How the coronavirus pandemic is affecting developers' mental health

These are trying times for workers across all industries. Here are some insights from an industry expert about how technologists are holding up and what can be done to help.

COVID-19-driven work-from-home burnout is real

It's been more than two months since the majority of workers have been instructed to stay home due to concerns about the coronavirus and the spread of infection. Since then many who are still working have settled into a productive routine, yet unique concerns regarding what a return to normalcy will look like and when it will occur abound.

According to smallbiztrends.com, as of last month two-thirds of workers are fortunate enough to be able to work from home and are doing so on at least a partial basis. About 44% are doing so on a full-time basis. 

SEE: Life after lockdown: Your office job will never be the same--here's what to expect (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic) 

As a system administrator I am able to do 90% of my job from home, and while that reduces stress levels involving income (it's especially been beneficial saving money not buying gas or going to restaurants), I've found that for many technology professionals--including me--this opportunity has included an increased workload and higher demands for visibility and results from management.

Working from home has always included controversy. While two-thirds of employees prefer to do so--more than a third would choose this perk over a pay raise and another 37% would take a 10% pay cut to stay home--management has traditionally been less than thrilled with the idea. It's often been viewed by executives as a way for workers to underperform in their roles or fly under the radar. As a result, given that many organizations now have no choice but to promote work-from-home capabilities, these are being doled out with increased expectations and heftier accountability requirements.

The economic downturn and threat of looming layoffs don't help the situation. I can say I've put in more hours than ever before proving my value in my role to ensure that the systems and services for which I am responsible stay up and running.

When your home office is always right there it can be hard to step away from your desk to take a break if you're concerned about being visible and available if needed. And as a result, I'm feeling more pressure to perform and to succeed and have a real fear of finding a new job amid the current unemployment rate of 14.7%--and I know I'm not alone. 

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

I spoke with James Burns, developer advocate, Lightstep, a developer platform provider, to find out more about the subject.

Scott Matteson: What's happening with developers and infrastructure staff keeping critical systems and services running?

James Burns: Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.

In some ways it's the same as usual, things break and they get fixed as soon as possible. For different industries there might be more or less users, more or less visibility for failures, but the job is still the same. On the other hand, it's very different. There's a sense of camaraderie that comes with working with people together and, outside work, having a break from the pressure by going out and doing things. With many staff under shelter-in-place orders, it's hard to get away from one's workspace at home and just have fun, especially when there's always something to be worried about.

Scott Matteson: I can relate. At first I was thrilled that I didn't have to leave my basement office to do my job. Now I feel in some measure that basement office is becoming more of a cell. What are developer workloads like?

James Burns: In this new normal, workloads vary widely by industry.

Online services are under much more intense pressure, and others--for instance in the hospitality industry--have much less user load, but at the same time increased uncertainty about their own positions or those of friends and coworkers.

Without commutes it can seem like there are more hours in the day, but at the same time there aren't clear breaks between home and work time, nor the regular breaks for mentally recharging like going out for coffee or even just visiting the snack area and talking to coworkers. It's also important to recognize that many people have also taken on significant additional work with childcare and schooling that take both time and energy away from what would otherwise be normal amounts of work. 

SEE: COVID-19: A guide and checklist for restarting your business (TechRepublic Premium)


Scott Matteson: Not having a commute was a huge perk for me ,and I don't miss that, but I have found I'm investing the hours working instead which leads to a longer and more stressful day. How are developers accomplishing the demands laid upon them?

James Burns: Most basically, developers continue to be successful by effectively prioritizing what needs to get done now vs. what can wait. For many employers, the reality of reduced productivity through stress, childcare, and schooling, or just increased collaboration friction, has been accepted and schedules are being pushed out. Still, the lack of even a clear timeline of going back to normal makes planning from the company level all the way down to the individual very difficult.

Scott Matteson: What is being left unattended to or placed at risk by not receiving sufficient attention?

James Burns: Generally, attention to detail sorts of issues are likely the highest risk right now. It is a similar problem to extended high-demand, on-call-based burnout. When operating under pressure over a long time without breaks, people find it harder and harder to make high quality decisions that take account of all of the available information. Making that situation worse is that mistakes can take longer to be found as other fresh eyes are basically impossible to find since everyone is under the same pressure.

Scott Matteson: What should companies do to assist?

James Burns: As odd as it seems in this world, companies should be encouraging their staff to take vacations (or "staycations"). Working continuously under high pressure will lead to widespread burnout. Finding ways to keep people looking at projects and problems with fresh eyes will be the main competitive advantage in the coming months. 

SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Scott Matteson: What should ISPs and providers do to assist?

James Burns: ISPs and providers have similar problems within their own staff. If possible, providing "second set of eyes" support for things that would normally be pushed back on will earn loyalty and build relationships. Continuing to support higher than usual network utilization without additional charges will be necessary for quite some time as well.

Scott Matteson: What should state and federal governments do to assist?

James Burns: Three words: Scale out testing.

Scott Matteson: How do you see this ending up?

James Burns: Many businesses and developers will realize that they can be effective working remotely. Remote work will become a more well-understood choice from other employer and staff perspectives. If shelter-in-place continues for more than another month, companies that do not specifically schedule time off, especially as part of their on-call rotation, will see developer productivity plummet as burnout spreads. 

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Office worker is sitting at the table with a low battery charge indicator. Burnout, fatigue and stress on workplace. Flat style. Vector illustration.

Image: Intpro, Getty Images/iStockphoto