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Excessive crunch is bad for business | Opinion

Crunch is a health issue for thousands of employees, says Unionen's Henrik Ehrenberg, and it's a counterproductive way to run a business

This article was jointly written by Unionen policy director Henrik Ehrenberg and Unionen policy officer Magnus Gerentz.

Crunch has become a hot topic over the last couple of years. Stories of studios around the world pushing employees to work overtime for unhealthy and excessive periods of time to meet unrealistic deadlines has caught the eyes of many. In some cases, employees have responded by organizing and pushing to bargain collectively, in order to gain a say over their working hours and working conditions.

Sweden is often seen as bastion of worker rights and job security, with a long tradition of powerful unions and productive dialogue with management and employers' associations. The Swedish model, with 90% collective bargaining coverage, is built on high union density, high employers' association memberships, and sectoral bargaining. It aims to guarantee healthy working environments, a fair share of pay, and work-life balance.

"The Swedish model, with 90% collective bargaining coverage, is built on high union density"

Some 25% of employees in the Swedish games industry are members of Unionen. In an international comparison this level of union density is high, but in the Swedish context it is quite low. Swedish union density as a whole is 67% (2018), measured as the proportion of the workforce who are union members. This high union density -- the highest in the world -- is arguably the most important reason why Sweden has come so far when it comes to job security and workers' rights.

Union density is key to be able to make a change. Furthermore, much of Sweden's success has come from collective bargaining agreements covering a large majority of the Swedish workforce, but that is essentially non-existent in the games industry.

In our member survey [sent to employees of the games industry], 77% said that they experience crunch to some extent in their workplaces, and 50% of those said that the crunch was at "unhealthy levels." Furthermore, 35% did not receive any compensation for their crunch overtime.

Magnus Gerentz

As in any discussion about overtime, it is very important to not paint with too broad a brush. Every company is different. Some have a zero-tolerance policy regarding crunch, and some only have it to a very small extent. Limited peaks in workload ahead of looming deadlines are to some extent understandable. Ideally, these are followed by periods of recovery, but even after adjusting for companies with more sound policies we can see that the problem with crunch is too widespread to only be called a company-related issue. Rather, it is an industry related issue. Therefore, it has to be addressed as such.

From a business perspective, crunch is a complex problem. Studios face pressure to meet announced deadlines from both shareholders and the gaming community alike. Publicly traded companies could see their stock price tumble if a big title is delayed or get poor reception. Our survey indicates that the use of crunch is worse the bigger the company is.

"The problem with crunch is too widespread to only be called a company-related issue"

But the question management should be asking themselves is not: 'How do we meet this deadline?' Rather, it should be: 'Is this deadline achievable under normal working conditions?' And that question should be asked in a much earlier phase of the development.

The topic of crunch has come up in different roundtable discussions between different companies as well. From senior employees and management we sometimes hear about "passionate employees" as the reason for the overtime, shifting the blame for the crunch on the individual employee. Our survey shows the opposite -- 60% of respondents credited crunch to bad planning and pressure from management. Only 4% credited it to collegial culture.

Crunch is not just devastating to the people who suffer from burnout, or those who make significant sacrifices in their personal lives. Crunch culture is counterproductive from a business perspective, too. Excessive overtime lowers productivity, and sick leave is a costly venture for the employer. This may lower the quality of the product, which is paramount in a highly competitive market where consumer demand for games often rests on artistic and creative qualities.

A company with a reputation for its bad working environment might also have a harder time recruiting talent. Labor shortages are an issue in the game industry, and providing a healthy working environment, where crunch is kept to a minimum, can be a competitive advantage when recruiting staff. Most sectors and industries realize this, but it seems that the games industry has just not been able to learn from others in this regard.

The fact that many game companies around the world do not seem to realize that excessive crunch is counterproductive shows an immaturity within the industry that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. It's time to grow up.

Unionen is Sweden's largest trade union on the private labour market and the largest white-collar trade union in the world. It has 660,000 members, of which 30,000 are elected representatives, in over 60,000 companies and organizations.

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