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Team leaders urged to address developer mental health

The pandemic led to many developers working from home, and many have experienced burnout

A review of several recent pieces of research has concluded that IT leaders must ensure the psychological safety of the teams they manage, in order to address developer burnout and software reliability.

One study, conducted jointly by Haystack Analytics and Survation, found that 57% of software engineers agreed “to a great extent” or “to a moderate extent” with the phrase “Software reliability at my workplace concerns me”. 

The report’s author, computer scientist Junade Ali, noted that 81% of developers reported increased burnout because of the pandemic. The top reason cited by developers for greater feelings of burnout during Covid was increased workload.

This builds on Google Cloud’s DevOps Research and Assessment 2021 Accelerate state of DevOps, which is referenced in the report and found that 89% of respondents worked from home due to the pandemic despite only 20% reporting having ever worked from home before the pandemic.

Google’s assessment of software developers, based on surveys conducted over a number of years, reported that elite performers deploy 973x more frequently than low performers, have a 6,570x faster lead time to deploy, a 3x lower change failure rate, and an impressive 6,570x faster time to recover from incidents when failure does happen.

Ali said the Google report also found that teams with a generative culture, featuring belonging and inclusion, were half as likely to experience burnout during the pandemic. According to Ali, performance-oriented cultures, where employees are encouraged to bring their whole self to work and where their unique experiences are valued, are more likely to see lower levels of burnout than workplaces with less positive organisational cultures.

Generative cultures are performance-oriented and encourage psychological safety, with shared risks, blameless postmortems and novelty encouraged.

Guidance on risk

  1. Apply professional and responsible judgement and take a leadership role.
  2. Adopt a systematic and holistic approach to risk identification, assessment and management.
  3. Comply with legislation and codes, but be prepared to seek further improvements.
  4. Ensure good communication with the others involved.
  5. Ensure that lasting systems for oversight and scrutiny are in place.
  6. Contribute to public awareness of risk.

Source: Guidance on risk, Engineering Council

In the report, Ali urged software team managers and leaders to develop good professional engineering judgement. He said that this is vital for mitigating serious risks before they become measurable consequences. On the other hand, minor bugs can be tolerated within thresholds.

“When this is the case, it’s often most important for customers that minor bugs are resolved promptly once reported,” he said in the report. Metrics such as full resolution time for bugs can then be used to measure the effectiveness of bug fixing.

“The results are clear – psychological safety is paramount to preventing burnout, delivering better business outcomes and improving software reliability,” said Ali. “The ability to balance the competing forces of risk and reward are an essential skill in engineering. Empowering engineers to use their professional judgement with psychological safety is vital to addressing the issues we currently face in software reliability.

“For businesses to grow, engineers must be able to take calculated risks, using their professional judgement. No risk, no reward.”

He suggested team managers should consider the Engineering Council UK’s Guidance on risk (see box above), which embeds psychological safety in the guidance. 

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