There isn’t a strong link between programming and depression, only 6.2% of computer scientists have struggled with a depressive episode which is less than the average of 7%. A UK study also concluded that people in engineering and tech are less likely than average to struggle with a psychological disorder.
Working as a professional programmer has been glamorized quite a bit over the last decade or so, with Hollywood even getting in on the action and promoting this career as the best thing somebody could do if they want to work in tech.
Movies like The Internship hyped up life as a programmer for legendary tech companies like Google, driving tons and tons of young people into this career with promises of fantastic pay, unbelievable benefits, free snacks and gaming spaces (nap spaces, too), and a corporate culture unlike anything anywhere else.
The reality of a computer programmer, though, could never really quite live up to that fictionalized perspective.
It’s no secret across the industry that some programmers are burnt out, worn down, and struggling to protect their mental health and wellness. Let’s dig a little bit deeper into why programmers are depressed these days and what can be done to help them.
Programming and Depression: Why Programmers Are Depressed
While programming isn’t explicitly linked with increased levels of depression, it doesn’t mean that some people in the industry are unhappy. Let’s explore some reasons why programmers may be depressed and explore the struggles of the software industry.
Demanding Work Environments
One of the biggest reasons that programmers are struggling with their mental health these days is because of how competitive and demanding these work environments are.
Anytime you have the promise of mid to high six-figure incomes, unbeatable benefits, and workplace amenities that the big tech companies offer you’re going to have a crush of people looking to pick up a limited amount of jobs – and you’re going to have very demanding employers that want you to make good on their investment in you.
Work environments for programmers outside of the big tech companies are just as demanding, if not even more so.
Many of these smaller companies have dreams of becoming titans themselves. They push their staff harder, push their staff further, and aren’t at all afraid of using “crunch” (we’ll talk more about that in just a moment) to accomplish their goals. It’s one of the main reasons people are leaving software development.
A sedentary Lifestyle Can Devastate Mental Health
A sedentary lifestyle is always going to wreak havoc on your mental health and wellness, and recent studies show that this is a huge contributor to feelings of depression and anxiety.
Well, when you are a professional computer programmer you’re going to spend hours and hours each day sitting down in front of a computer – and you’re going to sit there week in and week out for years.
If you’re not living an active lifestyle outside of work (and many programmers will tell you there’s just not enough time in the day) you’re going to suffer the consequences.
Your mental health is going to spiral but your physical health is going to take a toll as well.
This is a big part of why programmers are depressed today.
Constant Mental Stress with Few Release Valves
As we mentioned a moment ago, the work environment for a programmer is always going to be very fast-paced, very performance-focused, and often pretty mentally challenging.
On top of that, there just aren’t a ton of opportunities to relieve your mental stress. Finding a release valve can be a bit of an uphill battle, especially when you are chasing down big deadlines or part of a programming team that can’t move forward without you in lockstep.
These expectations combined with the mental stress of actual programming can snowball into a huge mental health issue. It’s not at all uncommon for feelings of extreme depression to bubble up in this kind of environment.
Often Solitary Work Schedules
While most computer programmers work within the structure of a dedicated team and have plenty of opportunities to get to know their team members, the actual work of programming is always a very solitary kind of thing.
Yes, you’ll be collaborating in a way and communicating with your team members regularly.
But the actual work – grinding out the code and testing your programming – is always very solitary, often for extended amounts of time at a clip.
You might visit with your team for a couple of minutes in the morning and then spend the rest of the workday (maybe even the rest of the workweek) toiling away at your programming tasks without ever coming up for air, so to speak.
Those are ripe conditions for feelings of depression to start bubbling up.
“Crunch Time” Can Kill a Social Life
Crunch time is a major part of almost every computer programming career, regardless of the kind of project you are working on – and there’s a lot of documentation out there about how devastating crunch is for the mental health of programmers that are pushed through it over and over again.
The gaming industry put “crunch time” on the map and not in a good way, with several exposés showing just how much stress and pressure gaming companies were putting on their programmers to deliver finished games ahead of very tight (some would say unrealistic) deadlines.
It’s not at all uncommon for overworked computer programmers to work 10-hour days, 12-hour days, or even longer. It’s also not uncommon for gaming computer programmers to work seven days a week.
Companies get away with this kind of stuff by saying that crunches are uncommon and critically important for the success of the project programmers are working on, and they usually even throw a bit of extra money at programmers they put through the wringer.
But it causes a ton of stress, and a ton of anxiety, and accelerates feelings of burnout that can lead to programmers feeling broken and depressed.
Repetitive and Mindless Work Tasks
While the finished products that computer programmers produce are often game-changing, sometimes even society-changing, the work to produce these projects can get really repetitive and almost mindless at times.
Staring at a computer screen, punching in code, and then running tests to validate that code gets old in a hurry.
Especially when you have to do the same task over and over again, iterate over and over again, and sometimes even scrap completed code entirely just to start from scratch all over again.
It’s not hard to get depressed when you feel like your work is little more than running on a mouse wheel. It’s one of the biggest complaints against manual software testing.
Lack of Tangible Production
There’s a lot to be said about finishing a project that you’ve been working on, but it’s tough to quantify how much you’ve contributed – or how important that contribution is – when the finished result is as ethereal as a tech project inevitably is.
When you’re working in the tangible world you can see your progress unfolds. You can feel the project you’re working on in your hands. When the work is done there’s a certain feeling of satisfaction that’s tough to get compared to finishing a bunch of code for the day.
A lot of the folks that get burnt out in the computer programming world are burnt out just because they start to wonder what they’re doing, what their careers are all about, and whether or not their work matters.
There’s Always Something New to Build (or Fix)
At the end of the day, even the most accomplished computer programmers are inevitably going to have to continue working on the “next big thing” – or work to fix and patch the project they’ve already built – in an endless cycle.
Days can bleed into weeks, weeks can bleed into months, and before you know it years have gone by and you feel like you’ve just been spinning your wheels the whole time.
It’s not hard to see why programmers are depressed when that’s their reality.
Are software engineers depressed?
There is no evidence to suggest that software engineers are more depressed than individuals in other professions. Like any career, software engineering can be challenging, and individuals in this field may experience stress, burnout, or other mental health concerns. However, many software engineers find their work to be rewarding and engaging.
But stress and burnout, which can lead to depression in the long run, are two of the leading reasons why software engineer changes jobs. It’s important when working in jobs that can lead to burnout to monitor your mood because depression often creeps up on you. Working from home without much social contact can also lead to depression depending on your personality.
However, as a software engineer, you work with a high degree of autonomy and often work remotely. The extra time working remotely provides allows developers to pursue hobbies and create time for exercise, or other things that are beneficial to mental health.
Remember that mental health is a complex issue that can be influenced by a variety of factors, including genetics, life experiences, and environmental factors.
There are a lot of reasons to pursue a career in the computer programming world these days.
For one thing, the work is always challenging, often exciting, and can be extremely rewarding – and not just from a financial perspective (though programmers are always well paid).
This is still very much a prestigious kind of career as well, and the barriers of entry to becoming a fantastically successful computer programmer have never been as small as they are right now.
Anyone with dedication can become a great computer programmer, even without a ton of traditional education (and the mountain of debt that comes with it).
At the same time, though, computer programmers need to do everything they can to protect their mental health and guard against depressive feelings. Make sure to lead an active lifestyle outside of your sedentary work. Take frequent breaks to recharge recoup, and reinvigorate yourself – not just between new projects, but each workday, too.
If you do start to feel depressed as a computer programmer recognize what’s happening and take the necessary steps to clear your mind, reboot, and then assess what you need to do moving forward to be fulfilled, happy, and successful.
Nathan Britten, the founder and editor of Developer Pitstop, is a self-taught software engineer with nearly five years of experience in front-end technologies. Nathan created the site to provide simple, straightforward knowledge to those interested in technology, helping them navigate the industry and better understand their day-to-day roles.