Does Every Developer Deserve a Mental Health Day?

Monday Oct 18th 2010 by Eric Spiegel
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Some developers can afford a mental health day, and some can’t get away with it. What’s the difference?

"I'm taking a much deserved mental health day tomorrow.”

This matter-of-fact announcement came from Joni, one of my slightly buzzed developer teammates, as we enjoyed a Thursday happy hour around a crowded table, drinking beer and eating munchies. Having just graduated and barely settled into my first job, it was no surprise I’d never heard the phrase “mental health day.”

In my head I pictured her going to visit some kind of therapist because the job is stressing her out. I’d heard the term “going mental” before and that wasn’t a pretty picture. So maybe she was about to burst from all the looming deadlines.

Being the green guy at the table, I naively asked, “Are you going to see some kind of doctor?”

Joni laughed, “No silly, I’m going to do some shopping and then sit by the pool and sip frozen cocktails.”

More intrigued, I asked, “Are we allowed to do that? I mean using a paid sick day for – you know – not really being sick?”

“Ah, but I am sick – sick of work! Besides, who is going to know the difference?” she responded with incredulity.

Now I was the one who was incredulous. The entire team was under a steep learning curve with a new ERP module we were customizing. We were way behind on the project schedule and Joni was the “defacto” team leader because she was the only one experienced with this module.

“But Joni we have a package due for QA testing Monday and we are way behind. Aren’t you planning on working this weekend like the rest of us?” I said.

She quickly shot back, “That answer would be N-O no! My code is working just fine.”

One of my other teammates, Doug, piped up with some initial sarcasm. “Well, bully for you Joni. Of course you’re done – you’re the big expert with this module. But how do you know your code will work with all of our code once integrated for QA testing?”

“Not my problem Dougie,“ she said. And she knew Doug hated to be called Dougie.

As Doug grew hotter under the collar, I jumped back in. “But it should be your problem Joni because we may need your help this weekend. And shouldn’t we run some tests with all our code before submitting to QA Monday?”

Joni retorted, “Integration testing is their responsibility, not mine. If something doesn’t work because you guys have mistakes in your code, then we’ll figure that out next week when QA kicks it back.”

This was too much for Doug. His raised voice made everyone at the table focus on the banter.

“You’re being selfish Joni. While you are enjoying your mental health day, we’ll be working hard to make up time. And how do you know there won’t be problems caused by your code? “

“That’s easy. Because I know what I’m doing and you guys are just trying to keep up,” she said with a wry grin.

This was typical Joni behavior. She had a major superiority complex. There was no doubt she was good and very experienced, but she did very little to share that experience to mentor others.

Her idea of success was focused on her own work, not the teams. So in her mind, if her code was done, then she was entitled to take a day off to free her mind.

If we had a more well-defined development process, then Doug and I may have had a case. But the fact was that individual accomplishments and heroics were promoted more than teamwork.

Joni announced to the table, “Look, to be at the top of my game, I need to take a well deserved break now and then. Maybe if more of you took a mental health day to clear your heads and relax, we’d all be more productive.

“I for one am 100% positive that I produce more quality code after taking a mental health day.” She paused and looked at Doug, then nonchalantly stated, “Then again, maybe it wouldn’t help Dougie.”

I won’t repeat what Doug said as he put some cash on the table and stomped out of the bar. Joni just smirked and downed her beer.

Following Suit (Or Trying To)

The next morning I walked past Joni’s empty cube and shook my head. Then I noticed another empty cube. Doug hadn’t shown up yet.

Next Page: Doug's attempted mental health day....

Our manager Jim leaned into my cube and asked, “Any idea where Doug is?”

I replied “Nope. I noticed Joni wasn’t in either.”

Jim replied, “Yeah, I don’t know where either one is today.” He walked into his adjacent office and his phone rang.

I quickly determined it was Joni. The conversation on Jim’s end went something like this:

“Oh, you aren’t feeling well? Your code is ready for Monday right? Oh good. Well rest up and enjoy your weekend.” He couldn’t have sounded more cheery and empathetic.

Then his phone rang again. The tone in Jim’s voice took a decided turn for the worse. It was clear Doug was calling in sick. Jim was giving him the third degree with questions like - “How sick are you? Do you have a fever? Are you going to the doctor?”

I heard Jim tell Doug that if he knows what is best, he better get his “rear” in the office and complete his assignment.

As soon as he hung up, I called Doug.

“Dude, are you really sick?” I asked.

He responded, “Of course not. I am taking my mental health day, just like Joni. Why should I be working my butt off while she’s out shopping?!”

I could certainly empathize. But the fact was that Joni’s assignment was done based on our manager’s expectations, even if it ended up not working once integrated. And it was also a fact that Doug hadn’t made it that far with his code.

“Doug, if you don’t come in, I think Jim is going to be ticked. You don’t want to get fired, do you?”

After a brief pause, he said, “It’s not fair. I mean it will take us twice as long without her in the office and the deliverable will be late anyway, so what is another day?”

“I hear you man. But what will that accomplish except making you look bad and ticking off the rest of the team? You may feel good for one day, but I bet you’ll not enjoy your day off because you have a conscience and you care about the success of the team -- unlike Joni.”

I could hear his resigned sigh through the phone. And sure enough he came in later that morning.

We all worked through the weekend and figured things out together, even without Miss “know-it-all.” And the integration testing went just fine.

Doug asked me, “Does it make me a bad person that I was secretly hoping for Joni’s code to cause a problem?”

I laughed. “Then we can be bad people together,” I said. “Maybe we’d feel better after a mental health day!”

ALSO SEE: Are these Developer and IT Salaries Believable?

AND: Do Developers Need to Brown-Nose To Advance Career?

AND: Why Developers Get Fired

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