Todd Sedano

Software Engineering, Improv, Craft of Software Development

Psychological Distress

The costs of burdening the team with unhelpful stress.

Stress can be beneficial (“eustress”) or harmful (“distress”). For instance, a little pressure from knowing that the client has high expectations can motivate a team to deliver a better product. Contrastingly, worrying about a sick family member, being yelled at by an angry client, or thinking you might lose your job can reduce performance.

Psychological distress can be either harmful stress or just too much stress. How much stress is too much depends on the person, but everyone has a limit after which more stress lowers performance. Both distress or extreme stress are distracting and draining. Stress can make people feel anxious, overwhelmed and unmotivated. We therefore see psychological distress as intrinsically wasteful.

Different people find different experiences distressing. However, some common distress-inducing experiences we have observed include:

  • Low team morale

  • Rush mode

  • Interpersonal or team conflict

  • Inter-team conflict

For example, we observed stress resulting from snarky remarks about other teams or other developers on mailing lists, including “Wow! 22 commits with zero pull requests there.”

Another example was a countdown to a release date written on an office whiteboard. The team felt that over-emphasizing the deadline was increasing stress and leading to poor technical decisions. Eventually the countdown was erased from the whiteboard.

A wealth of research investigates the nature, causes and effects of stress. A full treatment of stress in software engineering would fill a large book. The present study, in contrast, supports only a few basic recommendations for detecting and reducing stress:

  • In our experience, detecting distress is not difficult—-simply asking team members, “How are things going?” is usually sufficient.

  • Stress related to deadlines can sometimes be mitigated by reducing scope or extending the deadline.

  • Stress related to interpersonal conflict can be mitigated by facilitated mediation.

For more details, read this ICSE paper or return to the list software development wastes