Whether you work in a creative agency or as an independent freelancer, creative burnout is something that can loom large for anyone.
Sometimes it’s the “boom or bust” nature that goes with both of these types of work. One day you’re frantically busy and pulling all-nighters to get work in on deadline, the next you’re in a lull and, (if you’re a freelancer), searching for the next piece of work.
Sometimes it’s because the whole time you’re relentless. You’ve got the day job, the side-hustle, kid’s soccer practice, parents who’d like to hear from you once in awhile, a partner who’d like to at least see you sometimes and others hammering at your door, wanting you on X or Y project.
At some point, everyone in these roles hits burnout and it may be at the worst possible time. So, what is burnout and how can you get through it and get going?
What Exactly Is Burnout?
The funny thing about that first definition is that it easily applies to burnout as we know it in the context of work. When you relentlessly go from one project to the next, lack sleep or lack any other pursuits besides work, you really do use up the “fuel” you had to keep yourself running.
Here’s a definition from Mayo Clinic:
“Job burnout is a special type of job stress — a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.”
Burnout is an all-encompassing state when it comes to the context of your work. It’s important to note that, unlike depression, symptoms are experienced primarily during work, whereas depression doesn’t discriminate over where you feel its effects.
As you may have gathered, burnout does share some symptoms with depression, though they are certainly not the same thing. You might notice symptoms like these:
- Lethargy when it comes to getting any kind of work done.
- An inability to just get on with your work, almost like you’ve hit a wall.
- Lack of satisfaction with your work achievements.
- Missing deadlines no matter how hard you try, usually because a lot of your time was spent staring at your screen.
- A cynical or critical attitude towards your work (particularly if you haven’t felt this way before).
- Change in sleep habits. You might have insomnia or sleep excessively.
- Physical complaints you can’t explain, such as headaches or backaches.
- Using food, drugs or alcohol to try and make yourself feel better.
*Saying “yes” to any of these symptoms could indicate job burnout. However, you should always consult with your doctor or mental health professional to rule out any other explanations and make sure that you really are suffering from burnout.
Here are some strategies for avoiding or mitigating burnout:
#1. Learning to Say “No”
One of the causes of burnout is that you simply have far too much on your plate. Freelancers are often afraid that turning down work might negatively impact upon their income, while agency workers may lack a certain amount of control over what gets thrown their way.
Either way, you need to learn how to avoid over-committing. If you’re an agency employee in a larger company, there’s a good chance that whoever is trying to add work to your plate may not even realize how much you already have on. Tell them, or at least explain what you already have going and try to negotiate longer deadlines on the extra work they’re giving you. Good managers respect employees who are honest about knowing their limits. Usually they’d prefer you spoke up sooner rather than waiting until a deadline is missed.
As for freelancers, you are in charge of what you have on and that includes turning down projects, or suggesting a later date for them if you’re already full. The bottom line is, don’t take on more than you can reasonably handle. The sky won’t fall in and work won’t dry up just because you said no. In fact, it’s much better for your reputation to be managing your workload and delivering quality work on time rather than missing deadlines and handing over lack-lustre work.
#2. Take Your Breaks!
I used to work for a large corporation in its headquarters. One thing that became immediately apparent was that on the open floor where I worked, taking breaks was almost frowned upon. People who were early starters and late finishers were “heros” and there never seemed to be any question about just how productive they really were, as long as they always remained tethered to their desk.
Recipe for burnout.
Look, it’s not heroic to skip breaks and work every hour of the day, in fact in terms of productivity, that can be downright foolish. You are not a robot and as such, you need breaks in order to refresh and renew your vigor for work.
As Buffer reveal, there are actual scientific reasons why you should prioritize taking your breaks. Taking your break helps you to;
- Avoid boredom and lack of focus.
- Retain information and make connections.
- Re-evaluate your goals.
If you think that skipping breaks will get you noticed and possibly promoted, think about what your prospects of promotion might look like if you do end up with burnout and can’t get your work done.
#3. Know and Manage Yourself
Creative workers can be our own worst enemies. Perfectionism runs rife and we often over-estimate what we can get done in a day, then beat ourselves up when we can’t finish the list.
Self-management is an important strategy. You need to understand your own tendencies and learn to manage them. For example, if perfectionism is a weakness of yours, recognize that not every task needs to be done at 700%; sometimes “good enough” really is good enough. This helps you free up time for those tasks that really do require that level of attention.
#4. Eliminate Stress
Sometimes the source of burnout is something that is causing you an excessive amount of stress. If at all possible, find a way to eliminate that stress.
Freelancers will find that client who they really don’t enjoy working with, who makes demands, doesn’t respect their time or possibly wants them to do work that they simply don’t like. Life is too short for stressful clients; fire them. Your other work will probably thank you as a result.
Agency workers may not have the same freedom to choose who they work with, but look to what you can control. Are there any other stressors in your life that you could eliminate to free up some mental space?
#5. Be Social
It is vital to make time for the non-work things you enjoy and need. Human interaction and participating in social activities that you enjoy is important to your mental health.
While a workplace might have social events after work (agencies are famous for them!), freelancers often find themselves much more isolated. If that’s you, make the effort to reach out to friends, family or fellow freelancers.
#6. Adopt Healthy Habits
The effects of burnout can creep up quickly if you don’t keep a good handle over your health. Eating, sleeping and exercise are often the first items to head up the creek if you’re busy.
Most creatives spend a lot of time sitting at a desk, another habit that can have serious health consequences. Research shows that even regular exercise won’t reduce the effects of a sedentary work day. The key is to break up your workday with regular activity, even if you set a timer so that you get up every so often and move around.
Professor Alan Hedge of Cornell University recommends the following:
“For every half-hour working in an office, people should sit for 20 minutes, stand for eight minutes and then move around and stretch for two minutes.”
#7. Know When to Ask for Help
Whether you need the help of a doctor, counsellor or mental health professional, or even to request help from colleagues, bosses or other freelancers, recognize your own limits and know when it’s time to ask for help.
Trying to battle through on your own is really adding stress, which is probably not necessary. Just. Ask.
Every creative will at least find themselves on the brink of burnout at some point. The best thing you can do is recognize the warning signs early and take action before your work, health and relationships are affected.
Ask for help, learn to say no, know yourself, keep up healthy habits, be social and take regular breaks throughout your day. If you can, eliminate stressors that are adding to your feelings of high workload or stress.
Remember, martyring yourself for the cause of work will not be seen as heroic to employers or clients if you start to slip in your work. Look after yourself and build resilience.