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I got occupational burnout - and you might, too

Will Luton on a "scarily ubiquitous" problem in the games industry, but one that can be identified and prevented

It's 9.32pm on an early August night. I'm sat in the back of a taxi and I feel desperate and hopeless. I don't know if I'm on the edge of a breakdown. I try to cry, to prove to myself that I'm sad, but it doesn't work. I don't understand what this feeling is, but I want it to stop.

This moment in this Hackney Carriage is the low point in the middle of a journey into and out of what I will later discover is "occupational burnout".

It took me another three months to start to feel stable again. But as I came out the other side of this struggle, I began to talk about my experience to friends in the industry. Some were squeamish about the topic. Others had a horror story of someone they knew. Yet many had been through an experience close to mine.

Occupational burnout is the medical definition of the results of long-term unresolved job stress, and it is scarily ubiquitous in the games industry. The way we work and the pressure we put ourselves under is causing physical and psychological harm to many.

"People can burnout in jobs they love, making it likely they won't even think their job is the issue"

It's not just enforced crunch at big console studios. The stresses are present in start-up culture, games as a service, and even solo indie development. And what's worse is that many of us, myself included, smile our way in to burnout without realising it's happening.

While I'm at best a WebMD hypochondriac and no doctor, I want to share my experience and understanding of occupational burnout. My hope is that this article will help those on the edge or in the middle of burnout to identify their experience and take steps to recover. In addition I'll share ways in which I believe you can prevent burnout from happening to you or those in your studio.

Defining burnout and its symptoms

It isn't the case that you wake up one morning and are 'burnt out'. Instead the effects come on over weeks or months, making it hard to recognise. In addition, people can burnout in jobs they love, making it likely they won't even think their job is the issue.

This makes Occupational Burnout hard to diagnose, but there is research dating back to the 1970s with well defined symptoms and even a diagnostic test. The medical community identifies three groups of symptoms, which I'll define as fatigue, detachment and ineffectiveness.

Fatigue for me manifested as a constant feeling of tiredness. Clearly this was my body's not-so-subtle hint for me to rest, and it is commonly the first warning sign of burnout. However, it's not uncommon for people to experience other fatigue signs such as insomnia, impaired concentration, weakened immune system and loss of appetite. Anxiety and depression are also linked to this group.

"Recovery can be tricky, because no two cases of burnout are the same"

Detachment encompasses a wide array of symptoms, from feeling a loss of enjoyment in work to a sense of personal isolation. For some, myself included, this includes "Depersonalisation", which is the medical term for the rather scary sensation of feeling constantly dreamlike.

The ineffectiveness symptoms were where I really started to realise I had an issue. This group is broadly defined as feeling like you achieve little in your work, but encompasses feelings of hopelessness, irritability and a drop in work performance.

At my lowest point, my mind and mood felt uncontrollable, with the ineffectiveness symptoms creating a negative feedback loop making me sicker and sicker. Luckily, after finally finding a diagnosis and gaining an understanding, I was able to put in place measures that led me to a full recovery.

But recovering from burnout is no easy task. Often it's difficult to even understand the root causes, let alone begin to fix the issues you face.

Recovery

Recovering from burnout is a unique process for every person. It can take months, but it almost certainly starts with resting. Taking time off from work for your mental health is no different from taking time off for physical health, so approach leave for burnout in the same way you would any illness.

While rest is essential to overcome some of the symptoms, it also gives you space from work to collect your thoughts and understand why you burnt out. This is where recovery can be tricky, because no two cases of burnout are the same.

"Set a good example and arrive on time, go home on time, and make it clear to others that working just your hours is okay"

While for some the causes of burnout may be apparent, for others it may be that the causes of stress are not obvious. Perhaps the pressure is coming from yourself, or that your social or personal life is causing added stress. It's worth really thinking about what has been happening and discussing your thoughts with friends, family, colleagues and even a trained counsellor. Check to see if your company's medical insurance covers counselling. Some packages include 24-hour helplines with trained supporters.

Once you have an understanding of what's caused your burnout, you need to work with management and you team to find ways to stop the causes. Again, this is unique to the individual and might be as simple as stopping overtime, or as complex as a broken relationship with a peer.

However, recovering from burnout can take time and cause a lot of disruption. It is better, then, to stop burnout from happening in the first place, be that for yourself, your company or your team.

Preventing Burnout

As a leader, preventing Occupational Burnout in your team is not only a morally prudent measure, it's also a solid financial one. From my discussion with burnt out employees in the industry, they're often amongst the most committed and hard working. Yet when faced with the institutional factors that generate burnout they simply quit, and often without warning.

As an individual, not only is burnout very unpleasant, it also causes unintended pain and suffering to those around you. Prevention is not simply about protecting yourself, but your loved ones too.

The most obvious advice is, of course: don't crunch. While this might seem glib, when you're faced with crunch you should really think if it is worth the risk. As a leader, the deadline is never as important as the health of your staff, and as a staff member your job isn't as important as your health.

Of course, there's a reasonable level of voluntary overtime that won't cause long-term harm. While that's really down to the individual to determine, you do need to be looking for the warning signs of Burnout.

"When something goes wrong at work or when it demands too much of us, the personal impact can be devastating"

Set a good example and arrive on time, go home on time, and make it clear to others that working just your hours is okay. While you may be comfortable with being first in and last out, you might not realise the pressure that puts on others in your team.

Even perks like catered dinners, socials, unlimited holidays and a beer fridge - while intended to reduce stress - can make employees work longer than is healthy due to the social pressure they create in the group. Think deeply about your culture and constantly observe it.

Additionally, being able to talk, no matter what your position and who with, is key to prevention. The causes of overwork or other workplace stressors are often complex and hard for others to see.

If you suspect you're in or close to occupational burnout then talk to your team and management. If you suspect someone else is suffering then talk to them, especially as a manager. It may take time to really understand what is happening and the root cause, but talking will get you or your staff to a solution much quicker.

And finally, if you're management and a member of your staff is suffering from burnout then believe them and give them your support. That support and a few days rest is the difference between a deeply unhappy team member that quits and a positive, productive one that stays for years.

Conclusion

Writing about my experience with occupational burnout has been difficult. While it's easy to think of it as simply feeling overworked, the personal reality is much more dramatic. Many researchers believe that the symptoms of burnout are indistinguishable from depression.

The emotional pain of my burnt out months are amongst the most defining and hardest of my life. While I came out the other side of it with a greater understanding of myself, I hope that sharing what I've learnt will help others to take better care.

We spend so much of our waking lives at work that it becomes integral to our sense of self and happiness. When something goes wrong at work or when it demands too much of us, the personal impact can be devastating.

It is on all of us to be kind to each other and ourselves. Look out for workplace stressors such as long hours and unreasonable expectations, and challenge them. Not only will removing them result in better output, but it may also save someone's health.

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Latest comments (3)

Keldon Alleyne Strategic keyboard basher, Avasopht Ltd5 months ago
Misconceptions about stress probably present the biggest obstacles to tackling it.

Few people recognize stress, though typically invoked by circumstances, pertains to the activation of stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline), which are vital and limited resources that are metabolised at different rates, and can be triggered in different volumes.

Because of this, many people won't even know they're experiencing symptoms of chronic stress until it hits them flat in the face. And sadly there is a prevalence of erroneous and somewhat toxic rhetoric that seeks to discredit complaints and concerns of stress.

Many managers are completely unaware of the fact that stress hormones inhibit cognitive functions, greatly reducing productivity in cerebral tasks like programming, data entry or accounting as stress hormones divert some blood flow from the brain to the muscles (though may assist in a few creative ones where too much thinking is actually getting in the way). On top of that, stress accounts for a large portion of sick days and even illnesses as stress hormones fudge up circadian rhythms and various bodily functions in a bid to avert what the body considers to be a threat.
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Chad Bordwell5 months ago
I find this article disturbingly familiar.
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davidicus UX, NextVR5 months ago
start here, people: https://www.gapuleo.com/
unfortunately, after that it gets more difficult. it's just not considered a thing quite yet.
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