptoms:
- Lack of energy and loss of efficiency
- Staring blankly at the screen, getting lost in thought or feeling sleepy at work
- Difficulty focusing and delivering work on time and error-free
- Indifference toward, impatience with, or frequent criticism of colleagues
- Extreme fatigue
- Muscle pain
- Frequent headaches or migraines
- Dizziness or shortness of breath
Anxiety is your body’s biochemical response to a thought: “Something is going wrong, very wrong.” Are you having problems analyzing a system problem? Are you encountering repeated obstacles? Anxious software engineers often respond with: “I’m not smart (or experienced) enough for this work” or “I’ll never get this done by our deadline!”
In each case, your emotions tear your focus into little pieces. Then you’re off to the races, chased by negative thoughts that get you nowhere. If this negative thinking becomes a habit, you might suffer from symptoms like those of Ali Akhtari, who describes his entry into a company of experienced software engineers:
“I could feel anxiety in every single cell of my body: knots in the stomach, sudden tremors in the hands, dullness in the eyelids, and, the worst part, constant hypercritical sounds in [my] skull.”
This graphic description describes only a few symptoms of general anxiety disorder, a common experience for software engineers and developers. Other signs of anxiety include:
- Digestive problems
- Trouble breathing
The first thing to learn about depression is that it isn’t one condition. Rather, it’s a response to any number of genetic, physical, or mental conditions. It’s what becomes visible when your body and mind are exposed to certain challenges. Just think—in your work environment, you must be aware of and track project-related factors such as deadlines, client expectations, and much more. Add the constant changes that occur in your IT stack and your organization’s business and tech practices and the stress is enough to make anyone’s nerve endings plead for help.
ContainIQ CTO Matt Lenhard describes his early software engineering career as a dream come true. Long coding sessions and other time-consuming tasks were no problem. As time went by, however, he became emotionally drained and lacked his usual creative energy when he worked on projects. Most important, he felt less fulfilled in his daily work.
As it turns out, his story wasn’t unique. The International Journal of Social Sciences indicates that software engineers experience higher rates of anxiety and depression than those in other professions. For many software engineers, the sense of isolation grows as months of high-speed, high-pressure work fail to provide a sense of purpose and belonging. So what are the signs of this isolation?
Symptoms of depression vary from person to person, but they commonly include:
- Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
- Changes in appetite
- Loss of pleasure in activities that used to be enjoyable
- Anxiety (there’s a form of anxious depression)
- Thoughts of death or suicide
How Software Engineers Talk About Mental Health
If you’re thinking, “Are you serious? Watching out for emotional problems! What next? Don’t we have enough to complete and keep track of?” You are correct. Individual and team mental health is one more thing to deal with. However, the more team-oriented software engineering work becomes, the more the success of one member affects the success of everyone else.
Programming and managing code-based projects require focused thinking and concentration. The problem is that many software pros are unaware of the impact this intense activity has on their mind.
So it pays to consider your mental health and that of your team members. And yes, software engineers are talking about mental health, although mostly to each other. Conversation threads on Reddit are ablaze with questions and discussions around software engineers’ mental health, including:
- What’s the most difficult part of being a software engineer?
- How do you deal with the stress of new technologies?
- Software developers with clinical depression: How do you manage to stay employed?
- My mental health as a working software engineer
- 2 years into my career, miserable, and probably about to quit
Building Strong Mental Health Habits
Symptom descriptions can help you recognize problems. But how can you avoid these problems altogether? Here are some practical suggestions:
- Document Your Ongoing Achievements: And neutralize imposter syndrome, which is a form of anxiety.
- Spend Non-Work Time with Others: Engage in a hobby or sports or do community work to relieve burnout and depression caused by isolation.
- Exercise Regularly: Exercise is known to improve mood, boost energy, and avoid depression.
- Get Enough Sleep: Sleep is a key element in relieving anxiety.
- Take Breaks: Give yourself a reprieve from the intense concentration and patience that software engineering requires.
- Practice Meditation Techniques: Meditation may help you slow your mind and avoid burnout.
Immediate Mental Health Support & Hotlines
If stress is getting you down, contact a mental health professional right away!
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
- 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Dial 988
Know of a mental health resource for software engineers or tech professionals? Let us know so we can add it to this guide.