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Working in the Games Industry: a job to die for?

After yet another row with my boyfriend, a games industry veteran, about his working hours, I investigate the health risks of the games industry's crunch culture.

Last year, after my twentieth or so night of lying awake at 2am, worrying that my boyfriend had fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed his car on the bleary-eyed drive home, we agreed a compromise. He'd work his twenty hours of crunch a week by staying over two nights a week at a cheap hotel.  He'd work until 1 am - that's seven hours' overtime - and then stagger across the car park or drive a few minutes to a hotel.  He would grab six hours' sleep, a quick shower and a coffee, and get in early for another two hours' extra time.  That meant just two hours' late another night, and we had two normal evenings and the weekend to ourselves.  This year, the compromise is that he's only working fifteen extra hours a week.  He's now in his fourteenth month of 'crunch' (he got a few weeks 'off' for good behaviour in the runup to Christmas but how long can crunch go on for, before it just becomes normal working hours?).  There's no end in sight although there is the constant threat of it increasing again.  This isn't the first company he's worked for, and it's not the only one to demand high levels of overtime, although it is one of the worst and this is probably the longest period of crunch he's ever worked.  The brutal reality for many employees in the games industry is late nights, early starts, weekend working or twenty-four hours stints at their desks.  It's hard to find comprehensive and reliable figures for working hours in the games industry, but last year's Game Developer Quality of Life survey suggested that 42% of game developers worked 60 hours or more a week during crunch periods.

When he's working crunch, we argue.  A lot.  About a lot of things, but mostly about him working too many hours.  It's a pointless argument that ruins the little time his company allows him to spend with me.  Because he won't back down, and I know I'm right.  I know I'm right in most arguments, but this time, I can prove it.  Because working long hours kills you.  Correlation is not causation, and the link between long hours and health risks is not fully understood, but there's plenty of evidence that overtime is bad for your health.  It increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, metabolic problems, depression and anxiety.  It makes you more likely to drink, to smoke, and to gain weight.  Numerous chronic conditions and risk factors increase along with increased working hours, and fifty-five hours plus a week seems to be a particularly significant number.  The risks appear greater if you are not in control of the hours you work.  If you are regularly working more than fifty five hours a week, not through choice but because your company demands it, you should be concerned about the long term health implications and the impact it may have on your life expectancy.

The games industry isn't a nine-to-five career, and I wouldn't want it to be.  Aside from my boyfriend, I have lots of friends in the industry, and one of the things I like about them is the passion and enthusiasm that they have for their work.  It's fun to be around people who love what they do.  I'm a programmer.  I understand "flow", how it feels to finally solve a problem that's been bugging you for days.  I've done my fair share of all-nighters or sitting in front of a screen on a Sunday afternoon when I should be going for a walk instead.  I don't mind real crunch - a few weeks or a month or two of the team putting their all in to ship a really great game.  But games companies have a responsibility for the health of their employees, and that goes beyond making sure that they have ergonomic chairs or don't trip over wires.  And no amount of private medical insurance or subsidised gym memberships is going to mitigate against the long term effects of overwork.

So what can be done?  If you work in the UK or Europe and you work in the games industry, you could sign back into, and stick to, the Working Time directive.  Contrary to popular belief, this doesn't prevent anyone from working more than 48 hours a week.  It prevents your working week averaging more than 48 hours over any 17 week period.  That means that you could work nine weeks or two months at 55 hours a week crunch, just so long as you work forty hours a week for the rest of the seventeen weeks.  Legally, no-one should be sacked or treated unfairly for refusing to opt out, and employers can't require you to opt out.  If  you really need to work more than 544 hours overtime a year, perhaps you need a better manager.  In many companies - not all, I know that there are responsible games companies committed to their employees - long working hours for many months over crunch are the norm but that doesn't mean it can't be different.

Because no job, no game, is literally to die for.

Selected References

"Long working hours cause weight gain", p. 195 in Perspectives In Public Health, 2012, Vol.132(5), pp.195-195

Dembe, AE  "Ethical Issues Relating to the Health Effects of Long Working Hours", pp. 195-208 in Journal Of Business Ethics, 2009, Vol.84 Suppl 2

Gibb, Sheree J. ; Fergusson, David M. ; Horwood, L. John "Working hours and alcohol problems in early adulthood", pp.81-88  in Addiction, 2012, Vol.107(1)

Kobayashi, T ; Suzuki, E ; Takao, S ; Doi, H "Long working hours and metabolic syndrome among Japanese men: a cross-sectional study" in Bmc Public Health, 2012, Vol.12

O’reilly, Dermot ; Rosato, Michael "Worked to death? A census-based longitudinal study of the relationship between the numbers of hours spent working and mortality risk", pp. 1820-1830 in International Journal of Epidemiology, 2013, Vol. 42(6), pp.1820-1830 

Virtanen, Marianna ; Heikkilä, Katriina ; Jokela, Markus ; Ferrie, Jane E ; Batty, G. David ; Vahtera, Jussi ; Kivimäki, Mika "Long Working Hours and Coronary Heart Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis", pp. 586-597 in American Journal of Epidemiology, 2012, Vol. 176(7), pp.586-596

Virtanen, M ; Ferrie, JE ; Singh-Manoux, A ; Shipley, MJ ; Stansfeld, SA ; Marmot, MG ; Ahola, K ; Vahtera, J ; Kivimaki, M "Long working hours and symptoms of anxiety and depression: a 5-year follow-up of the Whitehall II study", pp. 2485 - 2494 in Psychological Medicine, 2011, Vol.41(12)

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