September 14, 2020

Managing Mental Health Within Your Software Engineering Team

By Wes Winham

Editor’s Note: This blog is a takeaway from our podcast, Scaling Software Teams. In our interview with Micah Weaver, we discussed how to manage your own mental health, as well as the mental health of your software development team. For a full write-up on this episode, check out this blog. You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Micah never thought he would be the type of person to suffer a panic attack. He had always considered himself a low-stress individual, great at rolling with the punches.

Then, one day, driving home from work, it happened – a full-blown attack resulting from bouts of anxiety and depression he had been suffering at his high-pressure software engineer management job.

But as isolated as he felt, he soon realized he was nowhere near alone.

According to the Stack Overflow 2018 Developer Survey, nearly one in five developers say that they struggle with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, or both. And while there are plenty of reasons for this statistic,  it’s an issue that Micah took upon himself to explore – both for his own mental health, and that of his team.

“A good manager is going to manage the stress on the team in a way that’s healthy for all of their employees,” Micah said.

So, if you’re managing a software engineering team today, what changes can you make to be conscious of your team’s mental health?

Here are some key takeaways from our conversation with Micah Weaver:

(Listen to our full interview here)

Be Open About Your Own Mental Health

The first and most consequential change that Micah made to his management style was also the scariest—he told the truth. After he had his first panic attack, he knew it was something he needed to talk about.

“Anxiety and depression can happen to a lot of different people and it’s something that we try to push down,” he said, “but it’s something that we need to talk about more.”

After he discussed his challenges with his team, it became easier for him to prioritize his own mental health, and suddenly, his habits began to change for the better.

He started taking note of the items that moved the needle for his own happiness, such as eating better food, getting more exercise, and making time to relax every evening. He even stopped waking up early to get into the office, and instead gave his body what it asked for.

“I sleep until I’m done sleeping,” he said. “The work will still be here tomorrow.”

This had an outsized impact on his department. Soon, his stress levels decreased and his colleagues felt more comfortable talking to him about their feelings. Morale improved, and his team became more communicative – both with him, and with each other.

Most importantly to Micah, the team started to reflect the values that are the most important to him in building software.

“Put in a good day’s work and know that’s going to be good enough,” he said. “All of my employees know that the work they’re doing is good work, it’s enough, and it will still be here tomorrow.”

Take Positive Feedback Seriously and Negative Feedback Lightly

As engineers, we’re wired to focus on what’s not working. We’re paid to fix things that are broken.

Consequently, it’s hard to focus on what’s going right.

Micah wanted to reverse that trend so he could emphasize the areas where his team was doing their best work.

He started to go out of his way to call out things that were going right, and focused more on praising his teammates. He knew that most of their day would be spent on things that aren’t perfect, but he wanted them to walk away from the day with the feeling that their work was still great.

“We’re not going to have a culture of blame here,” he told us. “We’re going to have a culture where, when we release a bug, we figure out how to get it fixed, who it affects, how we can make it right for them, and then we’re going to move on with life. It happens to everybody.”

Managing Mental Health For Engineering Teams Is About Managing Expectations

The idea of psychological safety is essential for engineering teams looking to improve their mental health, and psychological safety is built with a simple formula:

  • Set clear expectations
  • Communicate directly
  • Treat your team with compassion

If you do those three things, your team will become more comfortable talking to you about mental health issues they may be feeling, allowing you to better support their needs. Once you’ve built that culture, it becomes your job to continually reinforce the fact that they belong on the team and you’re grateful for them.

As Micah told us, “Nobody wants to work in an environment where they feel like they’re the low person on the team. If you’ve made it this far and gotten hired by us, we know you can do the work and know you can do it well.”

Here are a few other key lessons from Micah:

  • Lead by example: If you don’t manage your own mental health effectively, you can’t manage your team’s. Just like when you’re flying, put on your own oxygen mask before trying to assist others.
  • Find time every night to “shut off”: Micah makes shutting off his work brain a part of his nightly routine. This allows him to truly unplug and focus on his personal life and family without distraction.
  • Sleep until you’re done sleeping: Some of you may have been more excited about this advice than others, but the bottom line is that everyone is different. If you’re not a morning person, you shouldn’t force yourself into those hours. Focus on doing your best work and being your best self.

Are you planning on growing your software team this year?

If so, Woven could be a great solution to help you hire better developers. Request a demo of our software to learn more, and subscribe to the Scaling Software Teams podcast to receive discussions with high-growth software leaders every Monday.