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Cover image for On calling out stress in other developers

On calling out stress in other developers

codingmindfully profile image Daragh Byrne Originally published at codingmindfully.com ・3 min read

My colleague had that look in his eyes. One I’ve seen in my own eyes many times before.

(Originally published on CodingMindfully.com)

It had been a long day with a tricky bug, in an important part of the front end.

This particular form needed what we thought was a simple change. As we investigated, we found that tech debt was catching up and it was super hard to trace the execution flow and state changes deep in a tree of React component.

The pressure was magnified because this form served many thousands of customers per day. There was no room for mistakes.

There’s no doubt it was important work. The look in his eyes as we neared 5pm was tense, worried and I could tell he was stressed.

The temptation in these situations is to work harder and faster.

But I told him to step away from the keyboard and go home. Or at least for a walk.

I’ve written about stress here and elsewhere. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, stress isn’t in itself a bad thing. A little stress is useful when rising to challenge. The stress response itself is designed to save your life, and was crucial to the evolution of humans.

I like to think of stress as healthy or unhealthy.

Stress is healthy when:

  • It provides motivation and energy to rise to a challenge
  • It dissipates after a short period
  • It saves your life, metaphorically or physically
  • You can frame it as useful and it doesn’t drain you.

Stress is unhealthy when

  • It’s chronic, lasting more than hours
  • It causes narrowing of thinking, or overthinking, making it hard to let go of problems or see the big picture
  • It impacts your well-being, including sleep and health.

I’m going to put it out there and say it – operating from a place of chronic or excessive stress is not good coding practice.

The chronically stressed mind is problem-focused. Thoughts of the stressful situation at hand dominate the mind. There’s little room for perspective. Problems appear bigger than they are, and creative solutions are less easily seen.

One of the answers to people in stressful situations to double down on work. This might work, or even be necessary in the short term. But it’s a sure fire recipe for burnout in the medium to long term. And often isn’t the best solution in the short term!

The responsible coder will make sure they are operating from a space where they are:

  • Most likely to solve the problem at hand
  • Less likely to make mistakes
  • Spread a bit of joy and ease throughout their team (ok this last one is a stretch but it’s a nice side effect of less stress)

This means taking care of stress in yourself, and also calling out stress in others.

Just like I did with my colleague. He took a break, decompressed his mind and came back with a fresh perspective on the problem.

People feel cared for when you look after them like this. I know from personal experience.

Earlier this year my own stress levels rose, due to a combination of difficult life events and an increase in work responsibilities.

One of my bosses noticed I was more stressed than usual. He suggested that I extend a planned long weekend into a whole week off.

It felt great! I was super happy that someone noticed that I had too much on my plate, and was happy to help me solve the problem. I came back ready for action, and worked so well with my team that our major client renewed a big contract with us for a year.

Emotional states are contagious. Your stress can and will spread to others, as will theirs. Much as I would tell a colleague who was exhibiting signs of a cold to take some time off, I will ask those who are unnecessarily stressed to take care of themselves.

Nobody wants to end up burnt out by their work. I’ve seen it happen. To myself, and to those close to me. No matter what you think, no job is worth it.

So here’s my invitation to you. Call out stress when you see it. Help others understand where they are at. And yourself. We can all be more effective developers this way.

(Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash)

(Of course my mindfulness meditation practice keeps me on top of stress, learn more about that here)

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Discussion

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I think as a manager (or in my case a lead) identifying when members of your team is stressed and offering some form of help is pretty important.

I've had my manger ask me about my stress as well. It also makes you feel that you're not invisible and your long term health to the team is valuable.

 

Absolutely. It makes me feel incredibly valued and cared for.

 

One thing that really helped me was removing Slack (what my company uses) from my phone. I was checking it too often outside of work hours (just out of boredom, really!) and it felt like I was thinking about work all the time as a result.

 

Yes indeed. I have it on my phone but without notifications and am typically disciplined about not checking it, but not always.

 

So true.
We had an 'emotional intelligence coach' at a company I worked at a while ago when I was a junior, and I remember at one point I asked her "I have so much work to do! I don't even know where to start! What should I do?"
She said I should take the day off, which to me was a shocking reply, but in retrospective it totally made sense.

 

Thanks for reminding me that I am dealing with stress levels that are NOT normal right now and need to take action.

Do you have any advice for people who find themselves in this state almost constantly? I have severe anxiety disorder and take medication for it, which is definitely a factor in my situation, but I feel like I am in the danger zone more often than not. It doesn't matter if I am working at a toxic cube farm or my dream workplace - I am freaking stressed. I love software dev, but I never feel on top of things. I suppose it's a self-esteem issue too, but I would love to hear any advice anyone has,,

 

Hey Scott, thanks for reaching out. I've been pretty high up the anxiety tree at times myself, with a diagnosis at certain points - depression too. I've had to learn as much about it as I can, and over a multi-year period that's lead to a deeper understanding of myself, my triggers, my unhelpful patterns of thinking and so on. I'm sure you might have engaged with come of these things already, but what worked for me was a good therapist (I had to try a few to hit on one) and learning mindfulness meditation practices that suited me (if that's something that appeals, my site at codingmindfully.com might help you).

I'm definitely in favour of medication when it's helpful, but my understanding of anxiety is that it's more about patterns of thinking that you've learned over the years (you can learn to be fearful due to difficult/frightening experiences, or perhaps it's a tendency you're born with - either way, there is the possibility of learning/reprogramming different ways of thinking that are less distressing).

I benefited a lot from reading a book called The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. There are other CBT books out there too.

There's an article on my site about The Inner Critic that might help get started on some of the self-esteem/self-view stuff.

Putting your self care first is one of the biggest shifts you can make. It'll pay off in the long run if you see it as a challenge you can make progress on rather than a defect that needs to be eliminated. Working on lowering your baseline anxiety levels, through active relaxation techniques, yoga/exercise, and mindset/CBT work is probably the best advice I can give. The human mind is pliable, and I know from my experience that the quality of your inner world can change.

I am not a medical professional and not qualified to make pronouncements on medical conditions, but I am a meditation teacher and have a reasonable understanding of my own situation.

Feel free to reach out via the site!