A common question I get from people is “how stressful is software development”? People hear scare stories all the time about insane work hours and crazy deadlines. So is a job as a software developer stressful?
Software development can be very stressful. You will have deadlines to live up to, and a lot relies on you as a developer. However, how stressful a job depends a lot on your work environment and your personality.
It seems a lot of people who want to pursue a career in software development are concerned about how stressful this job is. In this article, I’m going to get into detail what is stressful about software engineering, and also how you best can handle it.
It is a common myth that if you get into software development, you are doomed to be stressed out and burn out before reaching 40. This claim is a considerable overstatement which is circling in the popular culture.
I’m not going to lie. There is usually a big workload, and there are certain deadlines you need to reach.
Developers aren’t the only ones who have a tough job. There are jobs where you have to lift heavy, move around with your feet fast, travel around. But these jobs don’t have the same bad reputation about stress. Why is that?
What is stressful about software development?
Building software is not a job where you get tired physically. The heaviest item you need to carry is your coffee cup to your desk. This is 100% mental. So what about software development exactly is causing stress?
The job interview
The stress already starts before you have a job! The job interview for a developer is nerve wrecking and challenging, even for the best of us.
Not only do you need to be able to answer tough technical questions. You most likely also need to solve code challenges to convince your employees to hire you. The potential for failure is massive!
The stakeholders usually want the finished product now, preferably yesterday. Salespeople in your company usually promise that a release is right around the corner. All of this, of course, adds to your stress.
What makes matters worse is when the software gods always seem to sabotage near release dates by crashing servers, obscure bugs appear which you struggle finding a solution for.
When I am in these kinds of situations, my mind will start spinning up all sorts of scenarios, none of them good, which is adding more juice to my already stressful mood.
This is more common than you might think. Especially for junior developers, but also experienced developers can feel this. Even though you might be an excellent developer, there might be some doubts which are lurking in the back of your mind.
So what exactly is the imposter syndrome? It is when you are convinced that all the developers in your company are much better than you. You fear that someday, the people you work with will find out that you are a scam artist who tricked yourself into the job.
This is all in your head of course. It is reported that female developers often have this issue, but their male colleagues also suffer from this predicament.
People suffering from imposter syndrome tend to have unrealistic standards for themselves, but not to others. This is a trap where you never feel that you will be good enough.
The 24-hour developer
A consequence of the imposter syndrome is that you need to compensate with coding 24/7.
To add fuel to the fire, there are a lot of people on forums and social media which advocate you need to sleep, eat and drink code to be a “real developer.”
Some say you are not cut out for this line of work if you are not:
- Working 60 hour weeks at your company.
- Work on open source project right after work.
- Learning the newest frameworks and languages at night.
You should do all of this because coding is fun and that alone will motivate you.
Coding is fun, but this will burn you out fast.
The work environment has a massive impact on your stress.
- You can have an annoying boss.
- Your assignments are poorly specified.
- You have to work late hours to finish a project.
Reasons why software development is not stressful
Even though we’ve covered a lot of reasons for why software development is stressful, there are some areas which are not stressful.
You are not a CTO, responsible for million dollar projects which might fail. In the end, you are just an employer. Sure you might mess up, and people are displeased. But all you can do is do your best, and as long as you have skills and is a valuable asset to your company, you are safe.
A common practice in software companies is flexible hours. Since the computer is always available and you are more often not dependable on other people, you can choose when you would like to work.
This means you can choose what is best for your personality type. Do you like to work like? Or are you a morning person. Another benefit is that you have more freedom to do errands in “office hour.”
Why are we stressed?
Stress is the body’s natural response to danger, perceived or real. This response will trigger you to either run away from the threat or confront it. This is called the fight or flight response.
This will make your heart raise, and you will feel more alert. With evolution, this has become the natures way of preparing you for danger for you and your family.
Evolution has been happening for a long time, and the industrial revolution which led us to work in offices were very short. Now most of us don’t need to worry about life-threatening dangers. But we are still stressed.
It seems that this switch has happened so fast that evolution hasn’t had time to keep up. Now we are stressed about losing our jobs, making mistakes, look stupid rather than being eaten by a saber-tooth tiger.
Can stress be good?
Long-term stress is bad, but short-term stress can be good. Working towards a deadline which is coming up give you some good benefits like being more alert or present. You will ignore things like unimportant facebook updates since you don’t have time for them.
This isn’t true for everybody though. Some people will think about all the consequences of not deliver within the deadline. This is not helpful since you are wasting energy and focus against something unproductive.
There is also something called “good stress.” Psychologists refer to it as eustress. This is what you feel when you are riding a rollercoaster, watching a scary movie or participating in a competition.
The interesting thing is if you try to objectively observe the feelings in your body when feeling the good stress and the bad stress. You will notice that the physical response is identical. It is how you perceive the response that makes it good or bad.
This is key for handling stressful situations. More on that later in this post.
What kind of impact can stress have on your life?
Being stressful over a long time can have a bad effect on your life.
Unable to sleep
Stressful developers tend to obsess over problems they are trying to solve. Trying to sleep while the mind is working overdrive is doomed to fail.
With low quality sleep, you will be exhausted the next day. This will, in turn, make it difficult to focus on the problem at hand. Trying to reach the deadline in this state will be more challenging and keep adding to the stress, and it will be even harder to sleep next night. It will turn into a vicious circle.
Low immune system
Little sleep over time combined with stress will take a toll on your immune system. The body doesn’t get time to rest and will have a hard time fighting off diseases.
Not being present
Being stressed means that you are living in your head. You are in essence worrying about future events. Being happy and peaceful is obtained by living in the present moment, ask any Buddhist monk.
Stress can often cause headaches and other physical issues. Being tense for a long duration each day will undoubtedly affect your physical head and body in the long run.
Most people feel this way sometimes in their life. Feeling stressful and on edge, emotions will trigger without much push. You might snap at a friend for an innocent comment or go ballistic in traffic for small things.
Trying to relieve your stress you might do things like eat chocolate, watch TV or gamble. This might feel good at the moment, but the pleasure is only temporary and might cause other problems down the road.
Without addressing the cause of your stress, you won’t fix the issue.
Best ways to handle stressful situations
We have talked about how stressful a software developer is and what impact that has on a persons life. So should you give up the dream of being a developer or should you quit your programming job to keep your health and sanity?
I would say no. Luckily there are some things you can do to handle stressful situations.
Realize that you are doing it to yourself
Like I mentioned earlier, feeling stress at work has the same bodily function as riding a roller coaster. So what does that mean? Well, you are the one who is labeling the experience as good or bad.
You are spinning up possible future outcomes in your head which in turn is making you stressed. You don’t do this on purpose though. This is something you do on autopilot.
You can combat this by:
- Stop and observe your feelings. When you feel stressed just stop and feel the stressful feeling in your body. Don’t push it away, just let it be there. You will most likely notice your emotion is changing.
- Take some deep slow breaths. While observing your stressful feeling, just sit back and breathe. When we are stressed, we tend to breath fast and shallow which keeps you stuck in stress. Breathing slowly and deeply will break that cycle.
- Take a timeout. Many developers are never taking any breaks. They sit at their computers and even have lunch there. And the only breaks they do take is when they go and get coffee or goes to the toilet. Instead, go for a short walk outside. You will be surprised that your workday is more productive than if you sat at your desk the whole day.
Quit your job
Sometimes you work in a high-stressed environment where the workload is inhuman, and you have supervisors which are breathing down your neck.
You should try explaining the situations to your supervisors that this environment is unproductive and unhelpful.
If that doesn’t work, you should start applying for another job. Don’t be stuck in a job which makes you unhappy. Life is too short for that.
Change your lifestyle to handle stress
In the modern work life, there are always assignments which can cause stress, not only in the programming industry.
You should adopt a lifestyle which makes you more prepared in these kinds of situations.
I will list some suggestions on how you can be more prepared. These tips will not only make you deal with stress better but also make you happier.
Physical activity will boost your feel-good endorphins, and you will forget your worries. Regular exercise will also boost your immune system and make you sleep better.
If you find it dreadful to join a gym, start doing a new sport like tennis, golf or racketball. This can be so fun, that you will forget that you are exercising.
Meditation is no longer only practiced by Buddhist monks living in a monastery. It has become very popular among the westerners, and a lot of research has emerged backing up the benefits people experience about meditation.
It can be difficult for a beginner to know where to start. I will recommend starting listening to guided meditations because you will get clear instructions on what to do.
Don’t be so serious
Looking at the code on the screen all day can make us all very serious. Loosen up and crack some bad jokes to lighten the mood.
Being with friends will make you forget your worries. Humans are social animals, and we need to be in contact with other people to feel happy.
Have a hobby outside coding
Find some hobbies. Ideally something away from the computer.
If you don’t have any hobby, try something new. There is no harm in trying. You can always abandon it if you don’t like it.
Even though I have talked a lot about stress in the development industry, I will just say that is an excellent line of work. You will challenge yourself, solve challenges and feel a sense of mastery each time.
I just want to emphasize one thing I mentioned earlier in the post. If you are unhappy at the place your work right now, just quit! Forget about the imposter syndrome and that you are not good enough to be a developer.
Companies are desperate to hire developers like you and the trends seem just to be rising. You deserve something much better if your supervisors don’t appreciate you. So don’t worry, you will get a job in no time.
And remember, even if it may be stressful, there are ways to deal with it.