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.
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”.
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)
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?