How To: Prevent and Stop Burntout
Written by Carmen Bellot
Don’t be fooled into thinking that burnout is just a buzzword; the term has been thrown around a lot over the last decade, but it’s for good reason. In 2021, a Women in the Workplace report conducted by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org found 42 percent of women and 35 percent of men reported feeling burned out “often” or “almost always”, while in the creative sector, a study released by TBWA Worldwide at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity suggests creative talent are significantly more likely to be dissatisfied with their work-life balance and feel burned out. These statistics show that the mental wellbeing of creatives are often at the mercy of their jobs, and shouldn’t be disregarded.
Thankfully, there are plenty of things you can do to stop yourself from getting to the point of burnout. We’ve listed some tips that’ll stop you from getting overwhelmed by your workload, backed by Dr Clare Conway, a Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Advanced Schema Therapist and other creative professionals.
Start with slow breathing
Whether in the creative field or not, many will have experienced the anxiety that comes with a busy work schedule, and when left untreated or ignored, it can result in a panic attack. Art Director Mason Brownlow says; “The first thing to do when all the alarm bells are going off is stop.” You need to give yourself some time to work through those anxious feelings. And to do that, learn some breathing techniques. “Breathwork, particularly diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing) is an excellent technique, which can be used to reduce anxiety and ground oneself,” says Dr Conway. “It works by slowing our heart rate and stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, specifically the vagus nerve (a nerve running from our brain stem to our abdomen), thus restoring feelings of safety and calm.” This will help centre yourself so you can figure out how to tackle the work ahead of you.
A quick Google search will show thousands of variants, but what’s the best? Dr. Conway says; “The 4-7-8 breath technique is the most effective. This involves breathing in through your nose for a count of four, holding for a count of seven and breathing out through your mouth for a count of eight. This cycle can be repeated four times, but only twice daily – it shouldn’t be done more often than that.”
Write a to-do list
As such a simple activity, you’d be surprised how effective it can be at reducing anxiety. “We all feel contained by a list. Who doesn’t enjoy that feeling of pleasure and accomplishment when an item is crossed off as complete. There are neurological benefits, of course. The answer is dopamine – a reward system neurotransmitter which is released when we accomplish goals, even small ones. Each time we cross an item off our to-do list, dopamine is released. Given that dopamine is connected to feelings of pleasure and motivation, it’s easy to see why those that use to-do lists swear by them.” shares Dr. Conway, but continues to say that this method might not be constructive for everyone. “Invariably, lists can get longer. And just as open tabs on a browser increase, so too can the incomplete items on our to-do lists. It can feel stifling and add to overwhelmed feelings. A list needs instead to create clarity in thought and ignite motivation.” Her tips to do such? “It can help to break down a goal into smaller steps. Tasks are more achievable, for example, when they are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound. It can also help to divide tasks into high priority and low priority, or high energy and low energy – clearing clutter from your inbox is a good example of a low energy task. Moving individual ‘to-do’ items into your calendar is also an excellent strategy, as this both consolidates the item as a concrete step and allocates a precise time to the task. Having the item blocked out in your calendar also fights the tide of interruptions that can be experienced during a work day.”
Greg French, the Senior PR & Communications Manager at Mr Porter, swears by to-do lists, and writes them at the end of the previous working day. “I find it quite cathartic. In the morning, I’ll look over and work out priorities and thank yesterday-Greg for giving me a head start to the day.” For Mason, it helps him stick to a rhythm. “Formulate a plan, preferably a checklist, on paper or post-its and stick them somewhere in your eyeline,” he shares. “Work through them, in whatever order seems to flow best, and if you get stuck, move on and come back to it later – don’t interrupt the flow.” Multidisciplinary artist, Mx Kiara, prefers to structure their time rather than just write down objectives. “A diary can cost as little as a pound, but can save so much time and energy being stressed over things. I’ve learned how to manage my time and schedule in a way that caters all of my work, school and social needs – because all work and no play just isn’t very fun.”
Give yourself a time limit
Dr. Conway states that this might not work for everyone. “What is really needed is a more fundamental shift in how we relate to ourselves and our expectations for outcomes in any given time period. We also need to recognise what might be driving endless time-consuming ‘tweaking and perfecting’.” It’s an area she has a wealth of experience in. She works closely with individuals to stop the cognitive views that may break down behaviours, relationships and decision making skills that are needed at work and within our personal lives – these are called schemas. “Schemas are extremely stable, enduring, negative patterns of thinking and feeling, which include memories and bodily sensations.” She continues to explain which schemas reflect certain personality types. “For some individuals, their psychological profile reveals an ‘unrelenting standards schema’, also called hyper criticalness – these individuals can benefit from setting a time limit for tasks because they may otherwise spend too long perfecting it by extending the time spent on each goal, and sometimes fail to complete a task at all (also known as the ‘perfection-procrastination trap’). Using the term coined by the renowned psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, these individuals need to know when their work is ‘good enough’ and more fundamentally that they are ‘good enough’.” You may need a time limit for other reasons, however. “For others, their profile reveals an ‘insufficient self-control schema’. These individuals benefit from a time limit, but for different reasons – it is the focus, discipline and structure provided by time-limited tasks that helps them complete it.”
Be honest with your colleagues/boss
It might feel unnatural to tell your colleagues when you’re falling behind or struggling – for decades, we’ve been conditioned to think that asking for help is a sign of failure. But it’s important to have an open dialogue with your supervisor about your workload from the very beginning. “This avoids misunderstandings and helps to build a trusting dialogue around expectations,” says Dr. Conway. “Having a clear structure to weekly reviews, annual reviews, and discussions around career progression and so forth, also ensures that the need to be challenged and developed in your role is always balanced with support.” It has helped Mx Kiara create boundaries. “I find that being transparent with those around me keeps me comfortable. Never be afraid to just say it how it is, or you can end up in a cycle of exhaustion.”
Dr. Conway says that a way of making this conversation easier is to create clear expectations. “Sometimes people are too vague in discussing their needs – they may say they’re stressed but aren’t specific enough about what the problem is or what is contributing to an increased workload. It might be that a project a supervisor believes should only take a couple of days, actually requires a week. Being more specific about which project/task/role it is that needs more time or support than initially expected, or outlining the new situations or events which may have contributed to a delay is always effective. And be confident in asserting why you can’t take on another project. However, balance this with an openness and warmth in your language. And lastly, avoid defensiveness in your tone, or else very valid explanations may be experienced only as excuses.”
Build a healthy work/life balance
“Achieving this is an art as much as it is a discipline, and what may be needed to find this balance is unique to each person,” says Dr. Conway. For Greg, it means committing time in the day to being tech-free. “In PR & Comms, it would be easy, given working with different time zones, to constantly be ‘switched on’ and replying to emails. But it’s crucial for me to have down time, where the phone and laptop go away and I can focus on other things that bring me joy.” He schedules yoga, swimming sessions and trips to the gym to enforce this ritual. “It means when I’m back at the desk I can focus and have a clear mind.”
This technique is championed by Dr. Conway, as well as “making time for playfulness and connection.” She continues by stating what different personality types should do to create those boundaries. “If you’re experiencing the early signs of burnout because you’re too self-reliant in your endeavours and haven’t quite figured out when to delegate, try to relinquish control. Ask for guidance and support, allow others to help or step up where they could and trust others more. If you’re a people pleaser and struggle to say no, you will need to develop healthier boundaries. And if you’re a perfectionist, it will be important to shift your focus from perfection to progress, ensuring that tasks are started and finished without getting too stuck.”