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Cover image for You are probably a victim of Crunch Culture

You are probably a victim of Crunch Culture

ronsoak profile image ronsoak ・7 min read

Crunch Culture has gotten a lot of visibility in the past few years, primarily due to the Video Game industry.

However you don’t have to work in video games to be a victim of crunch culture, in fact I’m pretty certain that just about everyone has, at some point or another, worked in crunch conditions.

Because, fundamentally, crunch can be boiled down to a scenario where you have to push yourself harder than normal to meet a deadline. 

Think of it like sprinting. It's something you can do short term to cover more ground, but its not sustainable for long periods of time. Crunch culture is the expectation that you will sprint more than you don’t. 

Now the occurrence of a crunch scenario in isolation is not overly problematic, it’s bound to happen, we can’t predict the future and sometimes we get thrown a curve ball.

You may ‘crunch’ to get some work done before you go away on leave, a sick staff member may lead to your team having to ‘crunch’ to cover their responsibilities, or an unexpected busy period may result in crunch.

Crunch in isolated scenarios, even though it can be unpleasant, is a reality when you can't predict the future. When it happens regularly, when it actually becomes predictable itself - and can be avoided - this is unacceptable and is what I mean when I say ‘Crunch Culture.’

What does Crunch Culture look like?

Scenario One

Willfully not covering a ‘predictably busy period’ with an increase in resource / support, or a decrease in other deliverables. Basically the employee is still expected deliver on everything, within the same amount of time, even though the amount of work has increased. This is either expressed up front or you are chastised after the fact for not being able to deliver.

Scenario Two

Repeatedly requiring staff to deliver work within short time frames, i.e deliver last minute. These pieces of work are often sold as ‘urgent’ and ‘important’ and normally result in staff ‘dropping everything’ just to get it done. This causes other work to back up, sometimes resulting in conflict between your staff and any stakeholders they pushing back in line, due to the urgent last minute request.

Scenario Three

Changing what needs to be delivered in a project either repeatedly or without fairly revising a delivery date. Commonly seen in project management type spaces. If x amount of work is agreed to be delivered by y date you cannot add stuff without moving out the delivery date. You also cannot keep changing the what is needed to be delivered, even if you change the delivery date. The scope of a project should be clear and stable, staff should not feel like they are on moving sand.

Why is this bad?

Crunch Culture represents a big ethical failing.

It represents an abuse of power.

Management to employee is an unfair power dynamic and Crunch Culture is either instigated by, or allowed to exist only by the hand of management.

An employee holds practically no cards in this relationship. They lack any power to question or reject being exposed to Crunch Culture. Staff often are not aware they are being subjected to Crunch Culture until they begin to suffer and while, in most countries, staff are legally protected, seeking legal protection is not easy.
Staff also fear that they will be subject to consequences that they can’t necessarily be protected from at a later date, or will miss out career opportunities. The rights of employees are at all times murky and management willingly allows these murky beliefs to remain unclear as it 100% benefits them. Staff are also eager to sacrifice their own time, for the hope, not promise, of it paying off later in their career, another fallacy management are happy for staff to believe.

Management also abuse the reality of the career field. Staff in video games and movies have subjected to crunch because the field is competitive and the union culture is weak. Staff are afraid to rock the boat, lest it cost them the job they have always dreamed of. Often these industries are located only in certain parts of the world, so people are afraid to speak out in case they get a bad name in their small community. Management know this, and it has lead to many other unethical employment practices, not including crunch.

It represents a lack of respect for staff

At some point your management / stakeholders stops viewing you as a human being, but instead a resource. A tool to make the stressors being inflicted on them go away. Tools do not have rights, emotions, goals, or aspirations. Tools can’t have a bad day because they feel ill or didn't get enough sleep.
Tools exist to be used the same way every time with no strings attached. If you are being subjected to the above scenarios, your management has stopped viewing you as a human.
You are now a tool, which is why they believe they can ask more from you than is necessarily fair, which is why they think they can crunch you until you break. What happens when a hammer breaks? You buy a new one. 

It’s the same mentality in war. They will push you until you break and when you do break you become a casualty. Casualties are quickly removed from the front line and replaced with someone fresh. At this point you are no longer anything to your boss. They have ceased seeing you as a person and now that you can no longer do the job, you are also no longer a resource they can use. When they stop seeing you as a person, they also stop being able to see themselves as to blame. If my TV breaks I don’t stop and take a long hard introspective about how I treated it, why would I?

If you become a stress causality of crunch, your management are already too far gone to understand that it is their fault.

It represents a hypocrisy in people management.

Mental health has become the new buzz word when companies talk about how they manage their staff. Now I wouldn't call this outright hypocrisy, I can see many good companies do good things in the name of supporting employee mental health, but what they are doing is the easy stuff. The low hanging fruit, and crunch culture represents the hard stuff.

But if this shit was easy we would have done this a while ago. If a pool table and free coffee was all that was needed to stop mental health casualties then we wouldn't be having this conversation.

We need for the people who run these companies to realise that what they are doing is the bare minimum and that the stuff that does the real damage, like crunch, is undermining all the money an efforts they are putting into free fizzy and pizza Thursday’s. No one has ever stayed at a company where they are subjected to crunch, because on Tuesday’s they get free tacos. This isn't even a band aid solution, its like feeding the starving with holographic food. 

Ditch the tacos, fix the crunch, otherwise you are not actually addressing employee ‘wellbeing’ you are ticking a box that gives you the slack to feel less responsible and it becomes something you can advertise about how good you are.

It’s inefficient and will cost you more in the long run

To crunch your staff is to make them sprint, and then it gives them less time to recover. It’s one step forward and two steps back. It cannot be sustained, so for workplaces that practice Crunch Culture you are constantly diminishing the output of your own work force and replacing them with new staff more often. Not only are you getting dismissing returns in regards to performance, the very thing you are trying to get more off, you are throwing money down the toilet. Henry Ford a hundred years ago figured out that his factory employees worked best when only worked a maximum of eight hours and yet here you are trying to bleed blood from a stone.

However the employee does shoulder some blame

I hate writing this bit. Crunch culture is overwhelmingly an unethical device employed by management. However a small portion of it is the fault of the employee. I wrote about this at length in my article on burnout. Some employees are burning out, becoming stress casualties partially by their own hand. They willingly work long hours, using there own personal time as a currency to reduce the stress of their workload. Do not do this, you send the wrong message to management, who believe you are doing a high amount of work in your forty hours. It sets a pace in your office other employees may feel obligated to match. Too much of crunch culture happens because no one says anything, they just wordlessly work to expectations and fears that have never been vocalised but are commonly held. By working yourself to hard you are lending to that environment. New staff see you working your weekend and start to think its required of them.

So what can you do?

Fighting crunch culture is both easy and hard. Knowing what to do is easy. 

Exercise your rights, vocalise with your team and management structure how crunch is not good for anyone, its inefficient and can be avoided. Take a stand, if management isn't on board, leave. Even if you are in your dream career no amount of crunch will be worth it. You will burn out, and recovering from burnout takes years.

But in practice this will be extremely difficult. Only if you have an active culture of anti-crunch will you be successful. Crunch happens naturally, unless people actively manage it. Even if you have your direct management onboard you still need to win over their management and every stakeholder you have. It never ends, and you may have to leave multiple workplaces before you find a place that puts your interests first.

It will not be easy, or quick, but surely you are sick and tired of leaving a job, not because it was time to take the next step in your career, but because you were sick of how things were run? Are you sick and tired of your free time being poisoned with the overflowing stress of a bad day at work. Are you sick and tired of new emails or phone calls causing your blood pressure to rise? Are you sick and tired of shit talking management at every work drinks? Demand to be treated better, so you can have a better work and personal life.

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ronsoak profile

ronsoak

@ronsoak

Data Analysis Team Lead at Xero in Wellington NZ. Dev tag moderator and passionate about space! All views expressed here are my own.

Discussion

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Management to employee is an unfair power dynamic and Crunch Culture is either instigated by, or allowed to exist only by the hand of management.

Down with the power, Komrade ;-)

Let's say you are an employee, you don't earn money by effort but by time, you sell your time.

So, if an (evil) manager says "you must work hard", then he (or she) is doing the right thing, after all, your part of the deal is work for a time, if it is light or hard, it is the same time.

Overtime is different. Overtime is cancer, it has never worked, it lowers the moral of the team and it raises mistakes bugs and problems. A good manager must know that.

I worked as a project in chief (some sort of manager but more executive, i.e. not only administrative), and I deal with time all the time. Let's say one of the internal user (who paid for the project) wants to give priority to some project and we (as a team) are already working on another project.

  • Project A: He wants to change the priority of this project.
  • Project B: But we are working on it (it has another owner).

So, what we could do:

  • the owner of Project A must talk with the owner of Project B and be if he is able to give us more time (increase the deadline).

  • or the owner of Project A must increase the resources, i.e. add more personal, externalize the service, it's his/her call, not our.

  • Now, let's say I'm a brown-nose manager, I will say: "sure, we could do both at the same time". Of course, it is IMPOSSIBLE. It's called OPPORTUNITY COST and we couldn't generate resources (time for this example) from thin air.

  • Another alternative is to lower the quality. It is COMMON. However, it's not our problem. Let's say the owner wants to rush a project. Our responsibility is to warn about it, we don't take the final decisions but we should document it (a simple email will do the trick).

Dear Mr. Product Owner:
We could move the deadline by a month but it means to lower the quality of the product. So, if you want to continue, then please confirm this decision.
Love and hugs XOXO, the developer team.

 

Nice 🤜🤛

In my first dev job, I can remember us needing to finish up some stuff for a product demo. One night, we worked all day, ordered pizza for supper...and worked all night/morning.

That did happen from time-to-time, and I suspect it's standard for a growing product/company in the early stages.

They needed me to "build" a special report (on a web page) that just wasn't possible to do... so we ended up faking the entire thing.

The person doing the demo had to know exactly which buttons to press in order to make the "real-time" report work hahaha 🤦‍♂️

Good times.