Burnout: The creative's challenge

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Burnout has been plaguing the creative industry since the beginning of time. Whether it's getting carried away with work and staying up to all hours, or becoming jaded with a lack of meaning and purpose in our work, many things can contribute to our negative or positive mental health.

There are probably more inspiring things to do on a Wednesday night – but, last week 50 of us gathered at Academy Xi, who were kind enough to host our latest Never Not Creative event.

Partnering with Academy Xi and The Design Business Council, our topic of discussion was burnout.

Our panelists had plenty of experiences and learnings to share when it came to a topic, that surprisingly filled all the seats from front to back.

Carol Mackay shared research from the University of Chicago that almost half of us are exhausted due to work, increasing our likelihood that we'll also experience feelings of loneliness.

Carrie Peters shared her story of landing her dream job at a startup and then burning out and having to escape with a plane ticket to Europe – there are worse outcomes!

Steve Farkas talked about almost 20 years of working in advertising, burnout, rehab and finally finding his good place at design consultancy Fjord.

Andy Wright co-hosted the event with Carol and shared one of Never Not Creative's latest initiatives – working with the Mentally Healthy Change Group to launch mentally-healthy.org and the Minimum Standards.


Spotting the signs of burnout.

It can all start out very innocent. Getting excited about a project, working through the night, working on the weekend, perhaps because of a great opportunity. But this type of behaviour can ultimately lead to burnout.

In other cases it might not be workload or time demands. It might be a lack of control or autonomy in your role, or a lack of reward and appreciation. As Steve said in our discussion, "chasing somebody else's dream can be demoralising".

You might feel that the demands placed on you are unfair, or that the client or business you're working for has values and code's that don't align with your own.

The more you experience a disconnection between your role and the above scenarios, the more likely you are to experience burnout according to Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter’s Areas of Worklife model. However, according to the researchers these scenarios are structural and systemic – meaning that our workplaces and businesses can change if we choose to.

Sometimes the signs of burnout are an obvious change in behaviour. For Carrie, who stated "I almost always have an opinion on everything" she can recognise reaching potential burnout, "because if someone asks me what I think, I just won't have an answer – and I can usually always say SOMETHING."

Other signs can be more extreme. Someone who is exhibiting erratic or aggressive behaviour, who might 'snap' in disagreement, may be experiencing symptoms of mental ill-health. Rather than disciplining them, or worse, sacking them, try the opposite. A kind, non-judgemental and empathetic conversation could help them to calm down, find perspective and get help.

A drop in productivity, increased absences, a visible loss of motivation, may all be signs of burnout or another mental ill-health symptom. 

The challenge in our industry is that things move so fast and that there are so many other pressures, that any of the above come across as an obstacle to business success. What may be seen as signs of poor performance that require some form of discipline, can instead be a sign that the system of working that we created is failing the people within it.

This article from ADA, a startup global health company founded by doctors, scientists, and industry pioneers helps to outline other signs of burnout in the workplace, including:

  • Anxiety

  • Headaches

  • Lack of sleep

  • Fatigue

  • An increasingly cynical outlook on life and work

Look AFTER yourself and each other

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Everyone on the panel spoke of the fact that burnout may be inevitable. As Carol explained, the 3 universal stages of learning are testament to the fact that there are times in our careers when we are likely to feel out of control, or that we don't know as much as we thought we did. The battle with our own confidence, competence and feeling of progress and achievement can also take its toll.

Once you've experienced burnout it does make it easier to recognise the signs of it next time. Carrie and Steve both spoke of being more aware of what the symptoms are and what to do to head them off.

While businesses should have a duty of care to look after your health when it comes to work, you also need to look after yourself. It's on you to speak up if things are heading out of control. If you're feeling disconnected from work or de-motivated. Be sure to explain why you're speaking up (because it's affecting your health) and that you want to find a solution. Any mental health issue that you disclose at work has to be treated with privacy and discretion and without any negative consequences. In fact, your workplace is required to make 'reasonable adjustments' in order to help you overcome them.

The more you become aware of signs and symptoms, the more you can improve your awareness of the same signs in others. Checking in with friends and colleagues regularly can help to head off a burnout event before it happens.

Burnout is only one outcome, and many of the things we discussed on the night can lead to even more serious symptoms and conditions such as depression, anxiety, addiction and thoughts of suicide. So, if you're worried you're being dramatic or coming off as nosy, think about the alternative. You're better to check.


There's no doubt that this topic and others like it are gradually creeping onto the main agendas in workplaces in our industry. The fact that we could fill a room on a Wednesday night proves this.

The launch of the Minimum Standards is a great way for a business to take mental health seriously and adopt policies and practices to improve conditions at work. No matter how big or small your business you can do this today.

You can also join in the conversation yourself. Wednesday night's panel was evidence of our ability to have a safe and sensible conversation about challenges that likely more than half of us are experiencing. Indeed, we made the point – more than half of our industry are experiencing mild to severe symptoms of anxiety and / or depression. You're not the minority if you're feeling this way. If you choose to talk to someone then it's likely that they may be feeling the same way. Help each other out, support one another and ask for help.

Thanks to everyone who attended and also those in the crowd who had the courage to stand up and share their stories and opinions in an articulate and respectful way.