Posted 10 October 2018

How to maintain balance, manage stress and avoid burnout at work

Here at Creative Lives in Progress, we are fortunate enough to get a generous insight into the working lives of countless creatives. What’s immediately clear is just how much passion many of our contributors have for their work. But while a displayed dedication to work is admirable, this often comes hand-in-hand with some words of warning. Stress, anxiety, burnout all reappear in the form of cautionary tales or learned lessons. So what are some of the warning signs? How can you maintain a healthier working life at work, or while studying? Sharing some of our contributors’ experiences, and what has helped them, we’ve compiled some essential considerations to keep in mind.

When you love what you do, the lines between work and life can quickly blur. Fear of disappointing a client or tutor, colleague or, simply, yourself, might elicit an enormous amount of pressure. This can take a toll on your health and happiness, as reasonable timelines, personal life and mental health risk being sidelined.

There are, of course, ways to reclaim control and make sure work and working cultures impact our wellbeing in a positive way. For some, like Twitter Vice President Bruce Daisley, that meant creating his own eight-point proposal (The New Work Manifesto) that he believes can make work healthier and more fun. But whether you choose to reclaim your lunch or minimise digital notifications, a small change could make a large impact. To find out more, we handed the mic over to some of our own contributors to hear about how they tackled similar pressures, what worked for them, and what they would advise to others.

Get some rest – no, seriously

Mathieu Triay, creative technologist
I love what I do, I get a lot of enjoyment out of it and it’s extremely rewarding. As a result, it can be a little addictive. Although this might make you better in the short term, it’s very detrimental in the long run. I’ve had a few run-ins with burnout in the past, where doing something else other than work was a big challenge. But a well-rested brain is much more creative and efficient. You won’t see me push myself past my limits again because the price is too high, and nobody’s handing medals at the end.”
Read more from Mathieu here

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Will Myddelton, user researcher
“I learned what it is to burn out [while working on a] project where I tried to do everything myself. I found myself up at 3am one night, trying to make a webfont work in a prototype, and I just broke. It was a horrible experience and it took me a lot of time to recover. But I looked inside myself, went to counselling, got some coaching at work, and came back with a plan. And, by some miracle, the plan worked. We completed the project. The thing actually got built. And it’s had tremendous commercial success. I wrote a post called The Change Curve about this whole experience that has led to some fascinating conversations since.”
Read more from Will here

Know when to stop

Ellen Ling, copywriter, LOVE
“Overworking, putting unnecessary pressure on myself and burning out have been my biggest challenges. Working late, ‘being crazy busy’ are, contrary to popular belief, not good things. Being stressed out shouldn’t be worn as a badge of honour, and it definitely doesn’t mean you’re doing a good job. I’ve always pushed myself, and I think ambition matters hugely, but you need to know when to draw the line. There’s pushing yourself to get the best stuff out, and there’s pushing yourself to breaking point. Good work doesn’t come from there. Unless you’re Adele.”
Read more from Ellen here

Learn to say no

Dan Kelby, character designer
“Being a freelancer and having a life outside of work is a very difficult balance to achieve, especially if you work from home. It’s all too easy to just hop on the computer at midnight and answer that email, then before you know it, it’s 3am and you know you’ll be no good to anyone the next day!

“I burned out last year. It taught me the value of saying ‘no’ – it’s a skill not often discussed, but one that’s essential to your long-term survival. I landed a job that required me to work from 6am until 2am every day just to hit my deadlines, and despite constantly asking for help from my production manager, none ever arrived. I didn’t see my partner for weeks, I became horrible to live with, and in the end, I just snapped. I couldn’t physically sustain that rate of work any longer and just creatively shut down. After I got out of that job, I stopped working for a few months so I could mentally regroup. I felt like I’d failed, when in reality it was the company I was working for who failed me.

“Mindfulness is something I’m always sure to practice now, as I’m no good to anyone if I’m too stressed to function.”

“I resent the working ideology of ‘You have to be busy all the time or there’s something wrong.’ It sends a dangerous message to other folks, as if working yourself to death is somehow a badge of honour to be lauded over others. Mindfulness is something I’m always sure to practice now, as I’m no good to anyone if I’m too stressed to function.”
Read more from Dan here

Matt Pyke, founder, Universal Everything

“Saying yes too often and spreading myself too thin has been the biggest learning. After burning myself out, I learned to avoid saying yes immediately – instead asking for time to make a decision, and then making informed choices about accepting the right projects for the studio. Now we only accept work we are proud to show on the front of our website. This sets our acceptance criteria very high, and motivates us to focus on only the best opportunities.”
Read more from Matt here

A personal sketch by illustrator Sonny Ross on productivity and mental health

Be realistic and try to stick to eight hours a day

Jack Wild, developer and designer
“I really hate to under-deliver or disappoint, so if I feel I have to rush or cut corners it makes me really panic. The idea that it’s all your fault if you’re feeling stressed from a heavy workload and lots of pressure isn’t very helpful. The best advice I can give is to keep well organised and plan ahead; be realistic with how much work you can take on and when you can do it. Try not to work more than eight hours a day. Genuinely fun personal projects and experiments don’t count as work in this sense, but try not to make them fill up all your free time either. If you don’t have time to cook a proper dinner every evening, you’re too busy!”
Read more from Jack here

Anna Thomas, scenic artist
“Maintaining a healthy work-life balance both mentally and physically is a challenge. [The TV and film] industry, though creative, intriguing and joyful, isn’t too nurturing of mental health, nor does it allow much of a chance to keep physically well.

“Now I take time to breathe, get at least seven to eight hours sleep a night, and eat properly. Repetition is key to learning these things.”

“I have made a number of mistakes, and felt devastated at the time (spelling mistakes on banners, cables seen on screen, tripping up when negotiating rates of pay) but I see now that I was rushing, over-tired, hadn’t eaten, or didn’t pause to think things through.

“Now I take time to breathe, get at least seven-to-eight hours of sleep a night, eat properly and communicate to directors if I spot a mistake. Repetition is key to learning these things.”
Read more from Anna here

Know how (and how much) you want to work

Holly Hay, photography director, Wallpaper*
“As my first job at a magazine, I put a hell of a lot of pressure on myself. It bled into my relationship at the time, and eventually I just cracked. I was that person, two days before Christmas with my family, on my BlackBerry having to take calls. So I put a stop to it. I went to a meeting with my boss, and said, ‘I totally respect that this is how you work, but I can’t do it.’ That changed my life completely, and since then I’ve never been that stressed again.

“I think what we do should be enjoyed. You shouldn’t be scared to open your emails. It isn’t normal, but it’s very commonplace in the industry. However, that bad time has actually made me much better at my job now. It’s important to protect yourself against that level of stress – it makes you unwell. My mum always used to talk about work-life balance, and I thought it was so boring, but it’s essential to feel you’ve got something beyond your job to make you happy. Quite often we just need a little bit of help, so be brave enough to ask for support.”
Read more from Holly here

Try incorporating exercise into your routine

Ciaran McCarthy, executive creative director, R/GA
“My working day is long and chaotic. I’ve been an early riser all of my life and I love the quiet of the mornings, before the rest of the agency wakes up and the emails start to come in. I usually wake between 5.30am and 6am and head to the gym. I find that exercise has a big effect on my stress and productivity levels, so it’s very important to me. After the gym I have a cup of coffee and write out a plan for the day.”
Read more from Ciaran here

Priya Mistry, illustrator
“Being overworked can be incredibly draining, but for me the ‘famine’ aspect of freelancing is by far the worst. Self-doubt and negative thoughts are so quick to surface during extended periods of not working. And it really affects my mental health – I’ll often slump into awful periods of depression, anxiety and stress. But I’m learning, albeit slowly, to work on a better work-life balance. I’ve started swimming regularly, spending more time on personal projects during quiet periods and turning down work during the extremely busy ones.”
Read more from Priya here

Mills, co-founder of ustwo
“In this industry, and world, we have multiple inputs coming left, right and centre (especially with things like social media), so you need to be on your mental health game. Prepare and create a fortress around you; get fit. I personally think it’s good to get out running every single day.”
Read more from Mills here

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