Exploring anxiety in software engineering, and managing it through empathy

I’ve always wondered why imposter syndrome and anxiety are so common for so many in our industry. As an engineer who suffers from anxiety, it’s long been a topic that’s close to my heart. I also want to share some of the empathy-fuelled behaviours I’ve learnt that help me manage this day-to-day in the hope that they might be useful.

Firstly, software is complex. Shocker! The codebases we work on, tools we work with, and domains we work in are all deeply complex. Unlike with most other jobs, it’s horribly difficult to gauge day-to-day performance and whether you’re doing a good job as an engineer. 

Some of my most valuable days working involve me writing little-to-no code and just talking through problems on the phone, despite it being utterly counterintuitive and appearing like I’ve done nothing all day. The peaks and valleys of development are extreme and steep, and much like real mountains, incredibly unpredictable.

Secondly, our industry focuses so much on technical ability that we often overlook the essential business skills that our less-technical colleagues (no such thing as non-technical staff in my opinion) prioritise learning from day one. 

We’re too busy grappling with some new language or database technology that we overlook learning how to work effectively alongside our clients and colleagues. As engineers, we almost have to re-train our brains to think like computers – no wonder this industry tends to attract the “neurodiverse and weird!”* We feel like imposters because we’re often very far removed from the actual value that we’re delivering, in a way that less-technical people often aren’t.

Why is this an issue though? Well, anxiety sucks. Anxious behaviours can undermine your abilities as an engineer. They can fuel your need to over-prove your technical abilities and potentially alienate colleagues and clients, cause you to sit silently through important meetings, and generally make you come across as a less confident, reliable, or capable person. But mainly, it just kinda sucks.

So is there anything we can do? One method I’ve found that helps me is replacing anxious behaviour patterns with more empathetic ones. For example, instead of feeling the need to prove how awesome you are, chill out. Then chill out some more. Then, try to be more empathetic to your team. Actively listening to what they have to say and focusing on forming meaningful connections with them will go a long way to making them feel heard, supported, and comfortable around you – the hallmarks of an awesome engineer.

Another favourite of mine is the classic “I know this is a stupid question, but …”. On the surface, it looks like a very selfishly-phrased question – I’m about to interrupt or potentially derail a conversation to ask something dumb. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Time and time and time again I’ve found that, if you’re thinking about a “dumb” question, someone else is as well. These questions aren’t selfish! They support and protect those who might otherwise be quiet in a group, and clarify information for everyone involved, especially those who are presenting or facilitating.

If you find yourself in a position where you have to deliver feedback or critiques (as we often do here at Made Tech), empathy is vitally important. I’ve had a lot of feedback over the years, both praise and constructive. 

But it still often takes a fresh cup of tea and an empty room before I can summon the courage to read 1:1 feedback when it arrives! When giving feedback, your goal should be to make your points understood in a way that is as clear, comfortable, and well-understood as possible. Here are some pointers for delivering a more positive feedback experience:

  • Take a moment to consider why you’re giving feedback. Is it to support career progression? Is it to draw attention to a more serious issue? Or is it just because you’ve been told to and you don’t have anything major to say?
  • Try chatting your feedback through with the recipient after submitting it. Talk through your major points and give context to what you’re saying and why.
  • The point of feedback is to help the person receiving it. It should never be used as a tool to vent or to make yourself feel better. More serious issues should be raised through other channels.

Anxiety is not a problem that can be magically solved. There is no silver bullet. All of these suggestions are things that I’ve found help me with the day-to-day management of these behaviours, where I have already identified and understood them. 

The best thing I ever did at work was mentioning in passing that I’d been experiencing anxiety at work to a colleague down the pub. By this point I had been suffering in silence for over a year, and it genuinely felt like a weight had been lifted off me! Being open and transparent about anxiety is absolutely the way to go. You shouldn’t be afraid to bring your entire self to work!

“But Tom, what if my anxiety means I care FAR too much about my colleagues and what they think of me?”. In my opinion, this can still be helped by being open about your anxiety and more empathetic towards your colleagues. Is it really empathetic behaviour if you’re ‘caring far too much’ about how you’re perceived, or is just another anxiety-driven desire? Focus on building meaningful relationships, not on being popular.

Finally, and absolutely most vitally, if your anxiety is causing serious or prolonged issues with your work or home life, do yourself a massive favour and talk to a professional.

These are small things that have helped me manage my anxious behaviours a little bit better day-to-day in a few specific situations. They are no substitute for real, professional support. In fact, I’ve recently been seeing a therapist to work on my anxiety, and honestly it’s much less terrifying than you’d think!

*Credit to Micheal Wilkinson for these wonderful “random brain ramblings” (his words).

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About the Author

Tom Vaughan

Senior Software Engineer

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