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Coping with creative burnout

Burnout is real. And it may happen to you without you realising it… until it is too late.

In a survey conducted by Indeed, the job aggregator site, of 1,500 U.S. workers to determine the level of burnout exhibited by different groups of people, it was found that more than half of the respondents were experiencing burnout in 2021, an increase from 43% pre-COVID. Two in three respondents say burnout worsened during the pandemic whilst eight in ten said that the pandemic has impacted workplace burnout.

As a design / communications house, we value sustainability and treat this area of burnout seriously because creativity is not forged in the furnace of pushing through the pain of deadlines and getting work submitted. Rather, creativity is best served out of the place of rest. Our team delivers top quality work when they are most “at rest”.

To this end, we swim against conventions and ideals that celebrate success and happiness that come in the name of unsustainable “hard work” built on the fantasy of doing more with the same resources, whilst priming them with carrots that hint of having “not enough”. Don’t get us wrong. We work hard, and our clients know that. But we also know that there are a bunch of false gods that this culture calls upon us to worship – busyness and consumption. Each day, they call out to us to sacrifice our very lives at their altars, and that in exchange, we receive our reward of the option to consume more. That is where the phrase “sweat equity” came about.

It is of no surprise that Greek mythology reminds us how this lifestyle of exchanging our lives for options to consume more, is completely unsustainable in the long run. Let’s recall at this juncture that chronos, which is translated to mean linear time, is the Greek demigod who devours his children. No strange coincidence here.

What can we do on a professional / personal level?

First, we must deal with the need to “overcompensate, which is driven by a distortion based on “curb appeal"[1]”.

Curb appeal calls us to ignore foundational cracks as long as the front porch and external façade of the house look great. But we cannot afford to. It is superficial and primes us to go down an unsustainable lifestyle of working. To deal with that strive to overcompensate, perhaps we can start with “living with less”.

Less could mean being wiser with time allocation.

Less could mean that as a manager, you can restructure for less hierarchy and faster levels of clearance.

Less could mean lesser meetings – for many executives and professionals, many unnecessary meetings are nothing more than tolerated miseries, where issues could have been resolved over emails rather than reading off an excel sheet.

Less really does mean more, if you realise where all this could lead. If you are in a place of senior leadership to change this, start with going against the grain of overworking.

Here are some other lifestyle changes you may want to consider:

Drop the evening and weekend emails. Turn off, plug off and de-layer your clearance levels. There are things that you will need to trust your colleagues to handle. Don’t ask to be ccéd on every other thing. Let go of those areas. There are just too many execution emails floating around in any case and you will do better to focus on strategy. If something cannot be done adequately and delivered within the hours allocated for the day to work, then you have just overloaded yourself and need to reassess your workload.

This sounds like a culture shock, but if serious lifestyle changes need to be made, then take the steps to do so.

Second, nurture the environment conducive for people to talk about life.

Invite others into the same space. Collectively, a greater push-back against overworking can be realised. In China, Jack Ma’s legacy system of 9-9-6 received resentment from workers who banded together to protest against it. 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week translates to 72 hours, which is an increase of an additional 80% against the conventional 40-hour week. It seems that whatever house that Jack (Ma) is building on, is probably coming down as cards.

Goldman Sachs is trying to up the ante to retain young bankers with a 30% increment in salaries so as to keep them on the 100-hour week. This will result in long term failures down the line as acceptance of burnouts is reinforced through the hubris of having “survived the 100 hour week”.

To nurture a conducive environment that cultivates a “restful work”, block out timings in the week to allow you and/or your team to take time-outs and breaks. No meetings, no side hustles. Let life happen in the hour or 1.5 hours allocated to time-out. Let colleagues mingle and talk about every other thing under the planet except their projects and work.

There will be moments within the cultural shift that you might want to see happen, where it seems things are reverting to the previous culture. But stay the course. And keep a look-out and have your door open to be a listening ear to someone who may be facing a burnout.

[1] A Minute to Think (2021). Juliet Funt

Copyright SYL+JAS (c) 2021. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or rewritten in any form without expressed permission from the agency.

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