I wouldn’t usually make a public comment on games industry politics. I see Prescription Pixel as a place of support, not opposition. So in this post I am going to employ my personal ethos on cultural intervention: that is, to provide not mere criticism, but suggestions and resources that I hope will assist in an ongoing positive change.
I recently read an article about the working hours in the gaming industry, which many of its readers would have found emotive and frustrating. There is an ingrained culture that creators must dedicate unhealthy volumes of their psychological and physical resources to their job. This is a practice that has been reduced and controlled in many unionised professions, including teaching, medicine, dentistry, law, finance and even farming. There are no video games industry unions that I know of (happy to be corrected here), and so game professionals have been working toward a positive and productive change by promoting awareness of the salient issues, including burnout, reduced corporate productivity, and employee mental health.
The article in question really opposes what these professionals have been trying to do. The general impression it gives is that making games isn’t hard work, and that the employees doing it should forgo many of their rights simply because they have chosen a job in the games industry. In essence, it is an article promoting exploitation, and attributing responsibility of the real psychological phenomena of burnout to those who experience it, whilst removing any accountability from employers. Not only is this unethical, but it’s actually bad business.
The article is a collection of opinions. I believe the dissemination of those opinions to be irresponsible given the 30 years of research and organisational changes that have gone into addressing the definitely real, very common, and sometimes fatal, phenomenon of burnout. In this response article, I hope to bring a more balanced and beneficial perspective on the topic.
I will discuss the literature behind burnout, why it definitely does matter, and how to recognise and avoid it both as an employee and an employer. I will also go on to promote more positive psychological techniques in the workplace to promote increased productivity and psychological organisational climate.
What is burnout?
Burnout is defined as a combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation (feeling cynical and detached) and low perceived efficacy (1, 2). It leads to decreased performance, satisfaction, commitment, and increased turnover of employees (1). This in turn means that the organisation as a whole is less productive and less effective (2). It also leads to increased absence, lateness, and interpersonal conflict with colleagues (3).
Levels of burnout increase with increasing work demands, and decreasing resources (4). Other factors include high work volumes, low autonomy, low reward, workplace discrimination, lack of suitable social relationships, and conflicting values in the workplace (5). Burned out employees impact on the global psychological climate in the work environment, which negatively impacts on other employees. For example, increased absenteeism and social hostility cause increased workload with less physical and psychological resources to remaining employees, and burnout spreads (6). This makes burnout a problem with an exponential growth pattern, best managed early.
The cost to the economy is phenomenal, across all domains. A report by health insurer Medibank Private calculated the costs of burnout in Australia to be $14.81 billion a year in 2008 (7).
Burnout is not a dichotomous condition, but a spectrum. Employees are not simply “burned-out” or “not burned-out”, and it is important for employers to understand the different presentations, stages, and states that burnout can exist in. One study showed that overall, the performance of burned out employees is worse than their partially or not-burned-out colleagues. However, interestingly, moderately burned out employees performed the same as non-burned out. To do this, they had to compensate hugely, putting in far more energy and therefore exacerbating and expediting their inevitable burnout. Those individuals who suffered with feelings of low efficacy also matched those who were burned out in their poor performance, even when controlling for emotional factors (8).
The functional manifestation of burnout is a biological process that is not attributable to an individual’s work ethic or “wage-slave” attitude. fMRI and SPECT analysis have shown that burnout causes lower functional connectivity between the amygdala and the mesial prefrontal cortex, which reduces how well and how quickly we respond to environmental threats. This can lead to reduced ability to experience and regulate emotions, which explains why people become anxious, irritable and teary (9). Burnout also leads to clinically significant decreases in function of working memory (10), leading to poorer concentration. The brain has to recruit more resources from anterior regions to compensate, leading to exponential effect.
Symptoms and Implications of Burnout
As well as the obvious economic cost to companies, it is important to acknowledge the impact burnout can have on the individual level. Burnout is significantly associated with depression (11), drug use, and suicidal ideation (12). Employees with burnout are more likely to quit their jobs (3), causing additional stress and financial hardship.
Importantly, men actually have a higher susceptibility to burnout, as they are less likely to employ productive coping strategies (such as debriefing, socialising with friends, and engaging in cultural activities) (13). This may be related to a socially encouraged propensity in men to feel they should be stoic and cope with high levels of stress. In addition, societal norms discourage men from expressing their emotions, and they are more likely to use depersonalisation as a coping technique (one of the key features of burnout) (13).
This excellent resource from ReachOut Australia provides detailed information about burnout and stress. In summary, the key features to look out for in recognising burnout include:
- Feeling physically or emotionally exhausted. This can make you feel tired, weak, drained, or detached.
- Difficulty concentrating, and forgetfulness.
- Getting sick more than usual, for example with the cold, flu, etc.
- Unexplained physical symptoms like headaches, dizziness, stomach ache (make sure to get these checked out by a doctor).
- Loss of appetite/weight loss.
- Anxiety. This is not just feeling nervous, but can also present with a sense of dread, tension, irritability, and racing thoughts interfering with concentration.
- Depression. This is not just feeling sad, but can also present with feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts.
- Loss of enjoyment. This doesn’t have to just be at work but eventually may spread to areas of social and family life. Please note this is also a symptom of depression.
- Pessimism. If you feel detached and ineffective, you may feel disillusioned with your career.
- Isolation. Social interaction is important for mental health and wellbeing. When employees are experiencing depersonalisation they may not feel like talking to their colleagues, clients or customers.
- Apathy. “What’s the point in trying?” this attitude further decreases one’s sense of self-worth and purpose.
- Lack of productivity and poor performance.
This is particularly relevant to those readers who are indie game developers, as studies have shown that prevalence of burnout is increased in people who are self-employed (14).
Whose responsibility is it?
I believe burnout is everyone’s responsibility. Employees can do a lot to self-monitor and provide peer-support. This includes checking in with oneself, attending to self-care, monitoring for signs and symptoms, and raising awareness in others. There are personality factors that make people more and less susceptible to burnout, and it is important to consider what sort of person you are, and whether there is anything you can be putting into place to avoid burnout occurring. For example, burnout is higher in people who have reduced emotional stability, and lower in those who are more conscientious (15).
However, there is no amount of self-regulation an employee can do to prevent burnout if their employer doesn’t also get involved. It is not medically reasonable to expect an employee to work beyond their functional capacity and still perform to their best standard. Providing an environment where employees are reasonably challenged but not overworked, with enough resources to satisfactorily do their job without having to work overtime, is essential in maintaining a positive psychological climate and subsequently increasing productivity. The more burned out you get, the less you are able to recognise how burned out you are (16). This theory links into the emotional regulation we discussed above. It highlights even further the importance of employer responsibility.
The other responsibility of the employer is to ensure employees are self-regulating or that there is some mechanism in place to monitor their levels of stress and burnout, and intervene early. When feeling burnout, employees are more likely to blame themselves than their employer or working conditions, leading them to “work harder” to try to compensate (16). They often blame their own personality. This puts the onus on the employer to ensure their team are checking in and aware of the symptoms above. Interestingly, a study of mental health workers showed that even despite their education and training, they expected to be able to avoid burnout and would try to work past it, even though they knew they couldn’t (16). This fact makes the original article I cited all the more dangerous, because it encourages an attitude of denial that is dangerous to everyone in the organisation.
Moving forward – individual and organisational strategies for avoiding and managing burnout
- Address your basic needs. Maslow’s heirarchy describes how self-actualisation (feeling the best you can) is mounted on the foundations of attending to your every day human needs. This means you have to eat (preferably well), drink water, sleep, have shelter, etc. Make sure you’re taking care of these first, before all else.
- Exercise. Exercise is great, it releases endorphins, makes you happy, and gives you more energy.
- Keep a diary of your stresses. Think about how you could improve them and try to consider strategies that are realistic. It’s good to talk about this with friends, family, etc, as they might come up with great suggestions you hadn’t thought of.
- Relax. Make sure you spend time relaxing, however you choose to do it. Some people meditate, others read, have a hot bath, or a meal with their partner. I play puzzle games. It’s individual to you, but super important, and can make the world of difference. In fact, this is particularly important for people who work in games, as studies have shown that pursuing your hobby helps to buffer the effects of burnout even if you work in that hobby (15). So keep playing games!
- Learn to say “no”. Your first priority should be you. The more you take on, the less of yourself you are able to give to all of these projects, and everybody has their limitations – you are not a superhero and cannot be expected to be one. If this is not possible in your place of work – as is often the case – consider delegation (giving the job to someone else) or raising the issue with your superior. They might not have realised how heavy the workload was.
- Learn mindfulness and other productive stress management techniques. There are a number of wonderful apps which can be really useful in this pursuit because you can do it on the go.
- See a professional. If you are really struggling or think you might have depression, anxiety or another mental health problem, don’t wait. Being on the right treatment could change your life.
Are you an employer? There are so many things that can be done in the workplace to help prevent burnout and foster a happier, healthier and more productive environment. I feel like it goes without saying, but preventing your employees from working 80 hour weeks is a good start.
Other strategies could include allowing flexible working hours to fit individual needs, organising work-outings to promote socialisation of employees, and openly talking about stress. Making yourself accountable for the health of your employees takes a significant weight from them.
The theoretical antithesis of burnout is “Engagement”. This describes the cognitive, emotional, and behavioural energy an employee gives to their work (6). In our example, we would conceptualise their engagement as their enthusiasm for making games. Engagement is good on all levels – it leads to increased productivity, retention, and improved customer/client relations (6). For the employee, it increases wellbeing. Engagement is not simply the lack of burnout, it is its own distinct concept which can be assisted by the employer (17).
Shuck and Reio (6) published a really useful paper which not only performed a comprehensive literature review but also a quantitative cross-sectional analysis looking at correlations between psychological workplace climate (ie is it a good or bad place to work, are we positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic) with the individual factors of burnout, and also the engagement of staff. They found that engagement was more predictive of task performance than intrinsic motivation, job involvement, and job satisfaction. Basically – if you make a good working environment for your employees, they will work better.
It’s not rocket science.
- Halbesleben, J.R.B., & Buckley, M.R. (2004). Burnout in organizational life. Journal of Management, 30, 859–879.
- Brooking J. Textbook of psychiatric and mental health nursing. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone; 1992
- Rafii F, Shamsikhani S, Zarei M, Haghani M, Shamsikhani S. Burnout and its relationship with the nurses’ characteristics. Iran Journal of Nursing. 2012;25(78):23–33.
- Demerouti, E., Bakker, A.B., Nachreiner, F., & Schaufeli, W.B. (2001). The job demands-resources model of burnout. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 499–512.
- Maslah C, Liter M.P. The truth about burnout Sanfrancisco. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey- Bass; 1997
- Shuck and Reio, 2014, Employee Engagement and Well-Being: A Moderation Model and Implications for Practice, Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 21 (2014), p. 43
- Available at: http://www.beanmanaged.com/doc/pdf/arnoldbakker/articles/articles_arnold_bakker_114.pdf Accessed April 17, 2016.
- Golkar A, Johansson E, Kasahara M, Osika W, Perski A, Savic I. The influence of work-related chronic stress on the regulation of emotion and on functional connectivity in the brain. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(9):e104550.
- Sokka L, Leinikka M, Korpela J, et al. Job burnout is associated with dysfunctions in brain mechanisms of voluntary and involuntary attention. Biol Psychol. 2016;117:56-66.
- Schonfeld IS, Bianchi R. Burnout and Depression: Two Entities or One?. J Clin Psychol. 2016;72(1):22-37.
- Dyrbye LN, Thomas MR, Massie FS, Power DV, Eacker A, Harper W, Durning S, Moutier C, Szydlo DW, Novotny PJ, Sloan JA, Shanafelt TD, Burnout and suicidal ideation among U.S. medical students., Ann Intern Med. 2008 Sep 2; 149(5):334-41.
- Greenglass, E. R., Burke, R. J. and Ondrack, M. (1990), A Gender-role Perspective of Coping and Burnout. Applied Psychology:An International Review, 39: 5–27. doi: 10.1111/j.1464-0597.1990.tb01035.x
- Jamal, M. (2007). Burnout and self-employment: A cross-cultural empirical study. Stress and Health: Journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress, 23, 249–256.
- Volpone, S. D., Perry, S. J. and Rubino, C. (2013), An Exploratory Study of Factors that Relate to Burnout in Hobby-Jobs. Applied Psychology:An International Review, 62: 655–677. doi: 10.1111/j.1464-0597.2012.00502.x
- Available at: http://researchonline.nd.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1097&context=med_conference. Accessed April 18, 2016.
- Schaufeli, W. B., Taris, T. W. and Van Rhenen, W. (2008), Workaholism, Burnout, and Work Engagement: Three of a Kind or Three Different Kinds of Employee Well-being?. Applied Psychology:An International Review, 57: 173–203. doi: 10.1111/j.1464-0597.2007.00285.x
I'm a psychiatry doctor and passionate gamer. I run a resource called prescriptionpixel.com - an interface between video games and mental health.
This is a space for gamers to safely share their feelings, access personalised resources, and seek help without judgement or stigma.