The top athletes in the world understand that their health impacts their performance, and are willing to spend lavishly on their wellbeing to reach peak results. Why don’t we?
Like many developers, exercise has long been the easiest way for me to find relief from work stress and anxiety, particularly after the height of my burnout. As I’ve strived to maintain a healthy work-life balance, working out in the mornings and running regularly have been key elements in my mental health toolbox.
As I’ve dug more into my role as G2i’s Program Director for Developer Health, it’s become clear that there are even more lessons that I could learn from athletics about avoiding burnout.
Look at elite athletes and you’ll see competitors with a deep-set belief that their health is critical to performing at a high level — and they invest accordingly, with elite stars like NBA superstar LeBron James and NFL quarterback Russell Wilson spending as much as $1.5 million a year on optimizing their physical health.
Yet most of us in the tech space aren’t typically encouraged to invest more in our mental health, despite the fact that we rely on our minds just as much as sports stars rely on their bodies.
Perhaps it’s because the ties between our physical health and our physical performance may seem more directly connected. However, there is no denying that mental health deeply impacts our work performance, and employers need to make it more of a priority.
Consider your computer. Tech companies are typically very willing to invest in the hardware and software that go into making it as efficient as possible — faster tooling, better infrastructure, battle-tested frameworks.
All of these things are great. But it’s all too easy to forget about the people actually writing the code, and many aren’t doing enough to invest in the health of their developers’ bodies and minds.
The tech industry’s current stance toward mental health is similar to the early days of the NFL, where player safety was not a priority. It was typical for team doctors to prescribe addictive and harmful painkillers that helped football players gut through their injuries for a game, but led to long-term damage over their lifetimes.
Conditions didn’t start to improve until more research into the impacts on players’ brains and mental health emerged. The NFL has started implementing new policies to try to protect them, although it still has a long way to go in enforcing them — just look at the recent experience of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who suffered multiple concussions but was encouraged to continue playing.
One possible solution for tech companies looking to invest more into the health of their employees could be neurofeedback, a non-invasive treatment that helps retrain your brain to function in healthier ways.
Neurofeedback sessions can be done from home, and typically involve wearing a cap that monitors your brain’s ability to focus while you perform a task, including activities as simple as watching Netflix.
Typically treatment occurs over a dozen or so sessions, with the goal of taking advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity: that is, its natural ability to change and adapt, to strengthen focus and attention.
Here at G2i, we are looking to expand access to such treatments for G2i employees, including providing the essential equipment needed for neurofeedback sessions and connecting team members with appropriate clinical partners.
In addition to neurofeedback sessions and other clinical exercises, tech workers can prioritize their mental health by engaging in regular exercise.
Running has been critical for many workers recovering from burnout, including Becky, a software engineer who previously spent years training for the Olympics. She has often drawn upon her athletic past to manage stress and improve her wellbeing.
“Wow, that person, in retrospect, seems fearless,’” she remembers thinking about her past self, before asking, “Why do you feel you’re nothing like that person anymore? You could just do something different. You don’t have to stay here if you hate it.”
Extreme work-related stress can impact one’s capacity to think, and thus, perform effectively, particularly with knowledge workers like software engineers.
As psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk in his book “The Body Keeps the Score,” trauma “results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about it, but also our very capacity to think.”
There are other ways tech leaders can take a page from the sporting world’s playbook. While many coaches believed in the past that working their players to the bone would improve their performance, that attitude is much rarer nowadays.
In today’s NFL, teams employ an average of thirty health professionals using numerous state-of-the-art technologies aimed at improving their recovery from injuries and increasing the longevity of their careers.
Elite athletes, from football players to Olympians, are no longer encouraged to exert themselves at all times without a thought to the broader scope of their health. Instead, sports science increasingly emphasizes pacing their workouts, allowing time for meaningful rest, and optimizing the quality of their sleep.
The goal doesn’t have to be purely altruistic for employers: In the end, athletes practice meaningful rest because it gives them an advantage over their competitors, and the same mindset can be applied to developers, too.
Our Developer Health research shows that instituting practices of async communication, flexible schedules, and focused, restful work, including adopting a four-day workweek, can help workers perform at the peak of their abilities.
Developers are constantly advised to invest in their technical skills, with many companies offering to pay for additional training. Yet tech workers aren’t encouraged to put the same care and attention into their wellbeing. As a result, they may not pay attention to their health until permanent damage has taken a toll on their bodies.
Tech companies can invest in restorative measures to help their workers recover from high-stress projects, in the same way that athletes invest in massage therapists, yoga instructors, and hyperbaric chambers (in fact, those solutions are just as applicable to software engineers as they are to any millionaire quarterback).
By investing in the health of their employees, tech companies are building a more secure and stable business model. Not only do they avoid the costs of having to recruit, train, and onboard new employees, but they also increase the performance capacity of their current team.
Meaningfully investing in your team’s health is a winning strategy — in sports and in tech.
G2i provides tools for creating healthy and ideal work experiences for both the developers on our platform and the clients they work with. To learn more about best practices for avoiding and addressing burnout, subscribe to our monthly newsletter, Developer Health Insights.