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Open Sourcing Mental Health

Tom Robertshaw

The DevExchange at Magento Imagine 2018 was an opportunity for developers to break out into groups to share their experiences and perspectives and to learn from others about topics important to them. 


One topic discussed was mental illness, inspired by the attendance of Joe Ferguson from Open Sourcing Mental Illness. Mental illness affects many people in our society: 1 in 5 American adults will have a diagnosable mental health condition each year ( and we know that this results in huge losses in productivity. That isn’t what’s important though. What makes this issue so important for us to tackle is that people deserve to be healthy and happy.


We covered a number of topics during the session, and I wanted to share some of my notes in the hope it provides food for thought for others who live with a condition or know someone that does. 


Maintaining a good work-life balance


Maintaining a work-life balance can be difficult because there isn’t always a clear definition between work and non-work, especially as a developer that codes for work and for fun. If it’s helpful, think about what you’re spending your time on in terms of what’s draining and what’s energizing, or what do you get joy from and what are you doing because you feel like you should. Not that the same task can’t be both depending on your state of mind.


When you feel yourself struggling, make sure that you’re taking downtime, whether that be spending time with your friends and family or by yourself. 


One topic brought up is the culture of working long hours, particularly during high-stress periods approaching deadlines. While sometimes this is unavoidable, it shouldn’t be standard practice as tiredness will affect your wellbeing (and productivity). It’s advised to be particularly careful of regular long days. The sustained stress can take a toll and often it will manifest into physical symptoms such as chest pain. 


For those developers that enjoy coding out of hours, it can be hard to draw the line between a hobby and more work! This is where thinking about how you feel about the task as you’re approaching it can help you understand if you’re tired. If you regularly feel that the dominant factor is a responsibility (e.g., to complete a pull request on an open source project), then it might be wise to take a step back. 


This is one reason why it’s great that some companies provide time to work on relevant open-source projects, such as Magento, as this encourages healthy, sustainable contribution. What’s more, in addition to improving the product for everyone, the contribution points can make commercial sense for partners too!


Healthy Lifestyle


It can be easy to hear the recommendations such as eating well, regularly exercising and getting out into nature, but these are too often the first items in the routine to disappear in times of business and stress. The act of skipping these should be seen as similar to the abuse of caffeine, i.e. stealing from tomorrow. It will always need to be repaid.


Good decisions beget good decisions, and bad decisions beget bad decisions. So, push through that barrier to go out for a run or pick up an apple instead of a packet of crisps and you’ll find yourself walking up the stairs instead of the escalator and you’ll thank yourself for the endorphins.  Personally, I find that small things like this can accumulate to help change my outlook to be more positively-minded. 




Many of us in this technological age are fortunate enough to be able to work remotely when needed. This is incredibly helpful and flexible working is a key part of a positive wellbeing. But, where it can fall down is when we need to take time off for sickness.


When you’re sick, you should feel comfortable actually taking the time to rest in order to speed up your recovery. Additionally, many of us were able to describe times where we had tried to work but we’d only ended up making mistakes while trying to get things done. 


Once you are feeling a bit better, then it’s fine to work from home for a while to minimize the chance of spreading it to coworkers. One discussion participant shared how their entire call center of 16 people got sick because employees were unable to work remotely and had limited sick time so felt unable to take time off.


Remote Working 


As mentioned earlier, the flexibility of remote working can help to lead a healthier life but it comes with its own challenges.


One thing to be wary of are the numbers of hours that you work each day. Without the separation of concerns that commuting can bring, it can be easy to work for longer than you would have otherwise. 




There are so many exciting projects and events for us to be involved in, it’s easy to overcommit. Even once you recognize that you have, it can be hard to accept this either because you still really want to be involved or because you don’t want to let people down.  Regularly battling to find the time that you don’t have for these commitments can create anxiety and stress. In this situation, the best outcome is to relinquish the commitment early by admitting to yourself that you won’t complete it and that’s ok. 


Conferences are a marathon


A downside of hosting in Las Vegas (in my opinion), is the party culture. While conferences are often a time to enjoy a break with colleagues and friends in the industry, it’s easy to forget what you’re here for.


It was noted that lots of first time Imagine attendees got carried away early on in the trip and then found themselves missing sessions.


Without trying to be the party pooper, remember to pace yourself. Week-long conferences like Imagine, especially when coming straight from a week of work are incredibly draining on the mind (and body!).


Be wary of alcohol, know your limits, be comfortable with not drinking and ensure others know that it is fine to do so.


It’s certainly ok, encouraged even, to take some time out of the conference and miss a few sessions if you need some quiet time. This may feel hard to do because of how much money is invested in such a trip but like working overtime, going to everything for the sake of it doesn’t mean you’re going to get the best of it in total.


Remember also to get out! If you’re staying in the same hotel as the conference you might find yourself without having seen the light of day for a couple of days. Some of us had found it helpful to be in the habit of going for a walk outside before sessions begin or over lunch.


A couple of ideas were suggested for how Imagine could improve (from an already fantastic event!). One was to provide a quiet space during the day. In this space people could sit, maybe do some work, or just to relax, encouraging attendees to take a break from networking. Ultimately providing a safe space for those wanting to unwind without having to make conversation.


A similar sort of space was suggested to run alongside the networking parties in the evening. These can often get loud and very crowded. Providing more in the way of spaces for smaller groups to spend quality time together without such a focus on the party element would be more inclusive.


Managing your Career Path


It can feel like we always need to be pursuing career development opportunities and that development looks like taking on more responsibility and working harder.


I think it’s important to find a role that suits you, that you enjoy and can sustain. If you are suffering from a mental illness, one option to consider is to take a break from pushing your career forward and instead take a role that is easier for you to manage which then gives you space to work on yourself. Try not to think of this as reaching the peak of what you will achieve. Instead, think of it like taking a rest after a big project in order to recuperate and do better in the next one, but on a career level. 


It’s not just about companies being patient with mental health issues, but also you being patient and compassionate with yourself and being in touch with what you need. 


The Manager’s Role


Primarily discussions were from the point of view of those experiencing challenges in day to day life. For those that are looking to support others, particularly if you are a manager, then hopefully that it’s still given some perspectives on what people can find taxing. 


While there’s growing appreciation for mental health, there’s still a lot of work to do to educate people. Leadership teams can help by investing in whole company training to give people the tools to better look after the wellbeing of themselves and their colleagues, as well as setting in place a culture of compassion. 


The best thing that you can do as a manager is to show compassion and encourage openness by providing a safe space. While it’s not appropriate to pry into personal lives, when invited in, it’s important to listen and show sympathy and encouragement where appropriate.


At work, if it’s made clear that a team member is going through a particularly stressful time then it’s good to provide and encourage time off. You can also reorganize their workload to only include their essential responsibilities during this period.


“Work hour martyrdom” is unfortunately found in many agencies and one that we discouraged. Congratulating people on working until 1 AM to meet a deadline is misplaced and breeds a toxic culture. While we should be grateful to those that go above and beyond, the need for regular overtime suggests ineffective decision making somewhere in the business which is having to be covered up by trading time and health.


Finally, when people are drained, work social events are the last thing they wish to attend. Offering them the opportunity to not attend helps to let them know that it’s ok and that you agree that it’s better off for them to pass this time around rather than force themselves through it.


Recommended Reading


Thanks for reading. This was just one of many interesting discussions that went on at Imagine. If you’re looking for more information, I recommend taking a look at the resources and mental health survey results from OSMI: