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What's burnout, anyway? How is it any different from plain ole run of the mill stress and why exactly are so many of us burning out? Today, software engineer Carolyn Yoo (@carolynyoo) takes us through how to recognize burnout, what can cause it, and why creatives may be especially prone.
Is it just me, or does everyone seem to be on the cusp of burnout lately?
My first hint of burnout was during week one of my first job as a marketing assistant at a luxury fashion startup. On my first day, I was tasked with pulling social media metrics at 5 PM and stayed until 9—late, I thought, but probably not the norm. The next day, I left at 11 PM, bleary-eyed and weary. Though my boss had left, none of the other team members budged from their seats so I wasn’t about to leave as the lowest member of the totem pole. By the time the weekend finally arrived, I felt physically weak with loss of appetite from not eating or sleeping regularly.
Because the stress from work felt so severe early on, I was compelled to turn the tides by setting boundaries. I uninstalled work email from my phone while learning how to manage my work hours. I made dinner plans with friends so I would be forced to leave the office.
We may all know someone in our lives who has experienced complete exhaustion from work. Maybe that person is you. But there are other definitions of burnout beyond fatigue, many of which have the potential to acutely affect creatives.
Burnout, or occupational burnout, is defined by the World Health Organization as a syndrome resulting from chronic work-related stress. Symptoms can include tiredness, detachment from one’s job, and decreased satisfaction and accomplishment in work performance.
While burnout has been a concept since 1974 when Herbert Freudenberger identified it amongst volunteers at a free clinic for drug addicts, the term has seen a recent rise in media due to its growing prevalence. In a 2018 Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees, 23% reported feeling burnout very often or always and 44% reported feeling burnt out sometimes. In Buzzfeed, Anne Helen Petersen wrote about how millennials were becoming the burnout generation because of the idea that one should be working all the time.
Burnout can seem interchangeable with exhaustion, but it has its differences. Exhaustion means hitting our physical or mental capacity and feeling drained; burnout means reaching that point of exhaustion and continuing to push ourselves.
As designer Frank Chimero puts it:
“Fatigue happens to your body, but burnout exhausts your soul.”
Stress is also distinguishable from burnout: when we’re stressed, we feel overloaded and struggle to meet demands. But, going through stress is expected in life and can even be a positive force.
Burnout is caused by prolonged, work-related stress. Burnt out people feel listless, disengaged, and hopeless in their situations. In fact, a lot of the symptoms of burnout overlap with depression. Burnout is also more difficult to identify and acknowledge in ourselves than stress is.
In their 1999 research on the organizational context of burnout, Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter identified six primary causes:
You have too much work on your plate and feel that you’re over capacity. While this might stem from organizational demands like being at a startup, where the expectation is to work long hours, it can also originate from saying yes to everything asked of you and prioritizing others at the expense of your own well-being.
When you have very little autonomy or say over what you work on or how you work, you can quickly become detached and feel hopeless. A good example would be having a micromanager as a boss who wants to know your every move and expects you to be on call at all hours of the day. Or perhaps business leadership is constantly changing priorities so you constantly feel whiplash and don’t see any point in planning.
You know you’re doing good work. So why doesn’t anyone else seem to acknowledge it? This could be shown through low compensation, lack of promotion, or little to no positive feedback from your manager or coworkers. If your investment doesn’t seem to result in any payoff over time, this is a fast track to feeling taken for granted and thus, burnt out.
Remember that saying, “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with?” There are few people we spend time with more than our own coworkers. If the workplace is a hostile environment and you feel unsafe or excluded, you can quickly feel isolated and lose motivation or ability to work productively.
Perhaps you’ve done higher quality work than your slacker colleague, but they get all the praise and leeway while your work is unfairly criticized. Or there’s a prevalent “boys’ club” in the workplace that you can’t seem to penetrate no matter how you try.
Say you value honesty and transparency, but the client you work for is unabashedly lying in their promotional materials. If our core values don’t match the organization or clients we work with, motivation can be severely impacted.
These are the overarching categories that cause us to burn out from work. But there are additional factors and mindsets that especially affect creatives.
Creatives are increasingly making the switch to freelancing for more freedom and independence. In the United States, the majority of workers will be freelancing by 2027 (Upwork).
However, burnout is inevitable for freelancers if they’re not careful. Remember how having little to no control can cause burnout? The life of a freelancer can be wildly out of control with the lack of a steady paycheck, benefits, and schedule. Freelancers are most likely working solo, therefore lacking a community if they don’t actively maintain one. There is also the temptation that they can always make more money if they work more and pick up more gigs.
On top of the work freelancers are getting paid to do, there is a fair amount of unpaid admin work such as responding to clients, invoicing, and pitching to new clients. Without delegating any of these tasks, freelancers can quickly be overburdened by the amount of work on their plates.
Today, creatives are often working digitally, where there are constantly new technologies that we feel we need to keep up with. While there are many great resources like SuperHi to gain new skills, we can also become overwhelmed and frustrated by how much we don’t know that we feel like we should know.
Social media also complicates our mindset toward the creative process. We use social media to connect and network with other creatives, promote our work, and seek new opportunities, all things that positively contribute to our working life. However, we can also easily compare our work and productivity to others, feeling that everyone is doing more and creating better work than we are.
As creatives, we deeply care about the work we create. Since we love our work, everything must be great, right? Unfortunately, this can also fuel obsession and perfectionism regarding our work. While these personality traits can help us focus, grow, and accomplish great work at high standards, we also feel pressure to work longer hours and push ourselves at the cost of our own health.
Creatives can also fall into the trap of scarcity mindset. This is the opposite of abundance: the belief that there will never be enough, whether it be money, recognition, opportunities, or time. Creatives frequently feel scarce in multiple areas of their lives and are constantly having to advocate their worth to others.
When we believe that what we want is in limited supply, we are prone to saying yes to everything and failing to juggle everything going on. Operating from a scarcity mindset can eventually feel like we are spiralling out of control, believing that we have to put in more time and energy in order to survive.
The most important thing to avoid or reverse the tides of burnout is to recognize it. Understand that burnout is always a possibility and that you are not a superhuman who remains immune.
If you find yourself regularly consuming more caffeine than usual to stay awake or coping with work stress by numbing out with food, drugs, or alcohol, check in with yourself to see if burnout could be a possibility. Other physical signs are a change in sleeping habits and physical pain such as headaches and stomachaches.
Your symptoms may also be mental or emotional. Are you avoiding or feeling cynical about work that you used to enjoy? Have you become more impatient with coworkers or clients? Is it hard to concentrate and muster up energy to work? Answering yes to any of these could be an indication of burnout.
If you are heading towards burnout, reflect on what in your current situation is causing it. Are you working too many hours? Are you doing unfulfilling work? Are you working in an unsupportive environment? Identifying the cause will help you determine a specific solution.
Here are some general tips for overcoming and avoiding burnout:
Most importantly, make sure to get quality sleep. Not only does sleep give your body rest, it helps regulate emotions and helps process experiences from the day. You can even frame sleep in service of your work productivity. As John Steinbeck writes, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” When resting during waking hours, choose activities that are calming for you. This might include popular wellness activities such as yoga or meditation, but it could also mean taking walks or listening to music. What’s most important is that the activity provides you genuine relaxation for your mind and body.
When was the last time you did a non-work activity that was pure joy? Often as creatives, we love the work we do and forget about doing other activities for the sake of exploration and fun. Even our hobbies can grow into monetizable side projects or activities we feel pressured to share on social media. Whether you have wanted to play the guitar, bake, or do puzzles, try embracing an activity that gives you joy.
Burying ourselves with work can leave us feeling isolated, especially if we work solo. Catching up with friends can remind us of our identity outside of work, get us out of that tunnel vision, and show us that we are worthy regardless of our accomplishments. It is often through conversations with friends that we realize we may be burning out, and our friends and family can support us in structuring a more balanced lifestyle.
Not everything can be of highest importance and urgency at all times. What are the one or two things most important to accomplish each day? Define what “enough” is on a daily and weekly basis. When we don’t have an idea of what a good work day looks like, we easily succumb to the demands and expectations of others and feel that lack of agency.
Say it with me: we cannot do everything! When we say yes to every opportunity or social plan that comes our way, we sacrifice rest and time spent alone. While people pleasing or scarcity mindset can cause us to fear saying no, turning people down rarely brings about the worst case scenario that we imagine. Others are generally forgiving of when we have other priorities going on and need to take care of ourselves, and opportunities that may seem like they will never come again might come in a more evolved, exciting form later on.
Sometimes we find ourselves in a busy and overwhelming season, and we genuinely want to push ourselves and grind. After such a hectic time, you can set up a slower season (or vacation!) afterward. This can give us the recovery and breathing room we need after a taxing period. On a more micro level, plan your breaks daily.
According to Cal Newport’s Deep Work, humans have an upper limit of four hours of focused work per day. Anything out of this zone of deep work will either be shallow work such as emails, meetings, and admin, or it will be distracted or drained attempts at doing focus work. Working long hours only has incremental gains, so make sure to have a set cutoff time for work whether you are a morning or night person. You can also plan time for distractions such as email or social media in your calendar so that you can focus and work more efficiently.
We chat to Tina Essmaker on false beliefs about work, the pressures of social media, and making small changes that add up over time.