Professional Development
Career development / DEI / Guest posts / Health / HR

Why I left my software engineering career to prioritize my health

Persistent eye pain and headaches led technologist Pam Selle to quit the industry. Here's how she says workplaces should adapt if they want to retain tech pros with different needs.

A closed laptop resting on a bed. (Photo by ready made from Pexels)
This is a guest post by software engineer Pam Selle. A version of it originally appeared on her website in October 2021. The author is now living pain-free.
My body, rather than my mind, made me stop working in the tech industry, and that pisses me off.

I simply cannot work with screens anymore, because doing so causes significant eye pain and headaches. It may be some combination of repetitive stress injury (RSI) or burnout, or an inconclusive medical issue — I’m not really sure. My pain reminds me of a memory:

Early in my repetitive strain injury journey (ulnar nerve/carpal tunnel pain), I met a hairdresser who had developed carpal tunnel syndrome (likely RSI, IMO). I asked him, “What did you do about it?”

And he said, “Well, I’m not a hairdresser anymore.”

That was terrifying to me at the time. I had just gotten on my career path of working in tech, and I wasn’t ready to stop. At that time, and for many years, I found ways to rest while working so I could continue that career.

So this is to share that I’ve had these points before with computer injury. I did think about using accessibility tools to learn how to program without sight. But this time, I’ve chosen not to, and chosen the path of rest and change instead.

What happened

Earlier this year, I decided I had to leave my second-most-recent engineering position. It had come time (after about two years) to look at where I would go next in my role at that company, and that process allowed me to realize I didn’t want to continue working there. So I did a bunch of reflection, looking at what I would want in my next tech job, and I also started interviewing and studying.

In the story I tell myself about how the problem and pain developed, I was putting in much longer hours on the computer that I already spent so much time on, and this was additionally exacerbated by the pandemic where so much of life had moved online.

I’d like to clarify that bit about “life online”: I’m not sure if other people talk about how there are many different experiences of the pandemic. For me, living in a large American city and working from home meant not seeing my friends indoors. So we had conferences, events, performances, baby showers, all online. I say this to emphasize just how much screen time I had, and if you’re reading this, I encourage you to ponder how much of your life is online.

I signed an offer for a new job at the end of March, and around this time I started getting some headaches. It was also two weeks after I’d gotten the COVID vaccine, so it could be that, I thought. I both didn’t worry about it too much and also worried about it way too much because I didn’t want to report any symptoms that might mean people wouldn’t get this vaccine, which was my only ticket out of my house. Anxiety can lead to paranoia.

At the new job I tried to work through the pain, but it got so, so bad. I now wonder if this was just really shitty timing, that if I had gotten these crushing headaches while still at my last job, I would have dealt with them differently.

Envisioning burnout

I really don’t know the cause of what happened, and burnout can result in physical symptoms as well, but I do think eye strain from screens did play a large role. I recently went back to the eye doctor after being dismissed in the spring (they said the state of my vision couldn’t explain how bad the pain was) and found that my prescription did need correction after all.

I told my new job about the headaches near the end of May, and I spent June “taking the time I needed,” following the instructions of my managers and the guidance of a therapist.

Near the end of June, work started asking, “You seem to take a lot of time off. Are you OK?” Which no, I was not. After a few days of work and some time reflecting, I decided to help ship what I was working on, and then quit.

Making the decision to leave my job drastically dropped my stress level, and visits to a chiropractor helped eliminate the tension headaches. Today (more than two months out from the tech job), my daily pain is fairly low and I have hopes that it might go away.

Leaving tech

I don’t think I’ll go back to software engineering, but never say never, as they say. I love getting paid (very well) to solve puzzles with computers. How many jobs are constantly well compensated for doing things you don’t know how to do? (“We need X.” “OK, I’ll figure out how to build it.”)

But I don’t know that any computing makes the world better, or even neutral. These days the planet is in a dire state. Working with people still doing the “write software” Silicon Valley dance while trying to survive in triple-digit heat waves is a level of cognitive dissonance I can handle no further.

Nor can I deal with performative behaviors of companies with the “We care about you!! Actually though, this IS a job, you’re taking too much time off” bullshit. If you have unlimited PTO, test its bounds, because I promise you they are there.

For those performative companies, or companies that think they aren’t performative: It might feel like you’re worried about saying the right thing. Or, I suspect, you know what the right thing is to say, so that’s what you broadcast. But by saying the “right” things and not meaning it, you’re compromising your integrity. People will notice, and they will leave, or injure their own integrity by ignoring it — and that is a tough injury to heal.

Do your employees know what to do if they have a serious issue that needs addressing? Do your employees even know who their “HR partner” is? (I didn’t, at one company, until I quit.)

If your workers are quitting, don’t say, “Wow, a lot of people sure are quitting.” How are people doing? Do you need to slow down? Make sure you’re delivering on what you’ve promised? Apologize for missed marks and make better commitments?

And if you think “We can’t slow down!” — well, sometimes, at least in my case, you don’t get much of a choice.

People: Pam Selle

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