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Burnout has long been a problem in game development. But the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic introduced insidious challenges, making it more vital than ever for studios and employees to recognize what burnout means and attempt to treat it before it happens.
“In the last year, I think [burnout has] had a lot more salience to a lot of people given the changing conditions that so many of us have faced in the workplace, and the world at large. … People start launching into how to fix it without really giving some foundational definitions of what it is and what it isn’t,” said Raffael Boccamazzo, the clinical director at Take This, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting mental health wellness in the game industry.
Boccamazzo took the virtual stage at GamesBeat Summit 2021 to outline some steps developers can take to mitigate burnout. He said the human cost alone should convince companies to invest in the mental well-being of their employees. But preventing burnout can help the bottom line as well. If a person feels comfortable and fulfilled at their job, they’re more likely to care about their work and productivity than someone who’s more detached and depressed.
Before giving out some actionable advice, Boccamazzo thought it was important to explain what burnout is on a conceptual level, according to a model first published in 1981. Exhaustion from being overworked is one of the most cited reasons for burnout, but it’s also just one part of a bigger picture. It’s important to also consider how a sense of ineffectiveness (that what you do at work doesn’t matter) and cynicism (when you’re disconnected from yourself or your colleagues) can contribute to that feeling.
“All of these things combine to create this long-term condition that we know as burnout. It is so much more than just being exhausted,” said Boccamazzo.
He noted that while people from all types of fields can experience burnout, it’s particularly common in video games because of the widely accepted practice of cultural crunch. This is different from what he called “emergency hours,” brief periods where workers have to put in extra time on a project because something might’ve went wrong. It’s meant to be temporary.
“When we talk about cultural crunch, we want to think about that in terms of, either tacitly or overtly expected, uncompensated extra hours that a lot of people consider an essential part of the development process. This idea that regular extra hours, upwars of 70 or more hours a week is uncompensated, is inevitable — that is really going to lead to a decreased sense of reward, decreased sense of control, a decreased sense of connection to the workplace, a sense of [being] a disposable resource,” said Boccamazzo.
All the consequences of cultural crunch he mentioned can heavily contribute to burnout. Combined with job instability, many feeling that they have no clear path for advancement, and online harassment from so-called fans, the game industry can be a brutal place for one’s mental wellness. Ultimately, Boccamazzo said burnout is often a systemic issue, and it needs to be addressed from the top.
One important step is for companies to reduce the overall workload on their employees and make more conservative estimates of development times. That’s especially true while working during the pandemic. The clinical director found that many studio heads and managers he spoke to just assumed that their employees could be as productive as they were before COVID-19 upended the world.
Working from home, taking on additional responsibilities within the household (especially for those who have children), and the act of just trying to survive make that an unrealistic goal.
“Change your productivity expectations in light of the ongoing global, generational trauma that we are all facing,” said Boccamazzo.
While he placed the onus of burnout prevention on senior leadership, he encouraged people to take action on an individual level as well. If you feel like you need a break or vacation, take it. Scheduling time off is only a short-term solution, but it can at least help with the exhaustion. It’s also vital to actively support your colleagues and find people who’ll support you in return.
“That sense of connectivity, that sense of inclusion, is one of the most powerful factors in any sort of mental health resilience,” said Boccamazzo.
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