Open source and mental health: the biggest challenges facing developers

Many enterprises are realising the benefits of open source technology, with its cost-effectiveness and flexibility driving its continued adoption. However, due to the nature of working in open source, it presents several challenges impacting the mental health of developers.

It is essential to examine how open source development and maintenance, increasing pressure, and burnout damage developers’ mental wellbeing and what can be done to alleviate it. This shouldn’t just be a consideration around days like ‘World Mental Health Day’, but instead a consideration that businesses, as well as the industry, continue to keep front of mind.

Open source development

While the wider adoption of open source is welcomed by many in the community, development of these new projects is being entrusted to developers whose skill set might not match what developing in open source environments requires, with the vast majority of open source maintainers doing this task during their free time. This creates an environment of frustration for both employees tasked to implement new features in open source, and the maintainers who would need to review and incorporate those changes. Aiven’s research shows that 48% of developers have difficulty implementing open source projects. cites an incorrect utilisation of an employee’s skill set as one of the main reasons for bad mental health in the workplace. This is as true for developers as anyone else in the workplace. Ultimately, having a task delegated to you which is outside of your current capability can have a significant negative impact on your mindset.

Of course, to grow in a career, employees need to push themselves out of their comfort zone and learn new skills, in an environment where it is ok to make mistakes and learn from them. For developers to take on these new challenges, they must be provided with a strong framework and appropriate training measures. An effective method of doing so is through a developer support platform. Such platforms can allocate developers the correct tools to maximise their efficiency when coding in the open, while also providing a point of contact for any open source queries they might have.

This kind of support is vital in any organisation and for any role. But it’s crucial for developers working in the fast-paced world of open source – particularly as technological advancements and other developer contributions can rapidly alter the requirements of their implementation.

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Keeping up with maintenance

As more companies look to reap the rewards of open source, many developers now have to take on the new challenge of maintaining open source projects. According to Aiven research, over half of them (52%) say this is a hurdle to using open source. While maintenance is a necessary part of open source work, it can be another source of mental fatigue and drive burnout.

Value-added work is widely accepted as one of the strongest factors of job satisfaction and fulfilment. But developers having to spend significant portions of their day maintaining open source projects have less time to make value-added contributions to projects, meaning their time is directed away from more fulfilling work. This problem is further emphasised by the constant stream of users of said open source projects demanding an almost immediate response to their requests.

Helping developers navigate the difficulties of open source maintenance, and finding more sustainable ways of maintaining software, gives them more time to focus on work within their expertise and priorities. Fortunately, more companies have created teams dedicated exclusively to help in the open source space whose mission is to improve the open source ecosystem.

Open source for all

The very nature of open source projects means its products are readily available and ripe for use. Technological freedom is something to be celebrated. However, it should not come at the expense of an individual’s mental health.

Open source is set up for collaboration. But in reality, a collaborative approach does not always materialise. The accessibility of these projects means that many effective pieces of coding start as small ventures by individual developers, only to snowball into substantial projects on which companies rely, but rarely contribute back to it.

Open source is for everyone, but responsibility comes along with that. If we want open source projects to stay around, any company using open source projects should dedicate some substantial time contributing back to open source projects, avoiding unreasonable strain on individual developers by doing so.

Sadly, 45% of developers report a lack of support with their open source work. Without sufficient support, the workload to maintain such projects can place developers under enormous pressure, reducing confidence in their ability and increasing anxiety.

Corporate investment in Open Source Programme Offices is a great way to circumvent these issues. Delegated teams with financial backing whose sole purpose is to contribute to open source – for the benefit of the community – relieve the pressure facing individuals and provide greater continuity to these projects.

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Preventing a burnout cohort of developers

Recent research from Indeed found that 52% of employees are feeling burned out, and 67% believe this has worsened over the pandemic. Much of this is down to the lines that previously separated work and home life becoming increasingly blurred, with many finding it difficult to switch off from work or are now expected to be constantly on standby.

In open source developer work, the people shortage is more significant, the pace of development is quicker, the technical challenges are more complex than in most other industries, and substantial amounts of work on open source is being done in people’s free time. Unfortunately, this feeling of burnout is likely to worsen as it will not only result in developers feeling demotivated and devalued, but also hinder their productivity.

Having developer managers with a solid understanding of open source is key to preventing burnout. It means workloads can be structured effectively and realistic deadlines set, preventing excessive work for developers. Thanks to their open source understanding, managers can better understand what makes open source developers tick. It is advisable for managers who want to lead an open source team to spend some time collaborating on different open source projects before undertaking this task. This exposure to open source will increase their understanding of the demands on their team and help them to better empathise with the developers they are managing.

Look after your developers

In the current employment climate, holding on to the right people is more important than ever, even more so for the developer community where talent is so scarce. According to a recent survey by The Linux Foundation, demand for open source developers has never been higher, and 92% of employees find it difficult to recruit enough open source talent.

Prioritising developers’ mental health is essential to preventing staff turnover, especially given the demand for their services. Businesses need to ensure that developers have adequate rest and recuperation time, a supportive community, and time to contribute to value-add products or projects. Failing to do so means developers will find an employer who does look after their mental health.

Written by Josep Prat, open source engineering manager at Aiven

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