How to combat creative burnout
Your camera grows heavy in your grasp. Color palettes begin to bleed into each other. Fonts all begin to look the same.
If you can relate to any one of these feelings, you are not alone. Burnout is an ever-looming threat for today’s creators, many of whom face growing demands and fewer barriers between work and home life. Defined by feelings of physical and mental exhaustion, this occupational hazard is hardly unique to the creative industry. In a 2021 survey conducted by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org, 42 percent of women and 35 percent of men reported feeling burned out “often” or “almost always”.
Creative professionals aren’t the only ones burned out. Unlike professions such as health care or social work, however, burnout often carries a stigma when it comes to the fields of photography, design, and other professions dismissed by many in the outside world as fun hobbies rather than actual work. In truth, attitudes like these only make recognizing and overcoming burnout all the more challenging, and potentially increase the mental health risks for creative professionals.
To resist burnout and ensure a healthy connection with your craft, here are some helpful tips:
Recognize the signs of creative burnout
As with most issues affecting our physical and mental health, prevention is always preferable to intervention after the fact. This means staying on guard and recognizing warning signs as they begin to set in — while at the same time being mindful of the fact that creative burnout may manifest differently depending on the person.
Feeling spent after a long week of work is one thing. Starting every day with half a tank is another. Mental and physical exhaustion are deeply intertwined, bound together by a weariness that comes when you have been drained for what feels like forever with no end in sight. In these moments, banking more sleep cannot hurt. If, however, you are lethargic even after clocking the recommended 8+ hours a night, the problem may not be about how hard you are pushing your body.
Archie Sessions is an art director for the creative agency Stoke. After 14 years in the business, he’s come to recognize rising frustration levels as one of his clearest signals that he’s entering the burnout danger zone. “Venting and making jokes about a project is how I get work stress off my chest,” he said. “But sometimes, there’s a little more vinegar in it than usual, and that’s when I know — this situation is starting to get toxic.”
Feelings of dread toward work
For many, contributing to irritability is a deep sense of despair that knots the stomach each Sunday evening and — in the worst cases — each morning before the workday begins. This condition often goes beyond resenting the buzz of your alarm or wishing Wednesday were Friday, all of which are common thoughts of the modern worker. Instead, it resembles a kind of despair that saps the joy out of even your off-hours.
Often, the dread around work becomes bad enough that doing just about anything else seems preferable. Emails go unanswered. Client feedback piles up. Deadlines zip by unmet. Soon, you are buried so deep there seems to be little point in even trying to dig yourself out.
Finally, a feeling that you are somehow not good enough seeps in, particularly in the case of difficult clients who seem to reject every one of your ideas out of hand. “There’s this powerlessness, and a subterranean kind of self-loathing,” Sessions said. “Personally, I begin to think I’m not talented enough after a certain point and imposter syndrome sets in.”
Preventing creative burnout
As with recognizing burnout, preventing it will depend on the person. For Sessions, meditation, time with family, and retreating to nature all help him turn the tide of mental and physical depletion. Learning new skills also helps. “I’ve recently started researching Japanese woodworking,” he said. Central to each approach, he noted, is the need to unplug from the digital realm that dominates so much of his work life. “There are no screens involved.”
Make ideas tangible
Disrupting burnout by moving offline does not have to apply to off-hours only. Adding a tactile dimension to your creative work can serve to reground and renew your relationship with your craft as you see your creations take shape in the physical realm. In practice, this could mean turning to film photography, or picking up a pen and a notepad and simply allowing yourself to sketch on paper.
Of course, not everyone has the option to cut creative ties — even temporarily — with the digital realm. In this case, something as simple as switching from working on a desktop to an iPad or embracing new tools can help inject a much needed sense of novelty into the process.
Take time to consume media, rather than just create it
Other times, the best thing to do for your creative supply is to put down the camera, pen, or iPad altogether. In these moments, it can help to take time to engage with others’ art, rather than focus entirely on generating your own. Museums, movies, galleries, plays, concerts, photography collections and other art books — all can serve as reservoirs of inspiration and restoration when your own reserves are low.
Sometimes, despite even his best efforts, Sessions finds himself wishing he could walk away from the creative industry entirely. “I start thinking about leaving it all behind and becoming a mailman somewhere, maybe out in the Midwest,” he said. It’s in those moments when he knows he’s hit his rock bottom — he’s officially burned out.
When this happens, there is little else to do but take a break. “There’s no other replacement for simply not doing the thing you’re burned out on,” Sessions said. For him, the path to recovery begins with stepping away earlier at night to make sure he has time to wind down and get a good night’s rest. From there, he takes a day off when he can and keeps his computer off as much as possible during the weekend. “It’s about filling your life with other things to the point that you’re able to better control how invested you are in a project or client,” he said.
Make lasting changes
That said, time off is not always an option. There is also no guarantee that you won’t simply slip back into your old, exhausting routine as soon as you’re back at your desk. To really step off the creative burnout carousel, you may have to have difficult conversations with clients and higher-ups. “There may be dynamics in a team that need to change, or a certain issue you need to address with the people you’re working with,” Sessions said.
Perhaps now is the time to end an engagement, or at the very least recalibrate the collaborative process to make sure it’s working equally for all parties. For those working at a creative agency or in-house, seeking a reassignment might be the best way forward for all parties involved.
Rethinking creative burnout
We experience burnout as individuals, but often the driving force has less to do with personal choices than demands brought on by larger forces. “Your clients are always going to want everything yesterday,” Sessions said.
But the good news is you are not powerless. By setting expectations and boundaries up front, you can ensure a process that is sustainable over the short and long term. Meanwhile, experiencing art and creation outside the pressures of pleasing stakeholders can bring more freedom back into the creative process. Finally, spending time consuming art can remind you what drew you to creating it in the first place.