Kelvin Plomer of Jagex discusses mental health in the workplace
20 November, 2020
Video game development has a complex relationship with the wellbeing of the staff involved. A ceaseless drive to hit deadlines and an exhausting pace of work can have a detrimental impact upon employees.
A culture of “crunch” is described in the games industry, where developers may be expected to work beyond the traditional 40-hour work week, with some firms pushing staff to work over 80-hour weeks.1 This may lead to burnout, which the ICD-11 characterises as feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.2
However, there are examples within the industry of companies trying to prevent this workplace culture. One such company is Jagex, a large UK-based game developer and publisher that is best known for its massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, Runescape. In 2019, Jagex earned a Workplace Wellbeing Index recognition from mental health charity Mind for their promotion of better mental health in the workplace.3 We interviewed Kelvin Plomer, the Senior Director of Player Experience at Jagex, to look at how this wellbeing programme was implemented within their company.
Intervention programmes for reducing burnout within the workplace can be broadly categorised into two main strategies: “person-directed” and “organisation-directed”. Person-directed intervention programmes primarily look at cognitive behavioural methods, social support or various exercises and activities for staff. Organisation-directed programmes look at changes within work procedures aimed at decreasing workload and increasing worker control and ownership.4
Plomer highlighted how Jagex had implemented both these interventions within their departments over the last five years. Person-directed intervention programmes included wellbeing action plans for staff, availability of company-funded counselling services, the facilitation of open discussions regarding concerns with managers, workshops on wellbeing activities, quiet rooms, and ensuring mental health services were included in their staff health insurance. From an organisation-directed perspective, the company had funded various staff-led initiatives over the years and ensured that staff had a voice when reviewing procedures within the company.
The importance of management engagement was also identified. Plomer stated that all the workplace interventions were underpinned by management being conscious of employee mental health needs, having had “additional training in order to spot the signs (of mental distress) and be able to deal with it with an extremely supportive HR.” The company also aims to make the workplace a more supportive environment. “It is a lot of things that we do to make work a social space and somewhere where people can talk and communicate on whatever level they feel comfortable.”
We discussed crunch culture. Plomer stated that Jagex did not work within a crunch model, primarily because of the release structure which the company has adopted. “Because we update our games every single week, we have to work normally in order to achieve deadlines.” The game requires ongoing work which would be unsustainable if done in constant crunch conditions. He also noted that if there are issues with releasing content on time, Jagex would make the conscious decision to delay release instead of making their staff work untenable hours. “We need it to be right and we also need to ensure our employees are being treated right along the way,” said Plomer. While there are times when staff work overtime during big releases, he stressed that this is neither the norm nor frequent.
There have been concerns within the industry that with the current pandemic and increased remote working, there would be difficulty with staff maintaining boundaries between their work and personal life, which could potentially lead to burn-out.5 Plomer reflected on the changes which have occurred during the current pandemic. “We recently bolstered [counselling] during the COVID period, recognising that there are employees, and people across the world, struggling with isolation.” He also identified the need to change work patterns due to the pandemic, as staff had started experiencing Zoom fatigue. To help address this, Jagex started having Zoom-free time so that staff can have the opportunity to disengage from their work.
With regards to how the company’s culture towards mental health had evolved over time, Plomer said that it began by “engaging with our employees and talking to them and creating an open culture.[SS3] ” This was with the aim of allowing issues relating to mental health to be openly discussed. “We hear so much about stigma associated with mental health,” he said, “and whilst not perfect, we have come a long way in reducing the stigma in the workplace and in our gaming community as well.” Plomer recognised that there was not a single solution for reducing stigma, but that it has to “evolve over time, and in order to do that you have to move quickly and you need to listen.”
This push for mental health awareness has also been reflected in their game Runescape. Jagex ran special mental-health-themed days within the game world and had in-game characters providing basic mental health information to players. Plomer said that around 50% of their players engaged with mental-health-related in-game events. Furthermore, Jagex used such events to help raise money for multiple charities, including Mind and the Princes Trust.
What this interview demonstrated was how person-and-organisation-directed changes within a company could potentially improve the mental wellbeing of its employees. It highlighted the importance for management to recognise the needs of their employees and actively address mental health concerns. Furthermore, it highlighted how it is rarely just a single intervention which leads to improvement, but an entire cultural shift which is necessary to ensure that people’s mental wellbeing is kept in mind.
The lessons taught here could possibly be brought into other occupational groups. With the rates of burnout estimated to be over 50% within medicine6, interventions for reducing burnout are vital, not only to prevent deterioration in the wellbeing of healthcare professionals, but also to ensure optimal patient care.7 Of course, all companies in any industry must continue to improve conditions for the wellbeing of their employees, and no company can be said to be fully accomplished in this task. But the fact that Mind has recognised Jagex for its continuing efforts is a positive reminder for us gamers that the companies who produce our games should prioritise staff wellbeing.
Authored by Sin Fai Lam
You can hear the full interview which also goes into other issues such as loot boxes.
- Take This. Crunch Hurts: How unmitigated overwork harms employee health, productivity, and your studio's bottom line. [Internet]. Raleigh: Take this Incorporated; 2016 p. 4,5. Available from: "Crunch Hurts: How unmitigated overwork harms employee health, productivity, and your studio’s bottom line"
- Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases [Internet]. World Health Organization. 2019 [cited 15 October 2020]. Available from: "Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases"
- Silver - Achieving Impact [Internet]. Mind.org.uk. 2019 [cited 14 October 2020]. Available from: "Silver - Achieving Impact"
- Awa WL, Plaumann M, Walter U. Burnout prevention: A review of intervention programs. Patient education and counseling. 2010 Feb 1;78(2):184-90.
- Lloyd M. Remote work raises new crunch concerns | Opinion [Internet]. GamesIndustry.biz. 2020 [cited 14 October 2020]. Available from: "Remote work raises new crunch concerns | Opinion"
- Low ZX, Yeo KA, Sharma VK, Leung GK, McIntyre RS, Guerrero A, Lu B, Sin Fai Lam CC, Tran BX, Nguyen LH, Ho CS. Prevalence of burnout in medical and surgical residents: a meta-analysis. International journal of environmental research and public health. 2019 Jan;16(9):1479.
- Lemaire JB , Wallace JE . Burnout among doctors. BMJ 2017;358:j3360.doi:10.1136/bmj.j3360