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Is Burnout Inevitable in the Creative Industries?

Candle that has just been snuffed out.

Photo by J R Guillaumin

How would you like to work 15-20 hours unpaid overtime a week?

What about doing it for weeks on end because of unrealistic schedules?

How about a 65% chance of damaging your health from the stress of overtime?

And what if someone told you these were just occupational hazards, to be expected if you choose a career in the creative industries?

Earlier this year, Develop magazine conducted Quality of Life survey of 350 employees in the games industry. The results were published in the May 2009 edition of Develop, which you can download here.

The stats make pretty damning reading:

  • 98% of respondents are not paid for the overtime they work
  • 85% have to work ‘crunch’ – periods of intensive overtime before deadlines
  • 60% have to work over 10 hours overtime a week during crunch — some as many as 25 to 30 hours per week
  • 60% feel that they work too much
  • 65% say that working crunch has impacted their health

As well as the statistics, the magazine published some very telling quotations from the anonymous respondents.

I am currently looking to leave the games industry, where I have worked as a programmer for seven years. The excessive overtime and minimal recognition is damaging my health, my sanity and my marriage.

Both myself and my friends have been forced to work a ridiculous amount of overtime, causing depression and bad physical health from lack of exercise and poor diet.

It’s no secret that prolonged workplace stress can lead to employee burnout, accompanied by symptoms of anxiety, depression, addictive behaviour, relationship problems and illness. Not to mention days off, sick leave, resignations, low morale and lost productivity.

Yet several of the survey respondents suggested that ‘crunch’ is normal and inevitable, not just in computer gaming, but in any creative industry:

Crunch seems to just be accepted as ‘the norm in creative industries’ — this attitude will only prolong the myth that it aids productivity, when in fact all it does is crucify morale.

Until we have fundamental changes throughout the industry … the only way to make quality games is to crunch. I don’t like it, but fundamentally I’m in the entertainment business, and a bit of pain is the norm in these.

Everyone is always aware why crunch is needed. No one wants to do it by choice, but in a milestone-oriented environment this is inevitable. It’s no different to film and TV, where creativity is integral to the product and boundaries are pushed. Especially now when we have a recession and so many small teams are on the brink of collapse.

The computer games industry does have a particularly bad reputation for overworking people (see: EA Spouse). It even has a special word for it — ‘crunch’ — which sounds as bad as it must feel. But it’s far from the only creative industry in which people are expected to work absurdly long hours to meet deadlines, often for little or no overtime pay or other compensation.

What’s going on here? Are crunch and burnout inevitable in the creative industries — or can anything be done to avoid them?

Should Creative Companies Do More to Protect Employees from Burnout?

Many of the respondents to the Develop survey were highly critical of studio management.

Specific accusations included poor planning and scheduling and unrealistic expectations:

  • 65% disagreed that “projects are well-scheduled”
  • 80% agreed that “crunch is caused by unreasonable or unrealistic expectations”
  • 75% disagreed that “the crunch culture of games development is necessary to produce good games”

I would suggest another two management factors that contribute to burnout:

Poor people management skills. As we saw in my e-book on Motivating Creative People, it’s frighteningly easy to demotivate people through clumsy people management skills. Conversely, it’s possible to maintain morale under pressure (within reason) if managers are empathetic and supportive of their teams.

A cavalier attitude to competition. In some industries, where talent is plentiful and competition for jobs is fierce, managers sometimes adopt the attitude ‘Consider yourself lucky to be working here – there are plenty of people willing to fill your shoes if you don’t like it’. Which may be true on the face of it – but it’s also a brilliant strategy for demotivating people and making the least of their talent.

Reading through the Develop survey, it would be easy to paint the managers of games studios as the villains. But it’s only fair to remember that they are often under enormous pressure from publishers, especially regarding scheduling and deadlines.

And the survey results weren’t all negative. Respondents were fairly evenly split on whether they are “adequately compensated” for their work, and whether their companies have “a good attitude to Human Resources and keeping [their] staff happy”.

There were also signs of lessons learned by some games studio managers:

I am a manager and partly responsible for a hideous release and crunch period. I have personally made it my mission to do it better, and have spent the last two months studying different project management methodologies, practices and frameworks non-stop. My first child is due in five weeks: I have to do this better, I have no choice.

Are Creative Workers Partially Responsible for Burnout?

Two of the quoted respondents felt employees should take some of the responsibility for their predicament:

It’s a talented employee’s responsibility to leave an over-crunched studio. Let the good studios get the good employees, and let the poorly managed studios be staffed with the untalented.

The rank and file employees are also partially accountable on the crunch culture, because we agreed on the task and schedules and did not deliver it on time. It’s not only management’s fault that crunch happens.

While I’m not sure how much choice employees really have when they ‘agree’ to an unrealistic schedule, it’s worth considering how far employees contribute to their own burnout — and what they can do about it.

A few months ago I published an article on Lateral Action called Burnout: the Dark Side of Creativity, in which I looked at the elements of the creative process and the creative personality that make artists and other creative professionals particularly susceptible to burnout:

  • Obsession — As we saw in The Joy of Work, creative professionals love what they do. Which is great, as long as we don’t overdo it and become obsessive, working more hours but becoming less productive.
  • Perfectionism — Of course you need to be a perfectionist to do great work. But there’s a difference between high standards and nit-picky dissatisfaction and frustration. Do you know where to draw the line?
  • Hypersensitivity — We put so much of ourselves into our work that any feedback can feel like personal criticism. Unless we learn to ‘let go’ and look at things more objectively, this can get very stressful for everyone involved.
  • Control freakery — As with perfectionism, you probably won’t achieve much creatively without being a bit of a control freak. But you can’t control everything, particularly in a team situation – trying to do so will only make your life more difficult.
  • The weight of expectation — High standards breed high expectations. No problem with that – as long as you remember that (a) you are only human, and (b) risk and failure are inevitable in any creative endeavour. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with expectation, maybe it’s time to go easy on yourself.

I’m not suggesting workers only have themselves to blame for burnout. But if you’re a creative worker feeling under pressure, have an honest look through the list and ask yourself whether any of them apply to you.

If so, maybe it’s time to ease up a bit and find some time for rest and relaxation. And talk to someone you trust about your situation. Workplace stress and burnout are sadly common experiences, and there are plenty of options for getting help if you need it – often the biggest step is acknowledging that you need it.

What’s the Cost of Burnout to Creative Companies?

Crunch is designed to boost productivity and meet deadlines – but ironically it can have the opposite effect:

this attitude will only prolong the myth that [crunch] aids productivity, when in fact all it does is crucify morale.

As we saw in the Motivation E-book, crucifying morale = crucifying creativity and productivity.

Some people argue that ‘deadline magic’ can have a galvanising effect on a creative team, giving them an adrenaline rush of energy and raising performance. There’s some truth in this argument, when applied to short bursts of energy, such as a musical concert, theatre play, sales pitch or other performance situation. This is because our ‘fight our flight’ stress response has evolved to help us reach peak performance instantly, to deal with immediate threats such as the proverbial sabre-toothed tiger.

But the ‘fight or flight’ response did not evolve to help us deal with extended periods of stress, such as spending weeks working unpaid overtime for a demanding and unappreciative boss. In this situation, stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol start to damage the brain, blood vessels and other parts of the body, eventually causing a range of mental, emotional and physical symptoms.

For example:

Stress and crunch have caused me to take several months off work in order to recover. There was no help from the company in question. I’ll never let it happen again, and I won’t let any person that working under me go through it, either. Utterly unproductive.

The human cost of a story like this is bad enough. But if you’re tempted to play the hard-nosed businessperson, stop and think about the cost – in time, money, productivity and morale – to a company of having an employee signed off for several months with stress and/or illness. And make sure you factor in the effect on the entire team, not just this individual.

What Are the Alternatives to Crunch and Burnout?

So can anything be done to eliminate crunch and burnout in creative companies, or should we just grit our teeth and get on with it?

Here are some of the options that emerged from the Develop survey, plus one suggestion of my own.

Fair Rewards for Overtime

Develop Editor Michael French highlighted two very different approaches to the problem of crunch:

Epic Games (which rewards staff generously for crunch, by all accounts) and Relentless (which claims to have never worked overtime) might appear to be on opposite ends of the spectrum given that one is pro and the other anti crunch.

Michael Capps, President of Epic Games, caused outrage in some quarters when he said the company expects people to work 60 hour weeks. But Develop Develop Deputy Editor Ed Fear points out in Capp’s defence that “while Epic does expect staff to work longer hours, it makes that expectation clear from the outset and rewards its staff with bonuses that exceed their base salary”.

Banning Overtime

Long-time Wishful Thinking readers may recall my interview with David Amor, Executive Director of Relentless Software, in which he described his company’s radical approach to management: employees have to clock in at 9 and work until 5, but are not allowed to work overtime! The Relentless website even proudly displays a counter showing the number of days/hours/minutes/seconds the company has been working without crunch.

Earlier this week I contacted David to tell him I was writing about burnout, and asked him to answer the question “Are crunch and burnout necessary evils in computer games development, or are there alternatives?’. Here’s his response:

I think that a lot of creative projects are hard to schedule and it’s easy for things to overrun, but that fact is often used as an excuse for poor scheduling and lack of planning. Worse than this are schedules that actually plan for weekend work; that suggests that the project scope could never be achieved within the budget.

Crunch and burnout are both avoidable with enough planning and contingency, but there’s a degree of tolerance and expectancy within the industry that seems to make them par for the course.

(David Amor, Executive Director, Relentless Software)

Tighter Regulation

In the Develop survey, 75% of respondents felt that “trade body organisations have a duty to monitor and restrict over-working of employees”. One of the respondents suggested that “we need an actual union for developers, not just something for companies to join”.

Better People Management Skills

With my background in stress management and managing creative performance, I naturally see a link between people management skills (often neglected in creative companies) and stress and performance levels. When the pressure’s on, a really good manager can act as a ‘buffer’ against external demands, maintaining rapport and morale, and supporting team members during the period of stress.

If you or your fellow managers are looking for some tips on how to get the best out of people in difficult circumstances, feel free to download my e-books How to Motivate Creative People (Including Yourself) and Creative Management for Creative Teams. Both are licensed for free noncommercial distribution, so you’re welcome to forward them to anyone who may find them useful.

What Do You Think?

Should we accept overwork and burnout as occupational hazards of working in a creative business?

Should creative industries companies be doing more to protect employees from burnout?

Is intensive overtime necessary to meet deadlines — or does it impair productivity?

Comments

  1. Sometimes working to a tight deadline under high pressure makes for the best creative ideas, but this should not be the norm. Is there not a third way of recognising that sometimes you have to work a lot of overtime, but being rewarded with extra days off or team treats?

  2. Good point – It makes a big difference if you only ask people to put in the extra hours from time to time – and make it up to them afterwards in some way.

  3. Having reached the point of burnout over three years ago – and still fighting off some of the effects – I would say that we shouldn’t accept burnout as an occupational hazard. The doctor’s bills alone would probably wipe out any overtime or standard bonus you may receive. Productivity and creativity felt like the last characteristics that were impaired, but they were/are the hardest to recover. I think employers, planners and developers need to be made aware of the detrimental effects of burnout and work together to ensure no one gets to that point. It’s far easier to ask someone if there is a better way to plan or work together than to try and fix the problems that creep through after someone has lost the ability to creatively problem-solve or, well, think of more than one step at a time.

    Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  4. The problem is not just the management or mis-management of projects and relative manpower within a company, but those ignorant perceptions outside. To qualify my further comments, I am a stop-motion/2d animator with a foot in both traditional and the digital camps and clearly know the advantages of either after 17 years in the business. All creative media is facing unprecedented advances in the desktop realm. Things are advancing at a bewildering pace in both software and hardware. This is all good, but my experience of agencies, production companies, and clients who don’t have a clue quite what it is they are asking for, is that their perception of the creativity used to drive said technology is widely ignorant. At an SME level, there is a dangerous precedent being set where clients assume that just because the technology can do more, it’s cheaper to do and requires less people and man hours, hence ridiculous turnaround times and pathetic budgets. If anything, the opposite is true due to market saturation of certain skillsets and the competition this instills to pull off something unique for a client with delusions of grandeur. In my view, creativity has become widely devalued by the combination of the unstoppable march of the desktop, the duress to keep up, and the perceptions of the ignorant at what it can deliver. I’ve pencilled in my burnout to commence at around half-past December as it’s likely to be the only time I can fit it in…

    An article underlining why a change in career is inevitable and perhaps welcome. Thanks.

  5. Hi Mark: I just published a post today in which I mention how designer Stefan Sagmeister closes his New York studio for a yearlong sabbatical every 7 years. He claims that this refreshes his creative outlook and that it makes him money in the long run: the year off improves the quality of his work and, therefore, he can charge more for it. In fact, he says that what he does during his year off becomes the source of his ideas for the next 7 years of work. Although today’s society is about working more and more hours, in order to keep your creativity flowing, you need to take time off.

  6. @ CRooney – Thanks for sharing your experience. It would be great if someone read your comment and took it as a prompt to avoid burnout in themselves – or someone on their team.

    @ Chris – Good points about specialisation and outsourcing compounding the problems. Sometimes the work is so specialised you have to be a specialist to understand why it needs a specialist! Another argument for us all to develop our T-Shaped knowledge.

    @ Marelisa – Great post! Have You Thought of Taking a Sabbatical? It makes complete sense, unfortunately in many places you’d probably have to be the business owner to be allowed a sabbatical.

  7. blimey where to start. the problem is exacerbated in sectors such as designer fashion where the small fashion designer is flanked in the supply chain by larger companies (ie with more muscle) on the buying side and on the production side. This exerts huge pressure on the fashion design firms who get by by drawing on the prestige of working for a top contemporary label and use a raft of interns to work long hours often unpaid.
    The economic situation further multiplies the problem.
    This is not to excuse any business owner that exploits on the goodwill of its staff base but simply to say that the supply chain structures and thus costing & profit models of some sectors really don’t work!
    It’s easy to say that we need better costing & profit models but as the comments above suggest there is a larger challenge which is the misapprehension that technology improvements make things cheaper. Unfortunately once prices have been set for particular goods & services it is very hard to shift industry norms. The opportunity to set better prices comes with the introduction of new goods. This means that the ability of leading firms to set pricing such that it can take into account things like paid overtime rather than unpaid becomes crucial. So what needs to change in the processes of costing up and pitching for work?

  8. Good points about the structural problems squeezing everyone in the supply chain.

    This means that the ability of leading firms to set pricing such that it can take into account things like paid overtime rather than unpaid becomes crucial. So what needs to change in the processes of costing up and pitching for work?

    One big thing that would need to change in a lot of cases is for unpaid overtime to be seen as a big enough problem for it to be even factored into the equation.

  9. This is %100 a mismanagement issue.

    Both from A personal time management and a leadership managing creative work.

    I have been in video games for 10 years now. I Crunch, but way less than my colleagues (because I become useless after a couple of days). I have a team of 13 people under me. They get rewarded for short crunching, but more importantly they get rewarded for figuring out how to get rid of crunch hours on our projects.

    This is because that while deadlines are important I think that life management is more important. There is nothing more important for me and my team than success on all fronts. Success at work, success of project, success of marriage etc.

    If I prioritize 1 over the other than bad decisions are made across the board for all the people involved. It creates resentment and the desire for success of the project eventually fades.

    Video games are notoriously badly managed. Its an epidemic of bad decision making from the planning stage all the way to the final push. I think it’s due to second guessing and the belief that we have to be perfect.

    If I could suggest anything to people managing creative endeavors, Set your sites high but include happiness, life value, and the willingness to be great but not necessarily the greatest. Remember that the projects will always be there to take up your life. But you loved ones and health will eventually fade.

    If you put your own life ahead of those of your employees you are only half successful. Because as soon as your employee learns the skills needed so that I can hire them. As soon as I tell them “We hate Crunch and it’s company policy to learn how to kill it.” They take a pay cut and come work with me.

    And we have fun.

  10. It is great that this information is out there, and I hope it stays live and searchable for quite some time. I’ve witnessed some serious disrespect for creative individuals in my lifetime, and how it drains the creative person of their passion. Unfortunately, financial reasons keep these individuals in these situations, and it’s a cycle that leads to burnout. It takes a giant leap of faith and dedication for a creative individual in a bad situation to change it themselves. I was one of those individuals in a publishing company where most creative employees had felt the effects of the economy repeatedly through several sales of the company. The morale was terrible, and I left the company for what seemed a growing corporation. My leap of faith was met by a lay off a year and a half later. Despite the many obstacles, my leap was well worth it, and I’ve found my creative inspiration again. I hope to be in a situation if not now, someday to help other creatives and non creatives see the importance in our line of work.

    It seems there is a disconnect between business expectations and what it takes to work creatively. There needs to be an education that spreads across the management level of corporations in all areas of business. My experiences have lead me to a desire to spread the understanding that creativity leads to innovation. We would not have the great scientific discoveries of our time or the profitable business ventures if people in decision making positions had not been open to seeing a new and evolved way of approaching their trade. Once creativity and those with natural or learned creative traits are treated with equal respect to other professions, then we will all benefit with further advances to technology and business. It is up to all positions in a company to open up to the importance of creativity.

  11. BF Smoody says:

    a comment on your “burn-out” photograph, my first, and second impression when looking at the page–it looks like a smoking cigarette, which by itself is an unpleasant image, and burn-out is nasty, too, but maybe if the candle weren’t white the burn-out image would not conjure up the ciggie image so quickly. I look forward to reading more of your content. I just had to tell you what the photo made me think of…..

  12. I see several issues here:

    1. Many people never get out of the procrastination mode—doing all-nighters for school work sets the stage for future endeavors. Many of these people will mistakenly tell you they do their best work under pressure.
    2. Neglecting work/personal balance. Most people work to live, not the other way around. Harmony between these two competing demands makes a better employee.
    3. Un- or under-developed people (soft) skills. When your work or academic history focuses on a product and does not touch on ancillary topics like leadership, human resources, or basic supervisory techniques, you end up having monsters for supervisors.
    Solutions:
    1. Eliminate fear of failure. In fact, jump right into it! Strive to fail. Then continue on. The pursuite of perfection has lost more fantastic ideas than it creates.
    2. A good supervisor will be aware of milestones and deadlines. S/he can keep staff on track, notify senior management of slippages and problems and advocate effectively for his/her staff to create that exceptional work environment that fosters creativity and happiness.

  13. @ Michael –

    They get rewarded for short crunching, but more importantly they get rewarded for figuring out how to get rid of crunch hours on our projects.

    Great approach to management, looking at the bigger picture and getting the priorities right. Thanks for sharing.

    @jportfolio –

    Unfortunately, financial reasons keep these individuals in these situations, and it’s a cycle that leads to burnout. It takes a giant leap of faith and dedication for a creative individual in a bad situation to change it themselves.

    Too true. Burnout can lead to learned helplessness, where you don’t see the options available. Glad to hear you found the courage to make the leap, and things worked out (eventually).

    @ BF Smoody – Relax, it’s not a Rorschach test! 🙂

    @ Mary K – Good summary of issues and options, thanks. Only problem with 2 is if the supervisor himself/herself is under pressure to meet unrealistic deadlines, in which case s/he can at best be a buffer between senior management and the team.

  14. very good. thanks alot

  15. Interesting post and follow-up comments. I work in the advertising business and many of the issues commented on above apply to our sector just as much as the gaming industry. However much time we have to do a job, and however well we try to plan the resource, we always have that ‘crunch’ as big deadlines approach and the team works late nights and weekends to get it done.
    No question that economic pressure, client demands and our own mismanagement of time and resource are the key factors. But I also sometimes wonder whether it’s in the nature of creative people not to plan their time and prioritise their tasks. There are people who methodically assign time to jobs to ensure that work is completed within deadline (the kind of people who, to Mary K’s point above, planned their revision schedule for the school term so they didn’t need to pull all-nighters when the exams arrived) but those people tend to become managers and administrators, not creatives. Maybe the psychological make-up of the folks who can think laterally and make crazy, intuitive creative leaps is just fundamentally at odds with the imposition of structure and process. Some of our most brilliant creatives are the ones who are worst at managing deadlines. Perhaps, whatever systems are put in place, there will always be a tension between the managers who try to schedule work and the creatives who resist process and reject structure.

    I’m no psychologist so this theory could be rubbish.

  16. I think you are right Neil – in some cases.

    A while back I wrote an e-book called Time Management for Creative People and several people had a go at me in the comments for daring to suggest that a little more organisation and structure can actually be good for creativity. But since then the e-book has been downloaded over 80,000 times and led to me running lots of workshops on the subject – attended by creatives of all descriptions, who have been VERY hungry to learn.

    So my experience suggests that – although we love the image of the wild, unfettered creative soul – there’s also a great demand for order and structure among creatives. But it has to be the right kind of structure – not imposed from above, but growing out of the demands of the work itself.

    I once interviewed some contemporary poets about their working habits. It was interesting to see a spectrum emerge, of order vs chaos. E.g. Susan Wicks described a very orderly working routine, while Paul Farley said he could never write when he wanted to, and had to be ‘mugged’ by a poem when he was in the middle of doing something else.

    I think most of us are somewhere on that spectrum between structure and improvisation. Some people might say that that’s the nature of creativity itself. 😉

  17. Hi Mark

    Many thanks for this important post…I found it reflected my experience too, although with a different kind of creative endeavour, the environmental & sustainability activism work I have been involved in since 1993.

    All of the same things in terms of personal responsibility apply to anyone involved in social change work, but in the case of social change activitsts [like writers, artists] it can also often be unpaid with no one making you do anything but yourself [too much intrinsic motivation?!]. I recall the 1996 conference of environment groups in Australia included a session on burnout, how to survive when a campaign you have invested blood, sweat and tears in fails etc.

    I spent five years working voluntarily 10am – 6pm with an environment NGO [minus University contact hours] and did indeed end up trashing my health. But it wasn’t for fear of losing my job, since my work was voluntary. It was work that was [and still is] so important and interesting to me on a personal level that my health took a major blow. I did it again about five years later when I took on more extracurricular work of this nature while working full time [and then foolishly doing other community work like organising school reunions, one of which was attended by 700 people!].

    There were benefits from all my efforts in terms of contacts and learning and travel opportunities, and the work I did also very much contributed to my now being in a paid work role that I love, that is aligned with my values and where I am earning good money.

    I will continue to do the voluntary work I am committed to, but need to get better at maintaining the delicate balance of doing work that is personally important to me and sustaining mySELF! 24-7 digital connection has made it even harder to create boundaries and tell yourself ‘I’ll just do x…’.

    Cheers from Australia,
    Sharon

    PS: Your readers might be interested in these links:

    http://www.gohomeontimeday.org.au
    http://www.timeday.org

  18. I think that a lot of the reason for these ‘crunch’ nights, can be due to how responsibility is divided. Often the people given the responsibility of doing the work or coming up with the creative, aren’t the same people who decide wether its good enough or the right idea to go in front of a client. Its rarely, in my experience,because of a creatives love for ‘chaos’ or perfectionists who want to keep going while there is still time.(These kinds of last minute pushes are inspiring and are second nature to lots of creative people). It can be a case of second guessing over and over again until there is no more time, this kind of last minute pressure creates stress and is perhaps not helpful to the creative process.

  19. @ Sharon – Thanks for sharing your experience. Yes, having a meaningful purpose is a very important intrinsic motivation, very applicable to activists of all kinds. And it can be just as powerful a trap as the intrinsic motivations linked to creativity.

    @ Squa – Completely agree that the whole issue of evaluation can be very stressful. I’ve written a few pieces about giving (and receiving) feedback on creative work, so you might like to have a look at the Feedback category for this site: http://www.wishfulthinking.co.uk/category/feedback/

  20. I don’t think that burnout is inevitable. If someone is to remain creative they need to devote part of their time reading, watching, or otherwise studying a wide variety of diverse tops. I’ve found that if you can be a “jack of all trades”, you will have more than enough creativity to last a lifetime. Look at Leonardo DaVinci – he was interested in everything and if he was still alive today I’d wager that he would still be into everything due to his passion for creating.

    Those who feel that being in the Creative Industry is “work”, then they probably should find another career since they will definitely burn out.

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  23. Well I worked in the film industry (for 7 years) or did until 5 months ago. I had to quit after feeling total apathy for work. I guess I got completely burned out, I’m trying to start my own projects atm but im far too unmotivated.

  24. Very interesting post and comments.
    What I find what is important to you, a hobby that has nothing to do with the occupation. So you have some time for themselves and kan off well. In this way can you avoid burnout.

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