Tanya Livesey on burnout and how to prevent it

With the pandemic creating an ongoing period of working from home for many of us, the risks of creative burnout are greater than ever. Tanya Livesey explains what signs to look out for

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” Anne Lamott

Its onset can be almost imperceptible. A slight numbness where once there was excitement, vague but persistent feelings of dread, a growing sense of apathy when you know you should really care, and the whispers of self-doubt that tap, tap away in the back of your head. To everyone else, you may just seem a little quieter than usual. Everyone has their off days. But under the surface, your spark has dimmed, and as you poke around in the embers of your creative fire, there’s the creeping fear that maybe it’s burned away for good.

Although burnout feels like a modern affliction, it bears more than a passing resemblance to neurasthenia, the 19th-century disease of ‘living too fast’, characterised by the symptoms of fatigue, anxiety or depression that affected those who struggled with the pace of change in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Those in its grip were advised to take to their beds or reconnect with themselves away from the city. Sound advice.

Nowadays, however, that heady blend of hopelessness, extinguished ambition and sheer exhaustion that we call burnout is largely regarded as a fact of working life. But full-blown burnout is no joke. More than just a state of physical and emotional exhaustion that leaves us vulnerable to illness and disease, studies have shown it causes damaging changes to the brain. These affect our memory and ability to learn, and cause difficulty in controlling negative emotions. Burnout also causes a loss of connectivity across key regions of our brains associated with problem-solving and creativity.

If you’re good at what you do, at some point you will have too much asked of you

Unfortunately, creative people can be susceptible to burnout from working crazy hours, and by putting immense pressure on themselves to deliver brilliant work. Burnout kicks in when the demands of your job outrun your ability to replenish and cope. But it can also be triggered through disillusionment with one’s work, especially when you feel that what you do isn’t appreciated or doesn’t really matter – a common concern for creatives who work in the commercial arts.

What starts as stress or frustration builds into burnout and a profound loss of energy and enthusiasm for your work. For creative people, this loss of passion and inspiration can feel like dying. And if you’re good at what you do, at some point you will have too much asked of you.

Although we associate burnout with the frenetic pace of our pre-pandemic worlds, ironically, now that we’re working more from home, it’s perhaps a greater risk than ever. While the warning signs can be disengagement, tiredness, cynicism, irritability and missed deadlines, these may be harder to spot when you’re not around your team, in person, every day. By the time these signs become apparent, the damage may have already been done.

If you run a creative business, this silent but very real threat to your most valuable asset – your people – is both an ethical and a commercial issue, so it’s vital we learn to prevent it by being alert to the conditions that can trigger it, especially now.

OVERLOAD

The truth is, it can feel harder than ever to say no right now. With many businesses fighting for survival, and colleagues being let go, our fears for our own job security might be high. Making ourselves indispensable by saying yes to everything thrown our way might seem like a good strategy but it’s a surefire way to become overwhelmed. No one will thank you if the work’s not good enough, so being realistic about what’s possible upfront – even if that means saying no – is not only best for the business but for your health and sanity too.

If you always lean on your go-to people in a crisis, the ones you trust the most to keep things afloat could end up silently drowning

If you lead a team, make sure you understand their individual workloads and share the work as evenly as you can. If you always lean on your go-to people in a crisis, the ones you trust the most to keep things afloat could end up silently drowning.

MONOTONY

One of the more insidious effects of prolonged periods of working from home can be the dreary repetition of it all. Reading on our commutes, meeting in interesting spaces, or interacting with different people – these are all things we took for granted that stimulate new thinking. But strip most of that away, with long hours glued to our laptops in the same place where we live and sleep, and it can start to feel like Groundhog Day.

While a partial return to the office for some will undoubtedly help, many will have to find new ways to bake stimulus into their days for the foreseeable future. So, make sure you dedicate time in your day to replenishing your creative stores. Whether that’s listening to new music or taking in a virtual exhibition, the more variation you can create in your day, the more inspired you’ll be in your work.

If you lead a team, protect them from the monotony of back-to-back Zooms and, above all else, set a good example. By sharing the things that have recently inspired you, you’ll signal that creative breaks are a valid use of their time too.

ISOLATION

As social creatures we crave human interaction, and neuroscientific studies have shown that we experience social isolation in the same way as physical pain. While for some, lockdown has been a welcome respite from the pace of office life, over time, the loss of human contact can be draining, like working with a physical injury. This can deplete our coping skills and exacerbate feelings of hopelessness.

If you struggle to create healthy boundaries, it can be hard to leave your work at work when your office is your home

However, studies have shown that when we work in a way that means we can share and have others judge our work, we respond positively to this increased sense of social pressure. It not only helps to counteract feelings of isolation, it also improves our performance and gives meaning to what we do.

So, if you’re likely to be working remotely for a while, consider creating virtual forums for your teams to discuss and share their work. Rather than adding unhelpful pressure, it just might keep burnout at bay.

OBSESSION

According to social psychologist Robert J Vallerand, there are two types of passion – harmonious and obsessive. While harmonious passion brings a joyous experience of being fully and positively engaged in your work, obsessive passion is its darker twin. Rather than being a pleasure, your work becomes a compulsion, sucking out joy in its relentless wake. Once passion crosses the line into obsession, then workaholism takes over and burnout is often inevitable.

Unfortunately, if you struggle to create healthy boundaries, it can be hard to leave your work at work when your office is your home. If you recognise this in yourself, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman recommends scheduling time for complete diversions from your work that allow you to immerse yourself in something different, such as a hobby or personal project. These will act as a circuit breaker to an obsessive mindset and help stop work consuming you at the expense of everything else.

BLURRED BOUNDARIES

Similarly, in the absence of regular commutes, we need to have clearly defined starts and ends to our days, to stop the blurring of days into nights and work into life. So, put your laptop away, go for a walk, have a shower – anything that draws a line under your working day and ensures you switch off and unwind.

If you lead a team, avoid emailing them out of hours and be strict about not letting video calls creep into evenings and weekends. If we have no chance to recharge our bodies and minds, our batteries risk running dangerously low, and our health and creativity will pay a heavy price.

The well of creativity is not a magic porridge pot, it has to be nourished and replenished often if you don’t want it to run dry

The reality is that the well of creativity is not a magic porridge pot, it has to be nourished and replenished often if you don’t want it to run dry. As Arianna Huffington says, “Creating a culture of burnout is the opposite of creating a culture of sustainable creativity.” So, encourage your team to get plenty of rest and talk openly about the risks of burnout so they feel safe to wave the red flag when things get too much. Importantly, focus on cultivating a sense of joy and appreciation around the work, as this will keep their creative fires burning, even when times are dark.

As we remain suspended in this mid-pandemic limbo, somewhere between the old normality and the yet-to-be-determined new, the novelty of lockdown has long since worn off, leaving the reality of ongoing disruption and uncertainty in our work and personal lives.

Now more than ever, protecting the health and creativity of those you lead has to come first, or the work and your business may just come last.

Tanya Livesey is a leadership coach to leaders of creative businesses, noordinary.life, and global managing director of creative talent for The Talent Business; thetalentbusiness.com

JUNIOR GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Milton Keynes