Avoiding Studio Burnout

3 years ago by

One of the saddest and most preventable reasons why designers leave their jobs is due to ‘burnout’.

Burnout has been described as “a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

The phrase ‘burnout’ was coined by a psychiatrist named Herbert Freudenberger. He used it to refer to his clinical staff who had once been idealistic and motivated but had “suffered a gradual loss of energy, motivation, and commitment.” (Sound familiar?)

The studio environment is an expected mix of intense deadlines, fast pace and high stress. When that concoction is fuelled by a team that is under-staffed, under-valued or over-worked, it is no surprise that staff start to seek out the Situations Vacant ads.

Both individuals and studio management have a responsibility to ensure that burnout point is never reached. That is often easier said than done, but there are steps everyone can take to recognise the warning signs and do something about it.

Warning Signs

  • You feel physically and emotionally exhausted.
  • Every day is a ‘bad day’.
  • Your personal life is suffering.
  • You feel irritable, apathetic, pessimistic, angry, depressed or detached.
  • Successes no longer excite you.
  • You regularly take on extra work you know you can’t handle because it feels like you don’t have any other option.
  • You feel resentful toward your boss.

Studio responsibility

There is much that studio management can do to ensure their team (and staff retention) is kept in a healthy condition.

  • Check your levels. Seniors who regularly perform junior tasks will get bored, and juniors who are loaded with senior responsibilities will soon crack.
  • Watch the workload. Team members (who are any good) hate letting their clients down. They will do whatever it takes to ensure all deadlines are met — even if that is at the expense of their sleep, health and stress levels.
  • Not enough hands. This one’s a toughie, but it’s essential to get the team number right. Under-staffed teams are one of the leading contributors to burnout and ‘studio flight’.
  • Culture club. Does your studio actively encourage a ‘work-life balance’ or is there an unspoken expectation for staff to regularly work long hours?
  • Train to retain. Stress often comes from feeling ill-equipped to handle tasks. Is your team getting the ongoing training, mentoring and support that they need?
  • Job expectations. Your team needs to know what is expected of them at all times. Shooting in the dark only leads to lower productivity, more mistakes and more stress.
  • A communication business. By building rapport and having regular chats with your team members you will (hopefully) be able to pick up on any issues before they escalate. Ask them how they are doing, and if there is anything you can do to make their lives easier. Having an ‘open door policy’, a listening ear, and a willingness to affect change can be a staff-saver.


Personal responsibility

  • Avoiding burnout is a two-way street. Your studio has a responsibility to create a functioning and enjoyable workplace, and you have a responsibility to manage yourself.
  • Stressed out. We all have different ways of handling stress. As stress is a known and accepted part of studio life, you need to find the best stress-busting way that works for you.
  • Flag it. If you see issues compounding into ticking time bombs, then you need to speak out — early. If your manager knows what is happening, they will have a better chance of doing something about it.
  • Cork the complaining. Complaining to people who can’t do anything to solve your problem won’t help you. No one likes a complainer and, meanwhile, your problem remains a problem. It’s far better to flag your issue to management instead.
  • Streamlining. Are you working in the most efficient manner possible or are you creating additional layers of work (and stress) for yourself? Every so often it’s a good idea to do a self-process-check.
  • Multi-tasking mania. While multi-tasking is an admirable thing, it can also be a double-edged sword. If you find you are multi-tasking to the point where you don’t know if you are coming or going, then you need to stop. Try to focus just on the task at hand and see if that helps.
  • Mind the body. Good sleep, a nutritious diet and enough exercise are essential to banish the burnout. If you look after your body, it will look after you during the stressful times.
  • “No” is an acceptable word. Believe it or not, designers do not have to say “yes” to every request. A polite “no” to your manager can let them know you are overloaded. A “no” to a client can help to set realistic expectations.
  • Delegate. Do you have to do everything? Really? Is there someone else on your team who could help you? Maybe you need to practise letting go.
  • Good enough. Are you a perfectionist? To save your sanity and avoid burnout, you’ll need to learn that sometimes ‘good enough’ truly is good enough.
  • Career reality check. People should enter design knowing they will have to deal with a copious quantity of stress. If you find you are unable to cope on a regular basis, then you should ask yourself if working in design is the right environment for you.

Recognise the signs

Burnout is 100% real. It will sap you of your emotions, energy, positivity and creativity. It’s destructive not only to your professional life but will eat away at your personal life too.

It’s important to recognise if you are edging toward burnout. Sometimes a simple intervention like a day off, bike ride, or a night out with friends can help immensely.

Fortunately, burnout is both preventable and repairable. In an ideal world, both you and management will wish to see your well-being restored and a team that’s thriving. If the reality is somewhat different, then you should seriously consider changing your workplace. After all, life is too darned short, and your health is too darned important to play with burnout-fire.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Sarah Ritchie has been in the design and agency world for over 25 years. Originally a graphic designer, Sarah has also worked as a design teacher, agency account manager, and now enjoys a wonderful life in recruitment for agencies. Sarah is also the Founder of AM-Insider — a website full of tips, tricks and resources to build account management superstars!



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