'The crunch' will be familiar to any business that deals with deadlines - whether that’s shipping a product, releasing software, or delivering work to a client.

It’s the all-hands-on-deck period, where everyone piles in to complete the work before the important deadline. If it’s missed, the consequences could be dire, so it’s time to bust out the overtime sheets, stick the coffee machine on, and get working.

It might be a one-off involving a late night in the office, with takeaways ordered by the boss to support folks who generously give a few evening hours to help their colleagues.

Or it could be a cyclical culture of paid, but forced, overtime, where workers are expected to give their lives to the project until it’s done - and then a few months later, it all happens again.

Handling the crunch

One industry notorious for this 'crunch culture' is the video game industry.

When a new game has a release date set, it can't easily be changed at short notice. Agreements will have been put in place with the developers, the publishers, the distributors, the manufacturers (of the physical discs), the platforms (if it’s being released digitally), the retailers. On top of that, the press will be expecting review copies, and will have started reporting on it already.

And then of course, there are the passionate fans (who can be REALLY passionate.) If they’ve been awaiting a game for years, queuing up at midnight outside a game shop is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

So letting all these parties down isn’t just an embarrassment, it’s a financial liability.

What happens if, a few weeks before the release date, a major game-breaking bug is found? It might require a huge amount of programming work to iron out all the problems. You can’t release a game in that state, but you also can’t cancel all the agreements and expectations you’ve built up to.

The solution? Crunch time.

Pushing everyone's buttons

As you can imagine, the games industry is a competitive one, with thousands of youngsters eager to pursue a career that revolves around their favourite hobby. Who can blame them?

This means that game companies are often staffed by early-career workers who are really eager to please, and don’t want to lose their chance at making it in this industry. They’re ripe for exploitation, lacking the experience and confidence to say ’no’ to demands for extra work.

It’s not just the youngsters that suffer when crunch time comes along.

Rockstar Games, the infamous developer of the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption series, is notoriously private about the goings-on in their workplace. It’s also an open secret that the high quality of their award-winning games is based upon a workforce that undergoes extensive crunch.

In reports going back to the mid-2000s, studio conditions were said to have been brutal, with “employees expected to work 12-hour days, including Saturdays, while overtime and holiday time have been cut and pay-rises have barely covered inflation." Families of the exploited took to blogging about the negative effects on their home life.

What can be done about crunch culture?

In any company dealing with deadlines, there’s the chance for exploitation. But despite that, there are signs that expectations are starting to change.

You might assume that cultural change, in situations like this, has to be led by management.

But employees themselves do have some say in pushing culture forward. In this GamesIndustry.biz article, Brendan Sinclair writes about the changing face of crunch culture:

"When the question of culture comes up, we generally hold leadership accountable. After all, they're in charge. They set the tone, the drumbeat that everyone else will march to. But when it comes to culture change, I don't think it's likely to start with the leadership very often."

The answer might, then, lie with employees. Newer generations of workers bring different attitudes with them. Mental health and wellbeing are top of mind for them these days, and they’ve come to expect workplaces that treat them less like resources and more like humans (as it should be).

Brendan continues:

“[cultural changes] are ultimately being made because developers have decided that the status quo was unacceptable and acted on that determination. Whether they push internally for change, openly advocate for it to the wider industry, refuse to work for abusive employers, support unionization, or go public to let others know how bad a situation has become, it seems as if the rank-and-file developers in the industry are finding a voice they haven't often had in the past."

We also know that pushing people too hard, too often is a guaranteed path to burnout, so if you want talented employees to stick around, you’re going to have to prioritise rest and avoid stress.

In a way, crunch-time exploitation isn’t surprising. You wouldn’t expect to get a job at a prestigious firm and be given an easy ride. The hardest workers will most likely perform the best. But they’d also expect to be treated with respect.

A better way to handle crunch time

Writing on the same site, industry veteran Philip Oliver shares some great tips on dealing with the realities of crunch time.

Firstly, make sure everyone knows what’s happening way ahead of time, so they can prepare for it:

"If you have a good, engaged and empowered team they are likely to pull the extra hours for the good of the game and the studio. When studios are in their infancy, it's often necessary and accepted, but as a studio matures so does its staff. They have other pulls on their time -- family commitments or just the need to unwind.”

As well as giving plenty of notice, Philip suggests any overtime should be either paid, or added on as TOIL (Time Off In Lieu), to be taken at a quieter time. Either way, they need to agree to it all in the first place:

"People's definition of crunch varies, but mine is forcing people to work against their will. Don't do it.”

The occasional busy period has to be expected in business, and there’ll always be times where the workload is mismatched with the capabilities of the workforce. But if it’s happening consistently, maybe it’s time to start hiring more people - for the sake of you, your employees, and your customers.