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How I improve my mental health and team dynamics

31 August 2023, by Martina Fourie

The mental health of each individual within a group not only has an impact on that individual’s productivity and well-being, but it can also affect the dynamics and success of an entire team. In my journey as a software developer, I have experienced this first-hand. Here are the steps I have taken to improve my own mental health and help build a positive dynamic with my team.

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My experience with mental health and team dynamics in the workplace

Even before I made the move into a career as a developer five years ago, I was aware of my mental health challenges. I have experienced verbal abuse in school, broken friendships, a lack of awareness and support from my surroundings and mental health bias in the workplace.

The more introspection I did during these times and the more I understood what mental health really is, I started to realise how my mental health and the mental health of my team members has affected teamwork, productivity, morale and professional relationships.

Once I saw this, in every situation, I have not only looked at improving my own mental health, but I have also sought ways to improve team dynamics and encourage support amongst all team members. Here are the steps I’ve taken to improve my and my team’s mental health.

Looking after my own mental health lets me bring my best self to the team

The challenges that we face personally and professionally can have a negative effect on our mental health, which in turn can negatively affect our work and our team dynamics.

I have experienced situations where I faced both professional and personal challenges that have affected my mental well-being, including burnout, work visa delays, the death of family members, juggling multiple roles simultaneously, colleague departures, working in a toxic environment, personality clashes and more.

The strain I felt on my mental health during these times was significant, resulting in difficulties concentrating, analysis paralysis, feeling a fear of failure and isolating myself.

Unfortunately, these struggles had a ripple effect on the team dynamic every time. I found myself engaging in actions that hurt others unintentionally, while some team members perceived me as selfish.

Through situations like these, I realised that working on my own mental health is one step towards repairing team dynamics and improving a sense of trust.

Self-reflection helps me improve my mental health

Whenever I feel the weight of my mental health getting too heavy, I work on the following self-reflection exercises:

  • Utilising agile methodologies to map my personal path forward.

I do this by writing down all the things that keep me up at night on a board. I then look at how I can break up big worries into smaller, actionable tasks. I also write personal user stories. This could sound like, “As Martina, I want to attend coaching sessions to improve my skills so that I can share my ideas with more confidence.

Once I have the big idea written down, I ask myself what this may look like in practice and how we can make this a reality. In this case, it could mean seeking out workshops and external mentors for personal growth or even asking your company if regular group workshops can be introduced if there is nothing like this already.

  • Map out worst-case scenarios.

I ask myself, “What is the worst that could happen?” Quite often, as soon as I have faced my biggest fear and talked it through, I come to the realisation that it’s not something to be afraid of after all. Most of the time, there is a Plan B or at least, should the worst-case scenario happen, it will not be the end of the world and may even open up new exciting paths.

  • Find inspiration in past successes.

We tend to only remember the negative things that happen to us. We often forget to celebrate the small and the big achievements. I aim to grab my journal daily and make note of all the good things that happened to me on that day. In times of depression, I read this journal again to put things into perspective: things will become better again because I have proof that they were in the past!

  • Consider visiting a psychologist and a psychiatrist.

For quite a while, I lived in denial that I was suffering from depression and needed to seek professional help. When I finally did, it was well worth it, even though it took me a while to find the right fit. Thankfully, a colleague advised that in South Africa, all medical aid providers have to offer their members a set of prescribed minimum benefits. This gave me access to 15 visits per year completely free of charge. Professionals can help guide me through self-reflection and ensure I don’t fall into the trap of too much self-criticism.

By doing this, I am able to understand that temporary unhappiness can lead to new avenues of fulfilment. This empowers me to embrace change and grow. It aids in learning to trust my fellow teammates and alleviates the need to control every situation.

Being honest with my team members about my struggles can help build empathy and trust

Sometimes our personal challenges and mental health strain can lead to a lack of trust and low morale within our team.

I had an experience where my personal challenges made it more difficult to work with me, but instead of trying to hide away from my team, I decided to be open and honest with them. I wrote a heartfelt letter to my colleagues, articulating my needs for relationship building and a sense of camaraderie.

This led to invitations to social events such as after-work drinks, ladies’ nights and colleagues joining me in self-hosted crafting days. Incorporating play into the work environment, such as organising team-building quiz nights or a work-themed bingo game, also contributed to a more positive team dynamic.

Here is an example of a team-building game I’ve enjoyed with my team: Empathy Monster Agile Game

Rediscovering lost motivation can get you back on track

Facing challenges can lower our motivation levels because of an increased sense of negativity. In order to overcome this, I have to consciously remind myself that dwelling on negativity would only harm me and my team further. Whenever this happens, I seek guidance and inspiration from books and psychological videos. Here are some examples:

While it is sometimes inevitable to be in survival mode, I always try to forge a plan to navigate the challenges that lie ahead. I sometimes even resort to the common developer mantra ‘faking it till I make it’ and remember that it’s crucial not to be afraid of taking a leap, even after hitting rock bottom. I try not to be afraid of mistakes along the way, rather seeing it as an experiment - knowing that I will end up wiser afterwards.

During such times:

  • I ask lots of questions to team members,
  • actively engage with other teams and meet new people,
  • soak up knowledge from others outside my immediate team wherever I can.

Furthermore, while difficult, it is very important not to shoulder the blame for everything and practice self-esteem exercises to build resilience. Worry occupies mental space, which can keep you from focusing and regaining joy from your work.

Support team members by helping create a positive environment

While working on your own mental health is a great way to help improve your own relationship with your team, there are also many instances where team members may be suffering their own challenges - whether personal or professional.

I have observed instances when both team members and team leads have been overstretched due to work circumstances. This situation gives rise to several detrimental effects on team dynamics:

  • Disrupted work processes and decreased efficiency create a negative team atmosphere, leading to strained work relationships.
  • Overstretched leaders often become less responsive, resulting in communication breakdowns and hindered problem-solving due to infrequent constructive dialogue.
  • Furthermore, these challenges impact mentorship and guidance within teams, affecting team members’ growth and overall progress.
  • The lack of support can contribute to burnout and high turnover rates, ultimately causing stakeholder dissatisfaction due to delays and subpar results.

Whether or not in a team leadership position, we can still help out our team members and work towards improving team dynamics. In order to help with situations like this, I take the following steps:

Pay it forward

When I joined a development team as a junior with no coding knowledge, I was pleasantly surprised by the open-mindedness and respect I received from my senior colleague. His patience, trust, and willingness helped create an environment where I felt comfortable asking questions and making comments, even if they seemed strange.

Being able to receive such support fostered a strong bond within the team, where individuals felt comfortable showing vulnerability and seeking help when needed, felt self-driven, and micromanagement was never in the cards.

Having experienced these benefits from this support, I now try my best to pay this forward to other colleagues - especially junior ones. I do my best to listen with curiosity, show respect for diverse perspectives and provide support whenever needed.

Show support to team members

When paying it forward, I also ask myself: “How can I further help my team members feel supported?” This allows me to think of ways that I can create an environment of trust and empathy with everyone I work with.

In an attempt to regain balance at a time when myself and my team were in a state of flux, I decided to establish an Emotional Intelligence (EQ) guild. This initiative aimed to cultivate a supportive environment for the whole team and beyond, allowing for creative and fun mental health-related solutions and building trust among teams and within, fostering psychological safety. The Fearless Organization by Amy C. Edmondson greatly helped as a guide when I created the EQ guild.

Group sessions encouraged open dialogue and vulnerability, and equipped members with tools so that they could provide better support to others. We asked employees what topics they needed most help with and started from there. We invited speakers every now and then, and even managed to introduce online counselling sessions for the entire company via an app called Ollie Health.

To show others that it is encouraged to speak up, I also started to become more vulnerable in chat groups and meetings. The positive affirmations I received from management about this showed me I was on the right path.

Note: While you don’t have to start a support group like this at your company, if you do decide to go a similar route, it’s important to first get in touch with your People Services or HR department, as their job is to help with these kinds of groups and make sure they are implemented appropriately.

Don’t overdo it

The establishment of the EQ guild and the increased trust in junior members were both positive outcomes of my efforts to help improve team dynamics and morale. However, I could not ignore that my technical skills were starting to stagnate because of all these additional responsibilities. This had an effect on the team as I could no longer be as good a mentor as I wanted to be for my junior teammate, and I could not provide adequate support for others.

I soon learnt that I couldn’t do it all. While providing a certain level of support to team members is a good thing, it’s important that it shouldn’t take away from my work and from building my own personal skills related to my career.

That’s when I learnt to set boundaries and ask for support when I needed it.

Ask for support when you need it

Asking for support can sometimes be a daunting task. When I first started as a developer, I was really lucky to have a supportive colleague to whom I could go whenever I needed help.

However, I have also had the converse experience where a team lead was unsupportive, untrusting and negative, leading to a decline in my own mental health and in the dynamics of the team. In times like these, it can be more difficult to ask for help as there is a fear that you will get sucked into a spiral of negative conflict.

In these cases, I would say it’s still important to ask for help, you just need to ensure that you ask the right people through the right channels and approach it with care. This is where it’s a good idea to approach People Services or HR to ask for their guidance and advice.

Conclusion

By sharing my personal experiences and lessons learned, I aim to inspire others facing similar challenges in the workplace. Prioritising mental health is not a sign of weakness but an essential step toward personal and professional growth. By fostering a supportive and inclusive work environment, both employers and employees can create a culture that values mental well-being, resulting in stronger teams and successful projects.

By prioritising mental well-being, we can create an environment that nurtures growth, friendship, and success. Remember to set boundaries, support one another, and seek help when needed. With an empathetic and supportive team, we can overcome challenges, achieve great things, and create a fulfilling work experience for all.

Martina Fourie is an experienced Software Engineer with a strong background in .NET development and currently works at Redstor, where she contributes to cutting-edge projects while celebrating women in the tech industry and advocating for a safe, inclusive and diverse environment. She has a proven track record of driving innovation and continuous learning. Besides coding, her passion is problem-solving and contributing to the community through blogging and volunteer work.

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