A comparative analysis of the Stack Overflow 2018 survey results

Mental health among developers and ethical implications

Eirini-Eleni Papadopoulou
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The topic of mental health issues among developers is no news. Numerous articles have been written, talks have been given, surveys have been conducted… But what are the implications of a high percentage of mental issues for the discussion on ethics among developers?

In a previous article, I discussed the Stack Overflow 2018 survey results and I particularly focused on the ethical concerns that were raised by the response percentage to the question “What would developers do if asked to write code for an unethical purpose?” An eager reader offered a very interesting approach to the issue that I have not considered and requested that we compare the results between this particular question and the one about mental health and physical differences. And so I did. As you can imagine, the results are interesting, to say the least. But first, let’s have a look at the most common mental issues developers are faced with.

The “imposter syndrome”

Numerous articles have been written on the effects of the “imposter syndrome” on developers. In a nutshell, those who suffer from the syndrome are convinced that whatever they do, there will always be someone else in the work environment that is far better, far smarter and far more talented. Reportedly, female developers seem to suffer from imposter syndrome; however, there is a number of male developers that admit being under the effect of this syndrome.

SEE ALSO: Ethics education among developers: Is it adequate?

The ultimate result of this condition is the need of the developer to work as hard as possible, push him/herself beyond the limits in order to achieve a goal that in their mind is unachievable since there will always be someone better than them. Fortunately, there are a couple of initiatives, like Prompt, an initiative of the Travis Foundation that tries to raise awareness on mental issues among people in tech and help guide individuals towards professional help, if needed.

The “real developer”

This is closely related to the “impostor syndrome” and describes the need to put in extra (endless) hours of work in order to become better. This feeling was called the “real programmer” syndrome by the Redditor big_al11. Although it is called a syndrome, it has not been medically recognized as such. However, one can only imagine the real-time effects of this condition on the mental and physical health of developers. As explained by the above-mentioned Reddit user:

You know a programmer isn’t a Real Programmer when they don’t volunteer to work 60 to 80-hour weeks (for no extra monetary compensation, remember) because it’s “fun”. All they really need in thanks is a company t-shirt and the occasional slice of pizza on those late nights.

The Stack Overflow 2018 survey

According to the survey, mental health issues like depression and anxiety are particularly common among the respondents. In the US, particularly, almost 20% of respondents said they deal with either or both.

The largest percentage reported a mood or emotional disorder. This is definitely worrying but, as I said before, unfortunately, is no news. Judging from the existing articles and personal stories available on the web, depression seems to be the most common emotional disorder among developers.

Let’s talk ethics – Again

I don’t know if it is even necessary for me to talk about the ethical implications of these mental issues. A mentally unstable individual may be unable to make ethical decisions. In the case of the “imposter syndrome”, the continuous need to overcome ones’ limits in order to prove oneself can drive the individual towards unethical decisions. “I need to work more, I need to work harder, I need to become better and I will use any means necessary”. This is not an uncommon logic among mentally unstable individuals. The same applies to the case of the “real programmers”.

SEE ALSO: Why software ethics matter

In my last article on ethics, I discussed the need for unified action and the draft of a unified ethics code that would be mandatory for all developers, implying that the ones breaking it would be subject to penalty. Thanks to the suggestion of our reader who proposed this analysis, it has become clear to me that the technicalities of a unified ethics code would never be efficient enough.

I stand by my previously-expressed opinion that an official association of developers ought to be established and a unified ethics code, as well as penalty system, should be established; however, it is crucial that this would not be the first and last priority of such an association. The results of the survey, as well as the numerous personal testimonies found on the web, portray the need for mental health awareness and support among the programming community.

Eirini-Eleni Papadopoulou
Eirini-Eleni Papadopoulou was the editor for Coming from an academic background in East Asian Studies, she decided that it was time to go back to her high-school hobby that was computer science and she dived into the development world. Other hobbies include esports and League of Legends, although she never managed to escape elo hell (yet), and she is a guest writer/analyst for competitive LoL at TGH.

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3 years ago

Wow, I really don’t think implying that people with impostor syndrome/mood or anxiety disorders may be unable to be ethical is a step forward for mental health awareness and support. Even referring to people as ‘mentally unstable individual’s is dehumanizing and makes people less likely to want to disclose their mental health status to employers if they’re going to be regarded in this way.