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Prioritising staff wellbeing in a high pressure environment

Metacore's Maria Törnroos posits that there's no performance without wellbeing, and gives tips on how to maximize both

In the beginning of the pandemic, many assumed that gaming companies would quickly adapt to new remote work rules. After all, many game developers and designers are used to working flexibly and independently from wherever they please.

Reality quickly proved to be different as cases of fatigue and burnout began popping up across the industry. And it wasn't just game studios who were feeling the weight. Employee wellbeing decreased across a range of companies characterized by high self-direction and passion for work -- in other words, high-pressure environments.

Companies were quick to react -- Guerrilla Games delayed the launch of their newest game to avoid crunch time, Mozilla shut down the entire company for a company-wide "Wellness Week," while Twitter and Fujitsu made working from home a permanent option.

There is no silver bullet to make your employees happy and healthy, but here are the 3 + 3 things every game company can start doing to foster wellbeing and performance at work.

Three ways leaders can increase wellbeing

  • Switch from micromanaging to trusting

Cultures of self-direction sometimes get blamed for putting too much responsibility on an individual employee, which might lead to overtime or even burnout. In reality, micromanaging, top-down control and not having a say in how you do your own work are much more likely causes of burnout or resignation.

Micromanaging, top-down control and not having a say in how you do your own work are causes of burnout or resignation

Building a culture of trust is a long journey and doesn't happen overnight. To succeed in it, managers need to check their assumptions about how people behave. If you believe that people are lazy by nature and need to be monitored, you are the problem, not them.

Communicate your expectations and trust that your team members know what they need best. When employees are allowed to act in the company's best interest -- be it by prioritizing their wellbeing or by researching an idea thoroughly before acting on it -- they need fewer rules and can focus on keeping their eye on the ball.

  • Create clarity -- who's doing what, exactly

No matter how self-directed and autonomous your teams are, they also need structure and direction. This might sound contradictory to what I just said but trust me, these two points go very much hand-in-hand.

Structure doesn't mean you need a multi-layered hierarchy chart or a hundred-page rule book -- just some sort of guidelines for daily work and regular feedback to make sure we are going in the right direction and respecting company culture.

If you believe that people are lazy by nature and need to be monitored, you are the problem, not them

One simple way to create structure is to establish clear responsibilities for each employee. Tell your employees what's on their table -- and perhaps more importantly, what isn't. Being allowed to fully focus on the task at hand without the nagging feeling that you might be expected to do something else is an instant stress reliever.

  • Build a culture of sharing by sharing

Trust, structure and feedback all contribute to a critical wellbeing factor in high-pressure environments -- psychological safety.

One of the key building blocks for psychological safety is a culture of sharing -- one where employees are encouraged to talk about all aspects of work openly and point out inconsistencies or problems without fear of judgment or retribution. This is easier said than done, and requires leaders to, well, lead by example.

Ask for candid feedback face-to-face and anonymously, and revisit how you talk about wellbeing -- do you encourage people to take time off when they are tired, just as you force them to go home when they have a fever? And are you always the last to clock out or do you show that it's okay to have priorities outside of work?

Three ways employees can maximize their own wellbeing

  • Make your wellbeing a priority

No one else can do it for you. Set necessary boundaries, demand clarity in your responsibilities and ask for support when you need it. If you sense that a given deadline is impossible to reach, speak up and ask for help to finish your work in time instead of burning the midnight oil alone.

Remember to differentiate between the things that you can influence and the things you cannot, and try to understand how they affect your wellbeing. Focusing on problems instead of solutions can be detrimental for our wellbeing. For example, if you're not happy with a recent change in the organization, you can decide to act on it or you can decide to adapt and let it go. Both decisions are as valuable and take you forward.

  • Schedule your recovery

Everyone needs long and short breaks even from the work they love and feel passionate about. Recovery might not mean sticking to a strict nine to five work day -- it's about finding out what works for you and what doesn't.

Metacore's wellbeing and performance lead Maria Törnroos

Creative professionals are always looking for the perfect flow, where they lose track of time and can create for hours on end. It would be a huge hindrance to have an alarm interrupting that flow just to remind you to take a break. So instead of relying on a self-help app to buzz you every hour, take some time at the beginning of the week to figure out how you'll recover this week -- is it a half an hour walk between meetings or a short Netflix break before that last task of the day? Then pencil that into your calendar, no matter how silly it feels.

  • Ask, don't assume

It can be difficult to notice changes in people's wellbeing in big companies -- especially if many of your colleagues prefer to work remotely. Nevertheless, it's important for team leads to stay on top of how everyone is doing. You can find that out simply by asking, and by asking only.

Moving to beta, killing a game, or getting crushing player feedback -- social support is a big support in stressful situations. If it feels like the whole world is on your shoulders, talking about it to the person next to you might be a huge relief. Similarly, if you notice one of your colleagues is having a hard time, ask how they are doing over coffee. It might improve their stress levels just to share and vent about their situation without you needing to offer any solutions to it or being their psychologist.

Maria Törnroos is a work and organizational psychologist (PhD) who works as wellbeing and performance lead at mobile game studio Metacore