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How to Spot—and Avoid—Creative Career Burnout

Find out what to look out for, how to overcome, and move past feelings of career burnout.

Image by Abbie Bernet
Image by Abbie Bernet

We all have days where we just can’t seem to get motivated. We feel irritable, over-tired, anxious, or reluctant to engage with colleagues and clients. Some mornings staying hidden under the duvet is just far more appealing. It’s good to know that this experience is completely normal, especially if you’re in a senior role, running your own business, in the process of setting up your own business or generally have a very full workload. It’s so easy to get stuck on a one-track frame of mind and focus on the go-go-go of doing everything. Sometimes these feelings are simply our mind and body’s way of letting us know to take a day or two off to rest and re-focus.

However, it could also be the start of something deeper. If you find you’re going through long stretches of these feelings with no reprieve, or that they’re escalating to other symptoms such as lack of sleep, loss of appetite, or consistent low mood, you could be experiencing career burnout.

Career burnout is a distinct form of chronic job stress that leads to a continued state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. This may be combined with negative feelings and thoughts about your competence at work, your ability to achieve goals, and the value that you bring to your workplace.

What triggers career burnout?

Triggers for career burnout can include:

  • Feeling under-resourced
  • Feeling inadequately qualified or skilled
  • Unreasonable or unpleasant management or coworkers

Feelings of burnout can be more prevalent as a creative. When we undertake creative endeavours, we often pour so much more of ourselves into the work. We also have to be open to more scrutiny, opinion and criticism as people seek to tell us what they really think of our output. This can lead to heightened feelings of doubt and anxiety, as our ideas of self-worth are too often tangled up in our work.

Believe it or not, career burnout can actually be a helpful experience. It can indicate that you’re being undervalued, underutilised and underappreciated in your current workplace, and that it may be time for you to seek something new. Burnout is certainly unpleasant, but it may push you towards new opportunities that you’ll end up loving.

So, what can you do help combat career burnout?

As with most things in life, prevention is better than the cure, so it’s worth investing some time exploring if current feelings of stress at work are just part of your job, or if they’re leading to something more.

To do this, evaluate how long and how often you have these feelings. Keep a work diary of stressors so you can start to build a more conscious idea of what’s happening in your work life and how it’s impacting you. Once you’ve done that, you can start to think about the next steps:

1. Identify the source of your stress and/or trigger

Once you have a better idea of what’s causing you to feel burnt out, you can take positive steps toward addressing it. If you find that every Friday is a haze of anxiety, stress and pressure, really think about what’s causing it. Is there a client or colleague you have to deal with on that day that pushes your buttons? Do you have more commitments you have to undertake at home that push you beyond your capacity? Do you have a regular team meeting you always feel unprepared for?

2. Figure out ways to deal with these issues

Some things will be easier to address than others. If a particular client is giving you grief, find out what you need to do to end the relationship. Finish the project, get to the end of the contract, or find someone to take over for you. The best thing about creative work is that you usually get a say in who you work with. If the relationship is toxic you can move on freely and professionally.

Finding a trusted mentor, supervisor, friend or partner who you can open up to will also help. Let whoever you confide in know what you want from speaking with them to—if you just want someone to listen or someone to help you problem solve—so the conversation becomes meaningful and not stressful.

3. Create some boundaries

Draw up a realistic timetable of what you can commit to and achieve in any given day, week or month—and then stick to it. Start small and add in extra commitments if you can, but don’t put pressure on yourself to add more. Evaluate regularly and make sure you factor in “me time” and family time, too.

4. Listen to your gut

Call it instinct, a gut feeling, or intuition, whatever your choice of words, we usually know deep down when something isn’t right for us. If after three months of evaluating, setting boundaries, and adding “me time”, work is still getting you down, you need to make sure you do right by yourself. Maybe this isn’t the right path for you to be on, and there’s no shame in admitting that and making the positive changes that you need to make.

Stress is a natural part of the workplace—we’re all human, after all. But there’s a distinct difference between feeling pressured because of a one-off large deadline and consistent feelings of dread when you walk into the office.

Don’t let career burnout get to the point where it’s damaging you. Take control, take stock of what’s happening, and seek support to get you to the place you want to be: feeling positive about your career.

This article was first published on the Rising Tide Society blog.

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