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Improving my mental health as a software engineer

Improving my mental health as a software engineer

Apr 14, 2022
5 min read

For as long as I can remember I’ve known that I wanted to be a software engineer. I’m a problem-solver at heart, and software engineering has been a way to merge my creative and analytical interests.

So, when I finally found myself working in the field as an engineer and also as the Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of a venture-backed startup, it was a dream come true. And at first, I loved it. The long days building behind a computer didn’t seem to bother me at all.

But as months went by, I became increasingly drained. I found that I didn’t have the same creative energy when working on projects, and I felt less fulfilled in my daily work. And the feeling of burnout was real.

Well, as it turns out my story wasn’t too unique. According to the International Journal of Social Sciences, rates of anxiety and depression are higher among software engineers than in other professions.

And should that really be so surprising? Screen time and isolation are two of the biggest risk factors for depression. Naturally, a profession that demands full days working alone behind a computer would lend itself to higher rates of burnout and poor mental health.

Today, I’ve learned that with the right strategy, balancing mental health and a career as a software engineer is totally possible. Here’s how I’ve managed to improve my mental health as a software engineer.

1) Make time to ditch the screens

Unfortunately, reducing screen time in this field isn’t always easy. Sometimes, 8+ hours at the computer is necessary to get the job done. However, where you can really get into trouble is when you start to spend all of your non-work hours also staring at a screen.

It can be all too easy to fall into the habit of sitting behind a computer at work all day, before going straight to Netflix to decompress. Before you know it, you’ve spent 16 straight hours staring at a screen!

So, I try to build at least one hour directly after work away from screens. In the summertime, this means getting out for a walk or spending time with friends. In the winter months, I’ll typically use that time to go to the gym or read a book.

I also find it important to break up my screen time throughout the day. Studies have shown that staring at a computer for prolonged periods can be harmful to the health of your eyes.

The 20-20-20 rule, however, has been proven to be effective in combating these ill effects. That means every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away, for at least 20 seconds.

Also, breaking the habit of staring at my phone at lunch, and going on 15-20 minute walks on less busy days, have helped me keep my screen time in check.

2) Find a community

There’s a reason the introverted software engineer stereotype exists. Interacting with people isn’t always a part of the job, and it’s possible to go days without having to talk to anyone at work.

A big step I took in being happier at work was being more proactive in engaging with my workplace community.

A few ways I did that were:

  • Having regularly scheduled lunches with co-workers where we ditched our phones and talked about things that weren’t work
  • Engaging with collaborative open-source projects, like Kubernetes, for example (Here’s a great list of open-source CNCF projects)

I used to think of work as a place just to show up and get stuff done. I tried to be “productive” every moment and connecting with my co-workers wasn’t a top priority.

But once I started being intentional about my level of engagement at work, the office started to feel like a place I could go and see friends every day. And funny enough, I found that in this environment I was able to be even more productive than before.

3) Plan for the long-term and the short term

Here’s a quote that totally changed how I view productivity: “Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a year.”

Before I got into the habit of having specific short and long-term goals, I felt constantly overwhelmed. I’d open my computer, and have so much to do I didn’t know where to start; I’d feel like I was always working, but never getting anything done.

Once I got clear and specific about my short and long-term plans, my productivity went through the roof.

I like to take the first morning of every month and spend a few hours planning out everything I want to get done. Obviously, I can’t account for everything—sometimes things come up last minute. But taking the time to actually write down everything I want to get done over the next 30 days helps me stay on track with my goals.

I also take the last 15 minutes of my day to plan out what I need to do the next day. That way, when I start working the next day, I know exactly what needs to be done.

Time management helped me stop thinking about work outside of the office. Instead of feeling weighed down by all of my projects, I felt confident knowing I had a plan to take care of it.

Pro tip: When making a daily plan, start the day off with the task you want to do least. That way that dreaded task is off your plate, and you don’t spend the day stressing about getting it done later.

4) Seek out workplace flexibility

Currently, our office operates in a hybrid model, with some employees working from home and others in the office. For me and the team of engineers I manage, this balance works great. And we are able to dedicate more time to team building.

Of course, our situation is not unique. The American workforce is becoming increasingly flexible, and signs point toward hybrid models becoming the standard in the years to come.

And while remote and hybrid work models work great for many people, it’s important to beware of one of the biggest pitfalls of working at home—feeling like you never leave work.

70% of employees report that they feel they don’t ever fully disconnect from work and remote employees are at an even higher risk of feeling that way. At the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself in that same trap. However, a few steps I’ve taken to separate my work and office life in a remote setting are:

  • Work in a separate part of your home
  • Have designated non-working hours with notifications turned off
  • Break up the day just like you would in the office (take an hour for lunch, go on walks, chat with coworkers, etc.)

Everyone’s ideal setup is different; some people crave remote work, while others prefer to be in the office every day. But whether it be in-person, remote, or hybrid, a big part of improving your mental health as a software engineer is by asking for the flexibility to work in your preferred style.

Final thoughts

Days working alone and staring at a screen come with the territory of being a software engineer. But that doesn’t mean that we just have to accept the effects that can have on our mental health.

While it’s easy to fall into the habits that cause burnout, we can break these patterns with the right strategy. Having a flexible work schedule, prioritizing screen breaks, clear planning, and community building has helped me be as happy as ever working in the field I love.

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Matt Lenhard
Matt Lenhard is the Co-founder & CTO of ContainIQ. Matt is an experienced technology founder having founded multiple tech startups, twice with Nate.

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