This article was published on October 20, 2012

Developer depression: Isolation is the biggest problem

Developer depression: Isolation is the biggest problem
Lauren Maffeo
Story by

Lauren Maffeo

Lauren Maffeo oversees content strategy at Aha! -- the world's #1 product roadmap software. Her work utilizes digital channels to engage the Lauren Maffeo oversees content strategy at Aha! -- the world's #1 product roadmap software. Her work utilizes digital channels to engage their audience of product managers. She has been a contributing writer to titles including TNW, The Guardian, Mic, and more. She also served as Media Advisor to Zapnito, a London-based SaaS startup, in 2014. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenMaffeo.

Last week, a student asked a bold question: “Is Your Facebook a Lie?”

The article, written by London College of Fashion Student Libby Page and published on The Guardian’s Blogging Students platform, addressed the isolation she felt as a new student in London, which was magnified by the seemingly awesome time that her friends elsewhere were sharing on Facebook. “When you are feeling lonely,” Page asserted, “the one thing that can make you feel even more alone is something designed to do the opposite: a social network.”

Fashion may be a world away from the developer sphere, but the same concerns about digital engagement and isolation may apply tenfold. In a profession where one is married to their laptop, socializing can come a distant second, third, or more to designing, installing, and a host of other roles the average layperson can’t comprehend. As I prepared to write this article, Zee at The Next Web commented, “It amazes me how often ‘how to be happy’ pieces do well on Hacker News. I think delving into the notion that the more time we spend behind our computers, the less fulfilled we might feel in life overall [is a question worth asking].”

We’re not the first to do so. Three years ago, blogger and software developer J. Timothy King addressed exactly this issue.

His rationale read like this:

1. Stress causes depression.

2. Perfectionists are more prone to depression.

3. Isolation reinforces depression.

 As a software developer, those frequently go along with the job description.”

Therein lie several questions: Do aspects of developer work foster loneliness? Is the isolation that’s reinforced by computers unique to developers, or are we all guilty of replacing personal intimacy with inanimate screens? Perhaps most importantly, is the solo nature of developer work causing depression? If so, how can it be fixed?

Happiness is…

With happiness by money increasingly rare, this seemingly elusive state is the topic du jour of academic study.

“Worldwide, there is a search for new models of progress,” the 2012 World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Health & Well-being Report declared. “Economic growth has its value, but increasingly people feel that more is needed; what is wanted is well-being.”

That same report found that the most important indication of workplace well-being is an employee’s relationship with their line manager, while dependency on a good community at large is also “crucial.” The report found that in “good” communities where happiness spread through contagion, a degree of equality was promoted regardless of wealth distribution throughout.

At work, well-being was found to be greatest when, amongst other factors, job objectives were clearly defined as contributing to a wider goal, the employee had autonomy in how their work was performed, and line managers possessed a flair for personal connection and technical management.

…One as the loneliest number?

So if well-being depends on good community, contagious happiness, and professional relationships that contain personal touches, it begs a question: is that well-being achieved in a work environment that promotes problems over people?

A professor in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Paul Dolan’s research centers on how environmental factors influence behavior, particularly measurements of happiness and subjective well-being. While researching this topic for his upcoming book, A Head For Happiness, Dolan’s assistant, Elizabeth Plank, discovered stats that show it may be unfair to attribute social dissatisfaction to developers alone.

Plank’s research found that in 1985, 10% of Americans reported having no one to discuss important matters with; in 2004, that number had jumped to 25%. In Paris, London, and Stockholm, where the number of people living alone is near 60%, “singletons” are more likely to socialize publicly, spending larger amounts of money on dining out and social clubs. Likewise, singletons with Internet access report lower levels of loneliness than those who live without it.

How does this relate to developers? Plank says the problem lies not in the Internet itself, but in its lack of use to facilitate face-to-face interaction.

“If developers tend to have introverted personality traits, then there is reason to believe that they are more vulnerable to loneliness than those in other professions,” Plank explains. “However, [research has found] that for two categories of people (lonely people and those who experience social anxiety), it is possible to express their true self more easily on the Internet and therefore satisfy their need for deeper relationships via online forums than they could do in real life.

“It can allow them to build social capital that they otherwise would not have been able to possess. But it can also keep them in a state of isolation.”

…Puzzles over people?

Let’s be honest: developers don’t have the best social rep. Pocket protector jokes abound, and the “Be nice to nerds; chances are you’ll end up working for one” slogan doesn’t go so far at the frat house. But are stereotypes enough to cause mental health detriment?

“I don’t think it’s sensationalist [to say that developers are depressed],” Tiago Braun, developer at digital consultancy 5 Star Lives, argues.” We all know the geek stereotype and that it’s difficult to socialize, but that’s only one problem. Our work is done individually, so we might end up spending hours without communicating with other co-workers. It’s something that really annoys me, personally.”

“One of the reasons developers are seen as unsociable people is because they spend a lot of their own time learning new technologies, working on their own projects,” Samuel Molinari, a contracted developer in London, explains. “Being introverted can help a lot. [But] working on projects directed by individuals who don’t have a good ‘internet culture’ can be very frustrating for web developers. The choices they make sometimes make me cringe!”

For developer entrepreneurs, these problems can be multiplied. Phil Peters, managing director at 5 Star Lives, says that although the idea that developers are depressed is sensationalist, “there are a number of reasons the issue might be brought to light:

  1. Poor client understanding of a developer challenges, leading to unrealistic expectations;
  2. Increased demand on teams and individuals to be able to compete competitively with outsourced teams in lower socio economic conditions;
  3. Increased reliance on third party content (development frameworks, libraries, modules etc) to be able maintain acceptable pace of innovation, which is an endless challenge.”

…Searching for what’s wrong?

And if positive reinforcements contribute to workplace well-being, developers have another hurdle to climb:

“In order to be a good programmer I need to adopt a certain mindset. That mindset is slowly making me unhappy. I notice it in other programmers – not all of them – but many.

What mindset?

Focusing on the negatives, rather than the positives.

Why do you need to do that to be a good coder?

My workflow is something like this.

1. write some code
2. run the code
3. get an error message
4. find the error and back to step 1

Hour by hour, day after day, I do this. Always searching for what’s wrong with what I’m creating, rarely thinking about what’s good about it. It’s a negative reinforcement feedback loop.”

Molinari agrees, citing time estimation alongside boss/employee communication as a major frustration.

“Any developer can produce whatever app in less than a week, but the client will end up with a piece of garbage, and that’s what often happen in this industry. Companies underestimate the time it would take to make an application just to please the client, putting a lot of pressure on the developers, pushing them to work overtime, from home and over the weekend, and because they are in such a rush, they don’t produce a quality product, leading to many bugs, making the client unhappy, giving developers more work.”

“You see what I’m getting at — you end up in a vicious circle.”

…Cognitive perception?

Many developers cite the problem solving aspect of their work as the driving force that propels them forward. But in a profession that presents endless-well, problems — is that enough to overtake someone’s mental health and drive them to depression?

Dr. Aaron Balick of the UK Council for Psychotherapy says it’s double-edged sword. Although developers may find satisfaction in solitary work, “it is highly likely that an aspect of their personality (called the inferior function) still requires contact with people. If stimulation to the inferior function continues unabated, this can induce feelings of depression or anxiety.”

“Individuals who are depressed tend to have negative perceptions about their lives, further they filter out positive information about what is going on for them. This can turn into a vicious cycle where the depression feeds the negative perception, which can be a tough pit to climb out of.”

But, “If the idea states that developers are more depressed than other people, then yes, it’s sensationalist,” contracted Senior Web Developer Les Cochrane argues. “Depression can affect anyone at any time, and as far as I’ve seen in 10+ years of development, developers are just regular people.”

“[Simultaneously], developer work is best suited to someone who can think logically, break down complex ideas into smaller solvable problems, and focus with a great deal of intensity at times. I guess this fits some personality types more than others.”

…Happy hour

But despite the workplace challenges, are developers the only ones trapped in the pit? Dolan and Plank’s research indicates that as more of us interact with computers, forgetting the people behind them occurs all too often. And a 2005 study published in the journal  The Netherlands Twin Register Study found that loneliness is rarely connected to external environment. Its roots are genetic, with being alone and being lonely clearly distinguishable concepts.

“Thus, if developers are alone, they aren’t necessarily lonely,” Plank explains.  “It’s up to them to go out and design their environment so that they can spend as much time with others as possible.”

Thomas Mortimer, systems analyst developer at Next PLC, agrees. “Since I’m more extroverted, no, I don’t believe [all developers are introverts/depressed],” Mortimer says. “I prefer to go and meet the designers, the people who write the specifications and ween out exactly what they want. I always try and present myself as friendly, approachable, and don’t use too much jargon. After all, why bother? Better to let people know the details so they can understand them.”

So although there are multiple factors that might cause developers to become prone to depression–perfectionism, constant problems, and social isolation amongst them–the idea that “developers are depressed” may be another attempt to scapegoat a group of professionals for behavior that we’re all guilty of to an extent (hello, writers?). My boss at a cross-media platform last summer forced all of us to take an external lunch since we quickly got in the habit of eating at our desks taking prolonged Facebook breaks. And with texting the preferred means of communication for most, calling developers anti-social when most of us rarely pick up the phone is just a tad unfair.

Social lives are what we make of them, whether we’re fashion students, developers, or something in between. A more isolated work environment doesn’t prevent post-meeting cocktails or weekend retreats, even if lunch breaks to meet friends and catch up with colleagues are impossible (and be honest: are they really?). Dr. Balick says that spending as little as 20 minutes per day in nature can be enough to can improve daily mood, while his colleague Sadegh Nashat suggests joining peer professional groups where members can socialize freely with those in their field without needing to explain every other word.

And since creativity is frequently cited as another motivation for working in the developer sphere, implementing creative social strategies is always an option. Steve Jobs’ idea to have only one bathroom in the whole Pixar building may have raised a few eyebrows, yet when it comes to creating quality content, the animation giant is full of independent employees who boast high levels of satisfaction.

“Even introverts are happier when they are around people they like,” Dolan writes in an excerpt from A Head for Happiness. “I am willing to take a punt and say that being with other people is good for you, and causally so. Friends are like fine wine; they get better with age. So it must be worth us spending a bit more of our precious time nurturing our friendships.”

Lesson learned. For all of us.

Image Credit: Kristina Alexanderson

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