Mental Health at HackathonsPosted by Patti Mikula on October 20, 2020
Mental Health at Hackathons
Hackathons began as caffeine-fuelled, pizza-powered, bro-coder events where developers raced against the clock and their competitors to make the winning solution and take home the top prize.
Thankfully they have evolved to be more inclusive and diverse. But the competitive and time-crunched nature of hackathons can still be stressful. Since this is Mental Health Awareness month we wanted to share some of the things we do at our hackathons to ensure we are creating fun, engaging events, while safeguarding the physical and mental wellbeing of our participants.
Design a Healthy Agenda
Some of our hackathons are open overnight, but we never expect or encourage our participants to push through for the full 48 hours. We recognize that people work on different schedules, and some people are at their most productive when the sun goes down. But others are at their best in the middle of the day. The best part about a hackathon is you can essentially set your own hours.
For our venues that are open overnight, we try to create zones for resting or napping. And we don’t program activities overnight (well unless it is a global event in which case it’s always night time somewhere) so participants don’t feel like they are missing out if they head off to sleep.
Healthy Food Options
We always have healthy food and drink options at our programs. We’ve come a long way from the “pizza and red bull” events of the old days. We find that whole fruit is one of the easiest ways to ensure everyone can grab a healthy snack. It doesn’t have to be refrigerated, it doesn’t need utensils and it is a budget-friendly option too. That doesn’t mean we don’t offer up salty and sweet snacks too, it just means we try to have all options available.
We also try to ensure we have food options to meet a variety of dietary needs. If someone can’t eat what is available, they may just skip eating altogether, and that’s not a healthy option.
We are always trying to be eco-friendly at our programs as well, so whenever we can we try to include a reusable mug or water bottle, and we make water filling stations available throughout the hackathon. That allows participants to stay hydrated without depending on single-use plastics or a steady stream of coffee.
Whenever possible we program some self-care options into the agenda. This might be on-site massages, some yoga or stretching, or even getting outside. One hackathon we hosted was held at an eco education venue. That allowed us to organize hikes on their trails for people that wanted to take a break. It was a great break for mind and body.
Check-in with Participants Often
We try to check in with our participants often. It helps gauge the stress levels of particular teams or individuals and can help identify anyone who might be struggling. Checking-in with participants during a virtual hackathon can be difficult. You can’t just wander over to their table whenever you like. So with our online events we schedule times to meet up with the teams. We can answer questions they may have, we can see if they have any roadblocks we can help them with and we can just chat. Random conversations at hackathons are great, you just have to work a bit harder to have them online.
The Final Countdown
Even if you have taken all of the steps to create a healthy hackathon environment, the ticking clock can make the final submission stressful. We always give lots of reminders to the teams so they aren’t surprised by the deadline. We also encourage our teams to “practice” the submission early on so they know exactly who has to do what and when and they don’t get any surprises at the end. And we have LOTS of people on hand to help the teams with their final submissions. There will always be an unexpected problem or two, but with lots of people around we can ensure that every team gets their hard work submitted on time (or close to it, we’re not going to eliminate a team for tech glitches).
The Big Pitch
Demos and pitches can be stressful, there’s no way around that. But we try to make our pitches fun and as enjoyable for everyone as possible. One way to de-stress the demos (for both the teams and the organizers) is to allow participants to pre-record them. Participants can still be available for a live Q&A with the judges but they don’t need to worry about stumbling over their pitch or running out of time.
If you have ideas to ensure healthy environments at hackathons we would love to hear them!