Stressed-out IT workers, software devs – we're not being funny but have you tried rebooting your breathing?

Forget productivity, find a way to unplug and recover


Software developers and IT workers can improve their sense of well-being and their perception of themselves if they partake in mindful breathing, a trio of boffins have found.

Birgit Penzenstadler, assistant professor of software engineering at Sweden's Chalmers University of Technology, Richard Torkar, professor of software engineering at Chalmers and University of Gothenburg, and Cristina Martinez Montes, a doctoral student at Chalmers, recently completed two small group studies of how tech types took to breathing exercises.

The trio describe the results of their research in a paper [PDF] titled, "Take a deep breath. Benefits of neuroplasticity practices for software developers and computer workers in a family of experiments."

Their goal was to "explore the use of neuroplasticity practices, more specifically, the use of a breathing practice, in terms of its benefits for software developers and computer workers with respect to their attention awareness, well-being, perceived productivity, and self-efficacy."

The study assumes – reasonably enough – that physical, mental, and emotional resilience matter in the context of work and that software developers and IT workers tend to push themselves, or get pushed by management, to the extent that their health suffers.

"Sleep deprivation is often worn as a badge of honor [among developers]," the authors explain, noting that the overall cost of sleep deprivation in the US has been estimated at $411bn annually. "In addition, the pandemic has taken a toll on well-being and productivity."

Sleep deprivation is often worn as a badge of honor ... In addition, the pandemic has taken a toll on well-being and productivity

When people work from home, the boffins say, they tend to be less motivated, less productive, and less committed.

A recent study by researchers from Microsoft – perhaps not an entirely disinterested party when it comes to office and remote work policies – comes to a similar conclusion, that remote work hinders productivity and innovation.

The breathing paper cites a 2020 survey the authors oversaw that found physical activity was the most popular way for software developers to address stress. While acknowledging the value of physical exercise, the paper argues that not everyone can participate and that physical workouts may not adequately address mental well-being.

Various researchers have looked at how mental exercises can improve mental health. In 2019, for example, researchers from Stanford University and Santa Clara University described how mindfulness promotes more innovative thinking. While focused breathing may seem to data-driven types like airy mysticism, it's nonetheless mainstream enough that it's been incorporated into Apple Watch.

To see how breathwork affects software developers, Penzenstadler, Torkar, and Montes took 146 volunteers who spent at least 70 per cent of their time working at a screen through different iterations of a program called Rise 2 Flow. The regime, which not everyone completed to the same degree, consisted of focused breathing exercises – three rounds of seven minutes each with brief relaxation pauses in between, followed by a 20-min relaxation – and other interactions (conversations on Zoom, supplementary reading materials, periodic surveys, and so on).

And after the 12 week survey period, they concluded that deliberate breathing work was worthwhile.

'Resilience'

"The data indicates usefulness and effectiveness of an intervention for computer workers in terms of increasing well-being and resilience," the paper says. "Everyone needs a way to deliberately relax, unplug, and recover. Breathing practice is a simple way to do so, and the results call for establishing a larger body of work to make this common practice."

What the study didn't find was an increase in perceived productivity – those results were inconclusive. But Penzenstadler told The Register in an email that wasn't unexpected.

"We are not surprised that the results didn’t show a direct increase in perceived productivity as we only have their self-assessment but no tests," she said. "So we have to rely on their awareness, and any overall awareness increase also makes people more aware of when they are not paying attention, so the self-assessment could be more critical than at the beginning of the study.

"When people are less stressed and more joyful, they get more done as a side effect and make less errors (other research has shown that). In our exit interviews, there were mentions thereof, just the survey data didn’t show it significantly, so our hypothesis is still that it does over time increase productivity in a healthy sustainable way."

Asked how employers should see this research, Penzenstadler said, "Companies can take away that encouraging and facilitating programs like this is worthwhile because it has the potential to decrease sick days (e.g., stress-induced migraines, burnout symptoms). Secondly, it has the potential to increase employee retention (higher well-being, and a company that cares about it, is a good reason to stay). And a long-term employee who is feeling well and supported is more productive."

Penzenstadler is presently engaged in running a third round of this study, as detailed on the program website. Interested IT types can probably still sign up.

The data and code for the first two rounds of Rise 2 Flow have been released online for anyone interested in trying to replicate the results. ®

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