Build Stronger Agile Teams by Getting Real about Mental Health

Originally published May 15, 2020

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and right now, I think we’re all struggling. And while mental health is a deeply personal thing no one should feel obligated to share about, I think there’s no better time than now to start meaningful conversations about it.

How are these unprecedented times affecting our coworkers’ work and home lives? How much more effective would our teams be if we created an environment that was psychologically safe enough to be vulnerable and honest? How many of our peers could we keep from falling into the trap of burnout if we were all looking out for each other and able to share when it’s starting to feel like too much?

What if we took the frameworks we’ve been given in agile and used them to move past sharing our work and include sharing how we feel?

At standups and retrospectives, we often look for trends—things like ongoing issues with gaining access to a needed tool, or late requirements continually coming from a product owner. If we start sharing more about good days and bad, we can study trends in the same way. Monitoring these trends may even help us find problems impacting our team that we didn’t realize were there or that everyone was too self-conscious to share.

For example, many developers may feel anxious on the days they have team code reviews. No one had expressed negative feelings about code reviews before because individuals on the team didn’t feel safe to say that the process is stressful, but once those feelings come to light, the trend emerges and now action can be taken.

At the sprint’s retrospective, the topic is brought up and the team has an open and honest conversation about what’s happening at code reviews. The team then creates and implements a plan to improve the process. At the standups following implementation of this new code review format, developers stop expressing anxiety on code review days and express preference for this new process. The psychological safety and morale for the whole team has improved, which of course leads to higher-quality work being produced.

I want to challenge you and your teams to start talking about how you feel and what you’re experiencing, and after sharing, put a plan in place to change things you can take action on. If a peer is expressing feelings of burnout, arrange to adjust their workload, and make sure there’s time for them to meet with a professional. If a coworker voices a strain on their work-life balance, create a plan for the whole team that helps bring that balance back—after all, if one person is expressing this sentiment, there are probably multiple people feeling it.

Mental health is a hard thing to talk about, and often it feels easier to bury our feelings rather than acknowledge them. But if we truly want to build high-performing teams full of people who are fulfilled and doing their best work, we have to find a way to have these conversations and make psychological safety a priority.