In this article, part of my series explaining better ROI from software development, I’d like to look at the impacts of mental health.
Software Development is predominately problem solving. Problem solving is a mental activity. Anything that is impacting that mental health is therefore going to have an impact on productivity.
While it should be blindly obvious within the first few paragraphs; I am not a mental health expert.
I’ve never been diagnosed with any mental health issue.
Should I cause offence to you good reader, please accept my apologies. Get in touch and I will amend as appropriate.
My aim here is to highlight an issue which I believe is commonly overlooked (or even actively ignored). And in keeping with my ROI series I want to look at this from a stakeholder ROI perspective.
I’ve probably started this article 3 or 4 times.
I’ve tried to bundle it with physical health … and maybe even spiritual health.
I’ve tried to hook this into an article on software development productivity.
I even started to think about it during performance management.
In the end however, I feel it is a topic that deserves singular focus.
As I say above; I have never been diagnosed with any mental health issue. I have however been in various positions in my career where the stress has been so great that I have felt myself struggle with anxiety and even felt close to panic attacks.
While I freely admit that I work best under a level of stress – I think we all know that at some point that becomes counterproductive.
This obviously isn’t an issue isolated to software development. Every person will be touched by some mental health problem over their life.
“1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.” Mind
Everything here is equally attributable to anyone, in any role.
Software Development is however the focus my series. Software Development is, by it’s nature, a very cerebral activity and can be a very demanding.
As a problem solver, you gain pleasure from solving a problem.
The act of solving that problem however can cause frustration. It is a very common to hear a developer asking “why is this not working?” – generally followed by a keyboard or mouse being hit repeatedly.
If on top of that, you consider over the years, we have built on layers of additional pressure with project managers, deadlines, etc – all helping to add a level of anxiety to an already frustrated individual.
And of course, each of us have our private lives; money worries, relationship difficulties or even a bad commute can all add to the strain on an individual.
With the modern “always-on” world, it is easy to see that we are building a pressure cooker ready to go off.
If we put compassion for another individual to one side for a moment …
Let’s take a developer starting to suffer from anxiety. The developer feels very anxious already about his position, which in turns is affecting his money & home life.
The business is expecting him to deliver critical software- on which his job depends. And they want him to get it done ASAP (which is being read by the developer as they are already annoyed with him that it isn’t already done).
This is a fairly common place to be.
Traditional management techniques of deadline and project manager “chasing” almost actively encourage it.
The desired result is motivation of the developer. And I’d argue, at the right level, this can be appropriate. As I say above, I personally work better with a level of stress.
Go past that level however and you have made it harder for the developer to do their work.
If part (or all) of their cerebral capacity is taken up in anxiety over potential outcomes, how well do you think they will do their job?
They simply will not be performing as well. Their problems solving skills will be degraded. They will be much more prone to mistakes.
All of these cost you money in the long term and a terrible impact on ROI.
And this is where it really matters … it’s the individual we need to concern ourselves with – not the ROI specifically (odd thing for me to say given the series title).
I remember someone once telling me that if you want to keep tropical fish, then concentrate on the water quality. If the water quality is correct, the fish will look after themselves.
(Note that I’m not a fish keeping expert either)
The same is true of the ROI here. If the individual is looked after then the ROI will take care of itself.
That’s probably a rather glib general-ism – more correct would be to ignore the individual will have a negative ROI impact.
The key is providing a safe environment. One which individuals feel comfortable in raising concerns. One which isn’t exaggerating or exasperating any existing problems.
Mental Health has a huge level of stigma attached to it. While it is getting better, it is fair to say it is slow progress.
How open is your environment to mental health problems being openly discussed? How would you feel telling everyone that you had problems?
Very few environments are open in this regard. It is perceived as a weakness or a fault – which is largely still a society problem.
Consider how you’re business would react, accept and support staff with Mental Health problems.
Consider having Mental Health training or awareness within your organisation. Consider a Mental Health First Aider within your organisation:
“Mental Health First Aid is an educational course which teaches people how to identify, understand and help a person who may be developing a mental health issue. In the same way as we learn physical first aid, Mental Health First Aid teaches you how to recognise those crucial warning signs of mental ill health.” http://www.mhfaengland.org/
One-to-Ones between a line manager and an individual are still a great way to understand what strains an individual is under. Be they work related or pressures from outside of work.
Every person is a complex and unique individual; something trivial to one person maybe critical to another. And you simply can’t tell without have a good relationship and an appropriate forum to discuss.
I’ve said this is a number of my articles to do with agile – it has to be safe to fail.
Good companies have realised that failing isn’t bad. It is the path to success.
“Fail Fast. Learn Fast. Improve Fast” – Spotify
Having that safe environment removes an additional level of pressure. Allow more focus on what is important – the work.
A fair amount of resources can be found at the Open Sourcing Mental Illness site. They have a number of resources – including a forum for discussing problems.
If nothing else, it may be worth reading the forums to better understand what could be affecting your team.