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The Real Dangers of Designer Burnout: A First-Hand Perspective

The Real Dangers of Designer Burnout: A First-Hand Perspective Blog Feature

Joel Waggener

UX Designer, 15+ Years of Print and Web Design Expertise

October 3rd, 2019 min read

This video sums up a typical work week for me. Well, maybe not quite as dramatic, but I’ve set the mood for you. 

It usually starts at noon on Friday when my team’s retro is over. Our retro is a wrap up of the work week when we talk about the wins of the week and improvements we can make on issues that arose. We then review all our deadlines for the coming week...and it begins. 

(Cue the above for background music)

Burnout is now formally recognized by the World Health Organization as a syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress” that has not been successfully managed. 

It is characterized by three key factors: 

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion 
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job 
  3. Reduced professional efficacy

We’ve talked about burnout before at IMPACT, but as designers, we have a unique perspective. 

We gaze at the embers of burnout on a weekly basis, but sometimes it’s not about the amount of work you have. It’s about what your projects are pulling out of you. 

What causes designer burnout?

There are so many factors that can go into a designer burning out. Identifying these problems will help you in the long run to set up a path to success. These are the most common ones I’ve experienced in my career:

Lack of diverse projects

If you’re working on the same project or same type of project for too long, your creative tank will be running on fumes. That monotonous feeling of solving the same problem over and over again takes its toll. 

The creative brain needs to be challenged with a range of projects to keep the engine primed and revving.

One of my favorite things to do is to take on a few freelance projects, whether I volunteer or get paid. This allows me to stretch my design muscles (and do some good).

If you have the capacity in your life, take on a side design project that is more unique than your day-to-day projects, even if that side project is just for you!

You can even ask to work on different project if you work for a company. The worst they can say is no.  

Overload city

As a designer in our industry, you’re never just working on one project. You’re swinging from one project to the next on a daily basis. 

What I do is try to knock out the biggest item on my to-do list early in the week. That helps because it’s not hanging over my head the whole week. 

It’s also important to keep up the communication chain with your team, especially your supervisor. Reach out if you’re feeling overwhelmed, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you (by the way, it makes me really uncomfortable). 

Hopefully you’re as lucky as I am and have a team who doesn’t hesitate to help each other out. If any of us on the team is feeling overwhelmed, we usually figure out a way to move things around so no individual person is feeling too much burden.

Not enough "me time"

If you’re an introvert like me, you need to put back what you take out. Being in constant communication with a big team and always being “on” takes it out of me. Even an introverted remote employee can feel this. 

Setting aside some time for myself is a necessity to stay sane. Having two kids makes that nearly impossible for me, but it’s important that I make the effort. 

Recharging usually involves being alone and doing whatever is the opposite of working. 

Burnout issues unique to designers

Let’s say I pour my soul into a design. I’ve spent countless hours perfecting every detail. I think I’ve solved for every problem. Then it’s presented to the client. They don’t like it. 

Gut punch. 

It’s hard to not take it personally. As a professional, it’s my responsibility to take the criticism in stride and revise the design to make the client happy.

But it takes its toll. I have to throw out all my original design theories that I thought were the answer and start over, which in and of itself is a challenge. But now something even worse happens.

Self-doubt.

I overthink everything. What was originally a clear solution is now a bevy of variations because I don’t want to miss the mark again. This is especially bad because as a designer you need to trust yourself.

Luckily this doesn’t happen much.  

Don’t stop. Go go go.

“The hustle” is real. Sometimes a little too real. 

While the hustle mentality can be great for getting a lot done, that’s not always the best perspective. 

Designs take time, care, and thought.

In my experience, constantly racing from one design to the next without breathing room for multiple iterations, can lead to poor designs — and burnout. 

In an interview with the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, Arianna Huffington said:

There is a pervasive belief that burnout is the price we must pay for success. As we know from recent scientific findings, this is a delusion. When we prioritize our well-being, our decision-making, creativity and productivity improve dramatically. 

Shouldering the burden

At IMPACT, we work in sprints. These are designed to keep everyone involved in projects on the same page throughout the week. They are geared to help prevent someone’s week from spiraling out of control. 

There’s an inherent desire to get everything done in your sprint no matter what the cost. At least for me. I don’t want to let my teammates down, and I don’t want to be the hold up on any project.

But what if the cost is your sanity and lack of sleep?

It’s important to be realistic about what you can accomplish in a week and not silently suffer. 

How do we avoid the burnout trainwreck?

There are ways to avoid this catastrophe.

  • Diagnose the problem
    You’ve won half the battle if you can identify that you’re experiencing burnout. It’s not an easy conclusion to come to. No one wants to feel like they can’t handle the pressures of their job.

  • Get away from your computer
    Yes, it’s an unfortunate aspect of being a designer. I stare at my computer all day long. I need to take breaks. It’s necessary for my health. I even invested in a smartwatch to help me remember to get up and stretch my legs!

  • Schedule some downtime
    This doesn’t necessarily have to be a vacation. Just make sure you are setting aside time to focus on yourself.

  • Switch it up
    If you can, work from home every now and then or go into the office if you work remotely. A change of scenery can make you be more creative. For me, I can work anywhere as long as I have my laptop. Not everyone has this luxury, so find a creative solution to give your work life a different perspective.

  • Get physical
    This is science. When you exercise you are happier, get better sleep, have more energy, and have a better memory.

  • Sleep it off
    Sleep isn’t just something you do when you’re tired. It affects growth and stress hormones, our immune system, appetite, breathing, blood pressure and cardiovascular health.

  • Speak up!
    This can’t be hammered home enough. Talk to someone about how you’re feeling. If you’re on a team, tell your supervisor. If you work for yourself, talk to a loved one or talk to a doctor. They can help you figure out a solution. 

It’s important to know if you’re feeling burned out or there are other underlying problems. According to informedhealth.org

Because the symptoms are similar, some people may be diagnosed with burnout although they really have depression. So people should be very careful not to (self-) diagnose burnout too quickly. This could lead to unsuitable treatment.

In the long run, what’s your most important priority?

For me it’s my family. Instead of fitting my life around my design career, I aim to fit my design career around my life. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s the goal. 

What’s your priority? 

Make that your focus. Nurture that one thing so it stays healthy. The healthier your well being is, the more likely you won’t fall into the hole that causes burnout. The work/life balance that all of us want is not out of reach if you stay aware of the signs of burnout.

And it’s okay to take a step back and recharge. You need to. That’s an order.

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