The Dreaded “Burnout” (and How to Avoid It)

By Rob Johnson

10/19/15

I’m worthless.

I’m sitting and staring at my screen that contains a blank spread of despair. Why can’t I come up with something, anything, resembling a coherent, rational layout for this magazine feature much less something inspired and wow-worthy? Why is all this doing nothing so exhausting?

Seriously, Rob, what the heck is wrong with you?

I’ve had the above monologue in my head numerous times over my career. I’m guessing if you work in the creative field you have had similar discussions with yourself. Really any job can become brain-numbing, tedious, or mundane at times, no matter how much you love it (and yes as much as I sometimes might complain I do love what I do). However, I believe it’s especially critical for those of us in the creative field to recognize when it’s not just a creative block, but possibly the beginnings or even the throes of a burnout downward spiral.

Despite the snide comments by some about the validity of burnout, the struggle is real for many people. I’ve often heard the following:

“But your job seems so cool and fun, how can burnout even be a real thing?”

The Mayo Clinic’s description of burnout:

Job burnout is a special type of job stress—a state of physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work. 

They tell us to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers, or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  • Are you using food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?
  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches, or other physical complaints?

If any of these sound familiar, it’s time to take a deeper look at the cause. In our ever-connected smartphone culture, it’s easy for employees to burn out. Burned-out employees don’t just hurt themselves, but as they sink deeper into depression and dysfunction, their stress becomes contagious within the workplace. And as projects pile up on their desks, that load is transferred onto others.

I know personally I’m obsessive at times to the point of self-destruction and I believe this to be true of many creatives I know. When we hit a stumbling block, the first instinct is too work more, push harder. It’s this exact trait that probably got us to where we are in life and in our career, and it is this trait that we need to harness. Sometimes, the best thing is not to push through, but to step back.

Everything we read tells us the number one preventive measure for burnout is time away from work. Enjoy your favorite past times, travel if possible. That’s all well and good, and definitely some sound advice, but not always practical. I know in my case I don’t have unlimited vacation days, and taking sick time for myself knowing that I have two young elementary-age daughters sure to catch any and every bug at school really isn’t an option either.

So how do we step back?

I’m a big fan of Neil Young. His songs will often shuffle in and out of my music library on a daily basis. In “Hey Hey, My My” Neil wrote the famous lyric “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” Now he was speaking about a totally different subject, but it made me think: if we flip the script on those lyrics and all just fade away occasionally, maybe we won’t burn out? Maybe if we just take small breaks from our daily tasks that involve little or nothing to do with the work we are creating, it should in theory help us rejuvenate, if only just a little bit.

Some time back I took that theory into my workdays. From time to time, I started to allow my brain to fade away from what I was working on. Particularly if I found I’d been stuck on neutral with a project. I read some interesting articles. I walked out and stared mindlessly at the geese on the pond behind the office. I chatted with a friend or co-worker about an upcoming event. I checked in on the game plan for my favorite green and gold NFL team. Basically I’ve allowed my mind to completely shut itself off, if only briefly, from the everyday creative process.

And what have I found? Well, so far so good. For me these breaks have really allowed me to feel less stressed overall. I’ve been more productive in the office. Rather than wallowing in creative block and self-doubt for hours, I take a short break and often have a fresh perspective when I come back. Another bonus: our best ideas pop into our head when we least expect it. Often in these little sabbaticals I’ll have an epiphany for a job or upcoming project that I wasn’t even considering. Give your mind a mini-vacation to help stave off burnout until you can truly getaway and recharge.

So next time you are stressing out and feel like you might be headed down a path of potential burnout, take a small break and try to work some more into your daily routine. I know I’ve found it’s better to fade away than to burn out.