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Managing Feelings at Work

by Andreea Oproiu & Lucian Corduneanu & Ionuț Movilăabout 3 years ago 10 min read

Sure, advancements in your professional career come with personal satisfaction, fulfillment and financial stability. But, as with everything else in life, there are also the downsides, which may include less time for yourself, engagement in more stressful situations and responsibility not only over bigger parts of the projects, but over other work colleagues as well.

This leads us to how managers have to deal with demanding situations at work, how this affects their well-being, and what they can do to organize better and overcome the negative feelings that may arise.

We turned to Sensidev’s founders and current leaders to find out how they manage their feelings at work, how they decrease stressors within their team or simply how they handle their work-life balance. This resulted in a pretty hefty interview where they offer us two different perspectives: one from an operational point of view (how to organize your work and how to lead a team in order to maintain a healthy relationship) and one from a psychological point of view, where we find out that we’re ultimately all human and dealing with many factors, both positive and negative. Check it out:

1. Let’s tackle a more sensitive topic, at least from how it has been presented in the media so far. Mental health. More precisely — mental health at work. What are the key characteristics of a healthy work environment, from your point of view?

Ionuț: We all are different, but some very general aspects IMO would include the following:

  • No fear asking for clarifications when things are not understandable and no fear of making mistakes, but learning from them.
  • Having the option to organize your time in a manner that can include personal needs during a day. We strive to provide our collaborators with the freedom of working as they feel more productive as long as the team sync is not affected. And working from anywhere comes with the same package.
  • Keeping in touch with all team members is another challenge we face more and more, as we work close to 100% remote. With this in mind, we organize 3 monthly meetings, company-wide, where we encourage all our collaborators to take part (not mandatory, of course). And peer-to-peer communication is encouraged, as well.
  • When working on projects, we try to have fully detailed tasks so our developers can work on them - this is about setting clear requirements. A healthy flow for a software project must also include the QA testing, in order to have the deliverables verified and pass certain assessment criteria. This way production bugs and frustrations that arise from end users are much reduced. And we all know how stressful a critical bug can be in a production environment! Another fact is that the people implementing and working on a specific task must participate when estimates are made and delivery dates are set (we know how bad it is when only 1-2 team members set the goals and estimates for the entire team, often missing valuable aspects).
  • As company culture we like to be honest even if there is bad news to deliver. We encourage everyone to take this approach instead of hiding aspects that are not so ideal and can build into higher frustration levels over time.

Lucian: Feeling safe to talk about my mental health issues, similar to how I would talk with a colleague about a knee injury that is hurting me now.

Also, I encourage this as well:
→ Be open, share both the good and the upsetting experiences with your teammates, while building trust.
→ Be there for others, listen more and talk less (practicing empathy will pay off in the long run). What goes around comes around :)

2. Has your mental health experienced a downside because of your professional life? Can you give some examples?

Ionuț: Not so often but there are some scenarios where where I experienced a bit of anxiety like:

  • Not so good (even bad) feedback from customers
  • Customers that gave us a short notice that they can’t continue collaboration with us (various reasons here, including lack of funds). This is an uncomfortable situation because it gives us no time to adjust our workflow and it leaves us with no projects for some of our teammates.
  • Finding customers can also create frustrations. Sometimes you have many rounds of discussions with a potential customer, things are looking like the deal is 95% signed, and then you get a negative answer (many times with little clarifications, more like evasive).

Lucian: Yes, sometimes it happens to me, for no real, justified reason to feel a bit down (“abătut”- is the word I used). That sucks big time, I literally feel like all my drive and focus is draining through the floor cracks into the ground. This happens a week every 3 months or so, and I haven’t been able to identify the root cause yet. However, I know what to do to decrease that week as much as possible:

  • I take my time and allow myself to embrace that mental state; I talk with people close to me about this.
  • I try to answer the question: What am I grateful for today? - this helps me visualize the filled half of the glass. And also inject some positivity in my life.
  • I will force myself to play sports or do any kind of physical activity. That helps me to boost myself mentally and physically.

3. Some work cultures tend to be or become toxic, because of the lack of clear boundaries or lack of empathy. Have you experienced this in your professional life so far? What is the most common boundary that gets often overlooked?

Ionuț: Part of our company culture is practicing empathy and helping each other by putting ourselves in our teammates’ shoes.

We encourage healthy boundaries, but as an agile team, we also encourage freedom of decision and there are some of them that are OK to be “overcome”. For example, if we take our team: you can be a frontend developer working on a specific area of an application using React.js. On our part, in order to maintain a healthy workflow, we have to deliver clearly defined tasks and responsibilities to this specific dev. On his part, in order to maintain a healthy dynamic within our team, he can be proactive and self-organized, and take over other workloads, if his stack is empty and other colleagues are overwhelmed.

Eg: as a frontend developer, if you have found a small bug in the backend part of the application and can apply a quick fix, please go ahead and do that :) This would not mean breaking the boundaries.

Lucian: Although I didn’t experience it myself, I saw toxic work environments, where people are more focused on how to not make any mistake, and not appear to be a failure, than actually moving forward and taking responsibility. This reminds me of a bad AI implementation when playing Tetris, paused the game indefinitely in order to NOT lose.

I find people to be strange creatures (including me sometimes) — we tend to put labels very quickly and even judge other people about how they dress, how they speak, their accent etc. We are full of misconceptions and biased towards what we are comfortable with. I think it is important to stay open and reevaluate the “labels” we put as often as possible, in order to realize that some thoughts shouldn’t have their place in our minds.

E.g. Since 2010, I am Vegan, (a bit different from other people’s lifestyle), I was usually excluded from social circles and bombarded with spicy questions regarding why I am different in my choices. However, after some well-argued discussions about my choices with friends and family, they kind of accepted my style and tried to be empathetic. So, instead of disregarding completely (as they did at the beginning), they are kind of updating that “label” I got initially.

4. As you are leading your own company now — is there something that has affected your mental health in the past and has made you more aware when interacting with your colleagues now?

Ionuț: Before being the company leader I was for many years a developer, just as my other teammates, so from this position I think I can best understand their pains. Many times listening is the key and helps A LOT!

It can happen different situations:

  • Sometimes as a dev. you struggle to implement a feature and it takes more time than expected. This can also happen if the initial specs were not very clear and not all use cases were initially taken into consideration. Or the libraries we work with have issues or can’t accommodate our exact needs and small compromises need to be made. Here I encourage our devs. to be honest with the project management team and document the efforts they have made in order to accommodate new use cases or the difficulties in working with third party libraries or integrations that were needed.
  • This is not fully implemented but we try to keep a balance in our team, and everyone should be able to see his “evolution roadmap” (seniority level and technology-wise) and of course how they compare to other team members. We need to have evaluations as objective as possible that would include feedback from the customer and other team members.

And we are open if someone wants to change the technology they are working on (switching from React to other FE libs or even backend development, Cloud dev, or full stack) or the project(s) and teams they are part of.

Lucian: However, I strongly recommend that everybody (even a perfectly sane person) visit a psychotherapist at least 10 times per year. This helped me become more aware of my habits, understand and better identify people who suffer from real mental health issues like depression and anxiety. But most importantly, to understand my emotions.

I was raised with the impression that men should not have emotions, they cannot cry, they are strong (not girls) — this is so f*cked-up on so many levels. I blame the society “norms”, tradition, and our culture (religion included) for this.
1. First issue: Men are not in sync with their emotions, cannot understand them, and anger builds up, most of which become aggressive without knowing the reason that drives them to be like that.
2. Second issue: Why can’t a woman be strong? Why can girls cry but boys can't? This creates a discrepancy between sexes and ends up in things like: self-esteem issues for both men and women (+ many other issues).

My therapist used to say: “Everybody has a mix of every mental health issue, in different quantities. It can help you better understand yourself if you know your mix :) What about my mix? It has ingredients like: OCD, ADHD, Psychopathy - indeed. However, in very low quantities :D

So, what about your mix? Let us know in the comment section below :)

5. Management positions are often praised for their status, but we don’t talk as much about the high-level responsibilities and how this can affect you sometimes. Stress and anxiety are the most common pitfalls that come along with these responsibilities. How do you manage these feelings and what do you recommend as coping mechanisms during stressful times?

Ionuț: Yes, many times I find myself in the middle of 3-4 urgent activities that I need to handle. And even more, these are activities that pop up each day and they need my attention that day and not the day after. The best strategy in order to accommodate these scenarios is to have about 3-4 hours a day of unallocated time in order to handle urgent matters. Then the rest it can be with scheduled meetings and other activities that can be planned days ahead.

Another case is when the first meeting of the day is scheduled at 9am, and the last at 10pm (with a customer that has a timezone difference of 12 hours for instance). Learning here how to be flexible with your time really helps and getting maybe a couple of hours for personal life in between will really help! Personally I like to work from the office - looks like I’m the only one :)) - but a late meeting, of course, can happen from home.

Missing focus time is another aspect of being in a leadership position. This can happen when the time gets really fragmented by many calls, meetings, urgent emails or messages on Slack/Skype, sometimes even meeting someone outside the office. The solution for this is to allocate 2-3 hours a day in the calendar and keep the email closed, phone on a silent mode, and instant messaging tools with no notifications in order to complete those tasks that would require a certain amount of “quiet time”. If affording to have 2 hours of focus time is not possible, then something needs to be changed.

Lucian: Indeed, it can become overwhelming and stressful to run a company. Although I work ~60 hours a week, it is a pleasure to work on this. It is challenging and fun.

When I was a teenager, I used to play video games for long periods of time. It was fun, and I did that with pleasure. Now working on growing the company feels quite the same to me. Actually, when my mom calls Saturday evenings asking me how things are, I usually say - look mom, I’m playing some “video games” :) This way she knows I’m working, but in a different way of how she has worked her entire life. Of course there is a saying about this as well: “Find your dream job, and you won’t feel you’re working a day in your life.

Simple way to put it:

  • I cope with stress by doing physical activities
  • I cope with anxiety by working till late (I don’t recommend this, but it works for me)
  • I cope with feeling down by doing introspection (sometimes guided by a therapist). Recently, I ask myself weekly, what am I grateful for today. Works well so far. It forces your mind to dig deeper for good stuff.

6. One key method of being more empathetic and taking care of your team is by putting yourself in a vulnerable position and truly listening to their needs. Is this something you turn to? Also, how can we keep this relationship professional, but caring at the same time?

Ionuț: Yes I really like to listen to the needs (and sometimes frustrations) our team members experience. We don’t want the pressure to build up and end up in a scenario where things are irreversible.

If something needs to be changed, we are open to hear it, discuss it and take it to the proper person that should hear our pain. As devs, we don’t always feel comfortable to speak with higher managers of a project about the aspects that need to be improved. As a CEO of Sensidev I feel this is my duty to be the link and deliver our feedback to the customer (and of course taking feedback from the customer).

Keeping close with our teammates is an essential aspect, and this can also be in the more cheerful moments when they want to share with me something they have managed to achieve, maybe something that was not so obvious from the start and needed quite an amount of effort that finally got on track :) A congratulating moment would really boost the positive energy, give them wings and self-confidence.

Last but not least, we have many moments within our discussions that are more casual and we also discuss private (non-work related) aspects and pains or our lives. This way, empathy and friendship take place and we feel more connected.

Lucian: Very good question. It is tricky. However at Sensidev, we try our best to implement the flat organizational structure and hopefully, enforcing this concept, and, of course, in conjunction with having the senior devs putting themselves in vulnerable positions (we all are in those situations from time to time) we are trying to create a healthy working environment where our colleagues form strong connections while caring about others and receiving care from others. Self-organised teams are very hard to form, and we think the foundation for this should be: openness, transparency, and trust.

Also, some of my approaches would be:

  • Deal with your ego. E.g. a 10+ experienced dev (like me) should have the guts to admit that he/she doesn’t know something. Also to admit when somebody else has a better idea. It is very important to act in the team’s interest, not being individualistic.
  • Give space to others to grow, do not micromanage people.
  • Empower others to take responsibility for their actions.
  • Find better people than you to collaborate with.
  • Let the team own their code and processes.
  • Listen more (and actively), talk less.
  • Celebrate small successes more than failures.
  • Be open and transparent when things are bad.

7. Ending on a more positive note, when is your mental health at best and what aspects of your job bring you the most satisfaction?

Ionuț: I feel really good and motivated in general, but there are some moments when I feel really excited about my work:

  • When we have successfully onboarded a new team member
  • When we receive positive feedback or even congratulations from customers for our work
  • When securing a new project after a long round of meetings and negotiations

And even smaller moments boost my moral:

  • After a discussion with one of our team members if I did manage to help him
  • After meetings when I feel we managed to inspire confidence and self motivation for the team

Lucian: I feel joy when #sensidevs are helping each other and form a strong (but small for now) dev community of professionals with high standards.

I feel happy when we land new contracts with quality clients who see #sensidevs as experts, not “resources”.

I feel grateful for our team that recently won a €125K grant with the Sensix project.

I feel proud to be a #sensidev :) - Thank you.

We hope you enjoyed our last piece for Mental Health Awareness Week, where our two founders literally poured their hearts out with the scope of helping all of us feel more empowered, connected and kind to our feelings. Stay kind with yourself and others around you!

*This article is published during the International Mental Health Awareness Week, with the aim of bringing more attention to this topic.

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