What was arguably the most alarming statistic from Ukie’s UK industry diversity census was the high percentage of UK games industry workers who are suffering from anxiety and/or depression. At 31 per cent, the UK industry is suffering from these mental health concerns at a much higher rate than the national average of 17 per cent.
While the statistic is certainly concerning, it perhaps wasn’t the most surprising element of the report. The effect of working conditions in the games industry has become something of a hot topic in recent years, as stories of excessive crunch and workplace harassment have made headlines on many occasions.
It certainly won’t have come as a surprise to the industry workers themselves – something which Kate Lindsay, head of HR at Splash Damage can attest to.
“I don’t think we were surprised really, no” says Lindsay. “It’s something that’s talked about a lot in the games industry. With the stress the creative process brings on, the pressures to deliver to clients and customers, it’s really easy to see how doing something that you love can turn into something dark quite quickly.
“You read things about crunch and work environments in other studios. It’s certainly caught some attention in recent years. I’m not saying companies have necessarily fixed these issues, but it’s certainly something that, in the last two years specifically, companies are more aware of.
“Game studios are thinking consciously now of not trying to burn people out for the sake of burning them out. Just to meet a milestone. We want to protect our people, our talent. We do need to look after them.
“Burning them out is not the solution. I can’t comment on what other studios do in terms of dealing with crunch and overtime, but it’s certainly not something that we have a lot of. It is something that we are conscious of and we have been for a while.”
Of course, there’s also an argument to be made that the overrepresentation of depression and anxiety in the games industry can be (at least partially) a symptom of workers feeling more comfortable discussing their mental health.
“I think discussing mental health is less taboo than in the corporate world,” she notes. “People feel more open about how they’re feeling and feel free to talk to us about it without the fear of being reprimanded. I think this is a great thing that we should applaud.
“You know, I’m not entirely sure how realistic the figures are from other industries. Are they being realistic about mental health in their own industries? It’s part of the reason here at Splash Damage we make sure that whatever benefits we provide are tailored to employee need, particularly around mental health and wellbeing. So no, I wasn’t surprised. But it’s still an interesting stat and it certainly attracts your attention, it shows that we always need to do more.”
As a company, Splash Damage has certainly been doing more to address their employee’s mental health and wellbeing of late – Kicking off their first ever ‘Wellbeing Week’ in October last year. The week focused on wellbeing as a whole, not limited to just mental health, and included staff-run exercise clubs, in-studio seminars from the likes of BUPA, Health Assured and Medicash, as well as mindfulness activities throughout the week.
“We’ve run mental health workshops and mindfulness courses in the past – but it had never been put forward as a business strategy before. And that changed last year.
“I was noticing an increase in employees wanting to talk about their mental health, and more employees coming to HR and wanting to be more engaged with talking about these things. And we started thinking: ‘Are we really equipped to deal with conversations about mental health?’ We weren’t really prepared to deal with full-scale mental health conversations.
“So this is something that we put forward last year as a strategy, and something that the senior leadership team were absolutely on board with. And so we looked at sort of what we wanted to do. Luckily we have an EAP (employee assistance programme) service in place to do the big sort of internal push on that, because that’s a 24/7, telephone or face to face counselling service that is available to all of our employees from day one.
“One of the benefits of having enhanced EAP service is it gives you instant stress referrals. So if anyone is feeling stressed we can instantly take them through a more robust counselling session. So that’s pretty good, but that was never going to be enough. We thought ‘this can’t just be a quick fix. What else can we do?’
“We wanted employees to think that we were taking mental health seriously, that we weren’t just going to do a quick fix and stop talking about it.”
“So I personally know Mel Crate, who runs a company called We are Luminate, who are a wellbeing consultancy. We started talking about our strategy and what we wanted out of it, and we put together a programme with Luminate which included training for HR specific things.We’re taking on a lot of emotions in our team, what are we doing with them? How do we create boundaries and resilience and things like that for our own team?
“And then we moved on to line managers: we’ve got 120 line managers here, are they really equipped to be dealing with frontline conversations about mental health? That was definitely a key focus. Training our line managers on mental health issues has been an important step in ensuring that these things are spotted early, not left until an employee is at breaking point. It was absolutely critical when we first did this that managers were quick to talk to their employees on a one-to-one basis about what was going on, to be open and honest and have that dialogue.
“On top of that, we started offering weekly in-house counselling sessions. And so we run eight of those in a day with a counsellor, and it’s strictly confidential. Even HR don’t know who’s going in and out of these sessions. Just like how you’d visit a counsellor off-site, but just bringing in-house so people could feel like they could have someone on-tap. Some people just use it as an ad-hoc thing, and others have regular ongoing sessions with them. We also offer more ad-hoc stress management and building resilience workshops, just to add an extra layer to our mental health strategy.
“We wanted employees to think that we were taking mental health seriously, that we weren’t just going to do a quick fix and stop talking about it. It’s something that we wanted to really drive through the business, for people to understand that we were going to make a real difference in people’s lives, and for them to be able to practice self-care and be happy at work. That was the main driver: them coming to work and feeling comfortable that they were being looked after, and that they had someone to talk to all the time.”
Of course, feeling comfortable and secure in the workplace often takes more than just therapy and wellbeing. For a company with a large number of workers from overseas, the overhanging threat of Brexit (see page 46) has been a constant source of stress for years – calling for more specific practical support.
“I thought Brexit would cause more problems than it has,” notes Lindsay. “We’ve not stopped talking about Brexit for a long time. Having a lot of expats in the studio, it’s obviously been at the forefront of our minds. We need to keep pace with what’s going on.
“Even if there’s been no changes, it’s about saying, well, this is what’s happening, this is what’s not happening. Just so they understand what’s going on. It’s something we’ve built into our onboarding process as well. So new starters can feel confident that we know what we’re talking about.
“We don’t want to see retention issues because of Brexit, so we’re doing everything we can.”
“Particularly with the settlement visas. We even bought an android phone for our employees [there was no iOS support at first], so they could do their visas in the office, or take the phone home and do it for their families. And it’s just doing little things like that, just so employees know that we actually are on top of it.
“We don’t want to see retention issues because of Brexit, so we’re doing everything we can. We have a Brexit Slack channel just to talk about Brexit and what that will mean for them and so far, it’s been okay. I mean, we obviously have until the end of the year until B-day and then everything will change again.”
FLEXING YOUR HOURS
Being happy in the workplace often means not being in the workplace. Flexible working and remote working have both been offered up as solutions to the problems of crunch and burnout. But how do they fit into a general mental health and wellbeing perspective?
“I’m a really big advocate of flexible working, I do it myself. It’s about moving past the presenteeism issue of just being in the office – being successful in work doesn’t mean being at your desk 40 hours a week.
“I personally run regular seminars on flexible working, and we’ve seen a really big spike in applications over the last 12 months of applications. And we’ve had a 100 per cent approval rate to date for them, and it’s something that we want to encourage.
“Remote working is a tricky one because while I think it does work, I’m conscious of the isolating factor of remote working. We’re so well-equipped now to work away from the office, but then we must also be mindful of not taking work home during personal time.
“I think that’s a real balance. It’s all well and good saying you can work from home, but not so you can work until midnight or have that pressure to be available 24/7. And the isolation factor is really key, I’ve seen it not work because people miss out on the social interactions that happen at the office. And so I’m a much bigger supporter of flexible working from that perspective, but that’s not to say that remote working can’t work, it’s just something you’ve got to be really conscious of.”
So how has this focus on mental health and wellbeing changed people’s lives at the studio?
“Well, for starters our employee engagement and satisfaction ratings have increased massively. They really appreciate the changes. The fact that we have put this as our number one strategy over the last 12 months has really piqued the interest of lots of our employees. It’s certainly something we’ve talked a lot about on social media, and I think it’s helped with our attraction of talent, as well as retention.
“And from a performance perspective and a productivity perspective, it has really helped. It’s been really well received, we’ve had lovely feedback from our employees and it’s something that we are continuing to sort of refresh and review as the business grows. Social wellbeing and mental health issues are just so important to us here at Splash Damage.”