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We held an interesting roundtable about mental health at our recent GamesBeat Summit 2022 event. The session was opened by me, but I quickly left the table for our experts.
The panel of roundtable leaders included Swatee Surve, CEO of Litesprite; Mark Chandler, founder of The International Games Summit on Mental Health Awareness (TIGS); and Raffael “Dr. B” Boccamazzo, clinical director of Take This. The discussion began with a roundtable at Dice Summit and continued with our session.
It was about how companies have been encouraging employees to take care of themselves, especially during times like the pandemic. The problem with mental health is that many employees don’t know how to take care of themselves. Companies should offer employees more options to help them get better. Chandler believes that employers should have a chief wellbeing officer who is responsible for looking out for employees’ interests and not worrying about the cost of healthcare.
We discussed this and many other topics during the one-hour session. Chandler started the TIGS conference, where gamers can talk openly about their mental health. I have played Call of Duty: Warzone, Elden Ring and other games with Chandler. He has also been an advisor for GamesBeat Summit events for some time.
Boccamazzo, a psychologist and clinical head at Take This, a gaming nonprofit that helps game developers with mental illness, is Boccamazzo. He is an autistic self-advocate and an expert on tabletop role-playing games in learning and clinical settings. He also co-created a pantheoretical model for their application.
Swatee Surve has been working on games that can improve mental health for more than 10 years. To help patients with anxiety, stress and depression, she is still working on it. Starting in 2012, Litesprite created a game called Sinasprite, which used a fox character named Socks to go on journeys through an animated world. The company recently added a game called Gratitude.
Here is an edited transcript from our discussion.
GamesBeat: For a long time, the solution for mental health challenges has amounted to the recommendation that employees administer self-care. It doesn’t always work and it is possible for companies to be more proactive in providing care. Are companies ready to have a chief wellbeing officer? What can we do to help employees?
Mark Chandler: I’ve been talking about this whole idea of a chief wellness officer for about three years now. It was said by Swatee at our meeting last week. It was a shock to me that you used this exact term. It’s the same thing I was thinking about. It’s amazing to know I’m not the only one thinking like this.
Swatee Surve: No, no. This topic is important today for several reasons. It is important to consider context beyond the gaming industry. The pandemic, as well as the transition to hybrid or remote work. According to the World Health Organization, there is a parallel pandemic. This is a mental health crisis. Everyone has seen it personally, which is why we are getting so much attention. The pain point and the most severe is with employers. They’ve had employees working in many different situations and distributed across the globe. They are hearing from employees that they are struggling.
At this point, everybody on this planet will fit into three buckets. The pandemic has caused you to have a mental health problem. You’re currently experiencing a mental health problem. You are going to experience a mental health problem. This is unprecedented times. Not only the pandemic but also social unrest and geopolitical instability. The constant onslaught of large-scale, unexpected events that this generation is experiencing is something they have never had to face. Things have been relatively stable up until now. Things are moving in the right direction. There has been stability in expectations. This is part of the problem that’s causing all these mental problems. There’s uncertainty all around and we have never had to deal on such a large scale. It’s not clear when it will end.
Employers are really feeling the effects of this issue. Employers offer benefits because of how employment was structured after WW2. This is in addition to the growing trend of great resignations. Employers offer benefits to attract employees beyond offering a salary. Employers are the most common source of health insurance for people. Due to the trend of the great resignation HR is now more of a decision-making process. People are choosing where they want work. They aren’t resigning to their current job. This is creating a talent war that then causes employers to realize the strategic importance of benefits and HR. It has become a strategic imperative to retain and recruit talent.
This was an example that I used during our calls. Two or three months ago, I attended a Miami health care private equity conference. It struck me how, at the keynote of a conference on health care private equity, they said that it was a strategic imperative for staff to ensure their well-being and also a retention imperative because they couldn’t find enough qualified people. They must keep what they have. This is why it is so important.
When you narrow it down to the game context, this issue affects all aspects of the industry, including producers, distributors, publishers, and developers. These global issues and trends are affecting games. But it’s even more severe because of the high-stress environment in which they work. This industry is facing a greater challenge and problem with the competition for talent.
Rafael Boccamazzo: It’s not just relevant now. For a decade, we’ve heard about various practices in the gaming industry. Crunch culture is a prominent one. Based on statistics from the IGDA’s developer satisfaction survey, crunch use has declined slowly in the past decade. However, we still have stressors in the workplace.
A recent metaphor that Dr. Christina Maslach used-she’s the creator of the burnout model that we’ve most prominently used since 1981. According to her, you can’t fix burnout. It’s not possible to expand it to other problems by teaching self-care. It’s like giving someone a bucket in a sinking vessel. They are unable to bail out long-term.” That’s why vacations don’t work long-term. While vacations can help with some aspects of mental wellness, they won’t fix the long-term.
This is part of why we are talking about it. Over the past six years, I have spoken to employers about ways to empower their employees. But, I rarely hear the question “How can I change the system so that I don’t have to empower my employees and wake them up?” Let’s make it an empowering system ?”
Surve: That was one thing I did see at DICE with some of the roundtables. This is why it is important now. It must be started from scratch. Employers are being hit hard in the pocketbook, and people are leaving for all of the reasons that we mentioned. People aren’t coping well with the situation because they keep throwing more money at it. There was a recent report that Amazon had, across the board, increased pay by 11 percent. Many people said that this was not enough. I’m leaving.”
Now, they realize that they can build a culture from the ground up. We saw this at DICE. Many leaders wanted to do that-they said, “I’ve gotten some financing.” I am a startup. I want to build from scratch and put in the best practices so that we avoid the crunch culture. Also, to be aware of early signs of abusive behavior. We want to provide support for our employees that goes beyond giving them a handout. They are being given the tools they need to deal with their problems on a daily basis.” This depends on how you treat your employees and what kind of culture you encourage. All of these reasons are why I believe you’re starting to notice a shift in your mindset that I haven’t seen before.
Boccamazzo: There are six common factors that contribute to burnout. Many of these are things we don’t think about enough. I encourage people to consider them. It’s not just exhaustion. It’s all contextual. It’s not possible to identify individual items.
Chandler: I do want to point out something that I see happening right now, this very second. People from Canada that had moved down to the states back in the 2000s, late ’90s, they’re all coming home now. It’s because of the state’s health care system. Friends, family members have all had cancer. They lose their home. They lose their house to pay for the medical bills. It’s already a problem in the United States that you have to deal with just to get started.
When I used to work in the states, as soon as I started getting to X age-I’m 57, turning 58 this year. I think I decided it would be 45 or something like that. I knew that I would return to Canada. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to stay down in the States if I got sick. All the things I have been through in the last seven to eight years, I don’t know if it would have helped me get down here. It’s as simple as that. It’s hard to know if it would have been possible for me to make it. It’s happening with friends who want to return.
Boccamazzo: How to do this as quickly as possible? When we think of occupational burnout as a concept, it’s often used as a synonym for being exhausted, but the most common model that’s been used for 40 years now categorizes occupational burnout across three different dimensions. To be considered as burned out, we must meet all three requirements.
One of these is bone-weary exhaustion. We are so tired, we can’t even sleep. This is a vicious cycle. It is not about being tired, then sleeping, and then recovering. It is a feeling of lethargy in the body throughout the day. It is feeling tired and irritable. Everything around us is just slow. A second dimension is a feeling of ineffectiveness at work. It’s not as easy as it used to be. You’re not only self-doubtful, but your performance isn’t up to standard. It can also lead to a sense of detachment and cynicism. This is often a differenceiator for people who are overworked and stressed. However, when they reach a breaking point, people who are stressed or overworked often become disengaged from their jobs. Disengagement can occur when you reach a certain point.
The six factors that contribute to this are: one, your workload, and whether it matches up with what you can do. This is a common problem when people are laid off. They are given more work. Mismanaged projects are common. People are unable to keep up. This is why pay, reward, both intrinsic and extrinsic, are so important. You feel in control of how your work is done. There are three things that people don’t often think about. A sense of belonging. Does it feel like I belong to my co-workers Does the workplace culture make me feel at home? There is a sense of company values. Are they walking the same path as I expect them to? Fairness is also important. Do the rewards and punishments get applied equally? Are there people who are able to benefit from a skewed system? That is a rhetorical question, but we all see it. These are the six factors. These are the six factors I use to talk with people about reducing burnout in their studios. These four are relatively new to many people.
GamesBeat: When you look at that and think about what companies can do to set up better policies to somehow deal with this on a corporate level, what do you then suggest?
Boccamazzo: What kind of actions should these companies take?
Boccamazzo: It’s individualized, largely, for each studio environment. I have a dear friend. This is something I talk about all the time. She is a black queer woman. My experiences in a studio environment will be very different to hers. It will be very different for her to feel an inclusiveness and fairness in the workplace policies. This is a complex problem that requires a coordinated effort with all your employees. It also becomes a moving target. Other challenges will arise once you have established certain solutions. It’s an ongoing process of adjustments. This is my very circumspective way of saying that there’s no simple answer.
Surve: It’s very complicated. Many of these topics and ideas are highly qualitative. You must spend time as a leader of any organization. If culture is important to your company, making sure that your employees are productive and not burnt out is a priority. This is also important-you need to be open to hearing other perspectives and ensure that there are no unintended consequences. This is a difficult task.
It can be overwhelming. Many leaders would respond, “I just need to get the product out.” I have targets to reach, revenues to make. We must get the game out.” This is even more true if you are an independent publisher. It’s not always possible to invest in HR.
I’d love to get Mark and Rafaels’ perspective as far as-what have you seen as good frameworks, tools, or approaches for organizations? If organizations want to truly address burnout and create a culture that allows people to access the support they need, what are the best practices they should consider? It’s not enough to just treat it. It might be a good moment to move to that topic. It’s possible that people are still wondering.
Boccamazzo: My gut reaction-there’s often a lot of, “Do what I say, not what I do” attitudes within leadership in studio spaces. Somehow, if I’m being a leader and being passionate about things, I’m working 60 hours a week because I’m passionate, all the people on the team won’t somehow get the idea that they should do the same thing. Leaders should walk the talk. You are not an exception to the rule. You set the standard for behavior and policy. It’s a blessing to have a boss who enforces boundaries within the workplace. It’s a nice example of, “Not everything is an emergency.”
In a concrete example: If you don’t want your employees answering emails when they aren’t at work, and I hope so, then you shouldn’t answer emails from home.
Surve: It’s funny that you mention that, because Satya Nadella brought up the same thing. This was based on Microsoft’s internal research and is a best practice. When asked, he replied, “Well, how do you do it?” It was a process.
To your point, I wonder whether there is a fear that you might not look like you have everything figured out. You fail like a game. If you do a faceplant, great. The point is that you are trying. You can improve your performance, even as a leader.
GamesBeat: I learned about one-what you would call a transitional tool there for people in both Slack and in email. You can also schedule your reply or message. It is possible to schedule your message so that it goes out the next morning instead of waiting until the morning. This is good news for staff and anyone you communicate with – they see that messages arrive during work hours. They don’t feel the pressure to respond immediately to any email that arrives in the middle of the night. Sometimes, I don’t have that option. But, it’s not impossible to learn how to do so. There are many people who disable their notifications on Slack. That’s awesome. If you message someone at night, and some sort of notification goes off they will look into it. This perpetuates the problem you are trying to solve.
Surve: Even if the notifications are turned off, to your point, they come back. There’s 15 of them sitting stacked up to look at right then and there. They’ll still feel the pressure, even if they are practicing it. “Oh my god, I’ve been negligent.” Outlook that had an Exchange Server was a capability. There are many developers in the games industry who lack enterprise-level software infrastructure. Recently, I discovered that Gmail allows you to schedule time-based emails, even in the free version. This could be a good practice. You might also consider upgrades and tools that give you this level of control over information distribution. This might be a great way to make people follow the leader’s example and give them tools to conform to that culture expectation.
That’s an interesting way to go. What other technologies are you seeing that could help to reinforce the culture leaders want to create? Notifications are one thing. But, it’s another to be able to send time-based emails. Are you aware of other platforms or practices?
GamesBeat: It wasn’t a technology-related one, but we also had a presentation for us on how to communicate in a written way so that you don’t have misinterpretations, or you don’t also have people perceiving you as writing aggressively, being confrontation. It’s important to communicate in a friendly manner, especially during the pandemic. Not everyone is in the best mood. You can be seen as hostile if you are too objective and unclear in your communication with the written word. It is nice to remind people that writing communication can be better.
Surve: Writing is effort. These chats are so common. We get used to the quick back and forth, rapid fire. We need to do things. We’re on a development deadline. I don’t have the time to write thoughtfully. Sometimes, this can save you so many headaches on the back end. As a case study, I had to deal with remote developers in a recent scenario. They are actually in another country. You would consider my company an indie studio. Our company is small, but we have developers from other parts of the globe. There’s almost a 12-hour time difference. It could be the beginning of my day (where I haven’t had my coffee) or the end of their day (where they are exhausted). We are all in a different work zone.
I had to take over some of the development, even though the CEO. The CTO was ill and I had to take over the development. It was just going sideways as we were having a conversation. They were not native English speakers so there was a language barrier. We didn’t use the video channel so I couldn’t see them. They were simply talking to one another. I had taken screenshots of some bugs and issues and was going through them, explaining everything to them in advance. But it went wrong. I ended up spending about 45 minutes to an hour, which is a lot of time, writing a response around behavior and addressing that. To your point, I talked about my intentions when asking certain questions. I had to break it down into very specific pieces. I also called out their bad behavior. These comments are not helpful. It is pushing us further apart. We are not coming together .”
When we returned the next day to have our next conversation, it was much more productive. It’s not easy. My deadlines were very tight. There were three to four competing priorities. This was difficult to accomplish. These best practices can be difficult to follow. You can make a better work environment if you are able to do it.
Boccamazzo: We often ask about technological solutions to what is essentially a human problem. This is my personal experience. Being autistic is something I am very open about. My autism has brought me many informational and social processing difficulties. We discovered that many technological solutions can become overwhelming for me years ago. I now have to not only remember the problem, but also which solution I need to implement in order to solve it. It can be overwhelming to have six or seven solutions.
I like to get it back from technological solutions. This is a human-based and behavioral solution. This is why I return to leaders. You must model this behavior for your employees, your team members and everyone below you who is looking to you as a leader. You must demonstrate fairness to your employees. You must demonstrate that you are able to provide psychological separation for your employees, which I hope you can do with so many people who work from home. It is your job to encourage it.
Power differentials in the therapeutic environment are something we discuss in psychology training. It is impossible to expect someone with less power to be the one who equalizes it. People who feel powerless and disenfranchised in a situation will often feel disempowered. The person with the most power, whether it is social, actual, or otherwise, must be the one to take some away, or show what is expected. This is why I often return to leaders and personal behavior, not technology.
Surve: It’s interesting that you bring that up, because of the things I’ve done is, whenever we have someone new come on board-everybody has an onboarding, and part of that onboarding in our company is, I talk about the expectations from my side. They also have to know what they can expect from me. I won’t create emergency situations for you. It’s not important if I tell you it’s essential. To your point, you should also follow up with consistent behavior. “Here’s the job I expect you to do.” We are distributed and have a flexible work environment. They respond by saying, “Look, although I don’t expect that you will be at your computer 24/7, I do expect that you will check your email once a week.” These are just a few of the things I have to say. I will tell them what my personality profile is and set those expectations for behavior. This is the person you are talking to as a leader. Here are some things to do so we can have better communication.”
It’s been fascinating to see people’s reactions. Leaders must take the initiative. All this is pre-work. It’s easy to just say “Let’s go build.” Why should we have to deal all this stuff? To use the sports metaphor, we have to train before every game. All the training you need to do for your team is so they can execute flawlessly when they are in the game. You can focus on the real challenges and problems that will