Let's face it: working in design isn't always easy. The creative industry is often characterized by overwork, tight deadlines and a blurring of work-life boundaries. Sometimes—actually, more often than in other professions—this leads to burnout. The good news is that there is an antidote.
For this article, we’ve talked to several creative professionals about their experiences overcoming burnout. We also share critical input on management and recovery from a clinical psychologist.
Carien Moolman, product designer at Neurozone.
Heejae Kim, independent designer, illustrator and writer.
Misha Koroteev, filmmaker, creative director at VeryVertical.
Mari van der Merwe, clinical psychologist.
How burnout begins
Carien: When I was younger, I worked at an agency on a large project with many people and moving parts. Early in my career, I felt I had to work hard, often overtime, to prove myself. I didn't have children then, so there were no limits to my working hours, leading to 14-hour days. I didn't sleep enough, wasn't eating right and drank too much coffee. This routine made me physically ill over time. This was my most intense burnout experience, feeling a detachment from those around me. At the time, I didn't recognize it as burnout. I just became very sick and things imploded. Only later did I realize I had experienced burnout.
Misha: In my late 20s, I thought making the agency I co-owned “the bestest of the bestest” would make a difference in my life. We did video advertising. During a shoot, an actor asked me if I needed help. My face disturbed him. Then a colleague told me everyone in the company hated me. In both conversations, I told them to shut up and get back to being “the bestest”. The night the company was finally recognized as the most creative in the country, I was ready to hear heavenly angels sing verses from Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but instead, felt nothing. Or, as I later got to know it by its other name—burnout.
Tori: Both me and Zoe worked at a startup company. Fresh out of college, it was my first job, and I had no understanding of work boundaries. The expectation was to start at seven in the morning and leave between 10PM and midnight daily. For two years, I followed this grueling schedule, handling immense pressure on top of my regular design tasks. Before another colleague was hired, I was the sole designer, responsible for branding, graphics for museums and installations, social media content, merchandise design, and web advertising. It was an overwhelming amount of work.
Zoe: That fast-paced environment we worked in lacked structure and clear roles. The entire team was young. Being fresh out of college, we were naive and didn't know how to set healthy boundaries. Our eagerness to please and kickstart our careers made us susceptible to burnout, especially in a city as fast-paced as New York.
How to recognize burnout
Heejae: I lacked motivation, felt detached, doubted myself and began questioning my role as a creative, which just led me deeper into burnout. There’s buzz around this word and I didn’t think of it beyond the surface level until I had to look closer. I was also in therapy about my experiences with my identity, which naturally branched into subjects like work. It was during this time I reflected on how reliant I was on work as a source of validation.
Misha: I couldn't understand why I had to do yet another project. Everything felt like a chore and I couldn't find a reason to make myself keep doing it. Which didn't stop me from making myself do it, at least until the panic attacks started. That kinda slowed me down a little at first. And then a lot.
Zoe: I didn't realize the severity until I left. Crying daily, being physically and mentally unwell, stomach issues, weight gain and acne were signs of burnout that I mistook for normal life challenges. It was only when I began self-care and set boundaries that I recognized it. Despite my passion for design and high self-expectations, I became indifferent to my work, feeling robotic and quickly losing enthusiasm.
Tori: Beyond the emotional and physical symptoms, I became numb, which affected both my work and personal life. As an artist, this numbness made me lose my sense of self.
1. Compulsion to prove oneself.
2. Self-deprivation, conflict avoidance, value sacrifice.
3. Denial, disengagement, behavior changes.
4. Depersonalization, emptiness, feelings of depression.
5. Total exhaustion.
Burnout symptoms affect physiological, behavioral, psychological and spiritual aspects. Common burnout symptoms include:
• Persistent fatigue.
• Loss of enthusiasm or motivation.
• Emotional drain.
• Feelings of emptiness.
• Reduced sense of achievement.
• Loss of purpose.
• Cynicism and detachment.
How burnout impacts creativity and productivity
Carien: One of the most important things in my work as a product designer is to empathize with the people using the product, trying to understand their needs and challenges. However, during burnout, this empathy diminishes and its absence impacts your creativity; you choose the first solution that comes to mind instead of innovating. We need adequate sleep, safety, health, and energy to be our most creative and productive selves. Burnout depletes these resources, disconnecting you from others and reducing motivation in a way that makes you operate mechanically without seeing the bigger picture.
Heejae: Joy and motivation are lessened. I felt an increased need to force things to happen and it wasn’t sustainable. Things didn’t feel light and fun, how you’d expect creativity to be. It felt like puppeteering a phantom.
Misha: I had to stop to re-evaluate some things, and when I say “some things”, I mean all the things.
Tori: For me, tasks took much longer and I lost any passion. It felt like I didn't understand things anymore. I also didn't feel valued, more like a cog in a machine. Burnout makes you question why you should give your best.
Zoe: The environment we were in operated from a place of fear, which isn't conducive to creativity. Being creative requires vulnerability, safety and the freedom to take risks. In a fear-driven environment, you hesitate to take those risks and that negatively impacts your work.
Recovering from burnout
Carien: I reached out to people during a burnout phase in my career. I spoke to friends and colleagues who seemed successful and content. These conversations were like personal interviews, revealing that even those who seemed fine were struggling. This realization, combined with research on the World Health Organization's definition of burnout and personal sessions with a psychologist, helped me. Cognitive behavioral therapy made me more mindful. Science-based interventions from my work in Neurozone also helped build resilience against burnout. Connections with others are vital; burnout builds over time, and we all experience it. It's about managing it and supporting each other.
I started doing 10-minute daily meditations, focusing on breathing and mindfulness. I committed to regular exercise routines and started emphasizing the importance of sleep. After interacting with neuroscientists, I realized the significance of consistent, undisturbed sleep. Chemical processes occur in our brains during deep sleep, affecting us in a variety of ways. During burnout, the urge to cut back on sleep to finish work increases, which just leads to more stress. It's essential to set boundaries, prioritize health and allocate time for yourself.
Misha: Burnout advice is hard to follow when you're in its grip. With burnout, you lose belief in a way out. You might understand it can get better, but you can't feel it. In this state, any multi-stage plan seems unattainable. My way out began with therapy through an online service. If you haven't tried therapy, it might not solve all your problems, but it gives momentum. It instills a belief that there's a way to address your issues. My therapist didn't cure my panic attacks; I found a solution in a $300 online course. However, regular therapy provides a sense of direction, helping you address concerns and find your own answers, whether it's mindfulness, setting boundaries or even an occasional cold shower.
Tori: It took over a year of healing. I got a coach, which was part of our compensation. This helped with mindset, setting boundaries and self-care. Talking with colleagues like Zoe and Madison, who experienced the same things, was healing.
• Stress management through breathing, relaxation, and mindfulness exercises.
• Healthy lifestyle choices like diet, enough sleep, exercise and reducing harmful habits and addictions.
• Empowerment to set healthy boundaries and learn to say NO.
• Practicing self-compassion and proper self-care.
• Effective time management by establishing a healthy work-life balance.
• Establishing a healthy support system.
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