Burnout doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter what your level of experience is, the exact role you play in the design ecosystem, or what your title is. Burnout is just another challenge that every designer has to face at one point or another.

If you don’t deal with burnout appropriately, it can have a significant impact on your creativity and on your growth as a designer. Hopefully after reading this article you’ll be better equipped to understand burnout and overcome it.

What is burnout?

Burnout describes a state of mental and physical exhaustion which can take the joy out of your work, relationships and any social interactions in your life. It can come about as a result of continual exposure to stressful situations such as working long hours, caring for someone who is ill, and even witnessing upsetting news related to school safety, politics, or any other important topic.

The World Health Organization describes burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.”

Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” in 1974, describing it as a severe stress condition which leads to mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. He went on to say that it’s a much more serious condition that ordinary fatigue, making it difficult for people to cope with stress and handle their daily responsibilities.

People who are experiencing burnout may often feel like there’s nothing left for them to give and may even find themselves having a tough time simply getting out of bed in the morning. They may also adopt a pessimistic outlook toward everything and feel hopeless and unmotivated.

Burnout isn’t something you can just wait for to resolve itself on its own, and if left untreated, it can lead to serious illnesses such as depression, heart disease, and even diabetes. Unfortunately, it can often be difficult to spot. With that in mind, let’s go ahead and take a look at what can cause burnout and what you can do to avoid it.

What causes burnout and how you can avoid it

There are many factors which can cause a designer to burn out, and identifying these factors is crucial to helping you on the path to success.

Here are some of the most common reasons for designer burnout:

  • Lack of diversity

If you’ve been working on the same project or on similar projects for a long time, your creativity is likely to be impacted. Solving the same problem over and over again takes its toll on the psyche.

A creative mind needs to be challenged regularly with a variety of different projects to keep you on your toes and producing quality work.

If you have the time and energy for it, you could consider taking on a side project or two as a freelancer to keep those creative juices flowing. Try to find something more unique and different from the day-to-day tasks you deal with at your job, even if it’s just a personal project that no one will be paying you for.

You can also ask to work on something different, at least for a while until you’ve charged up your batteries a bit. After all, the worst that can happen is they’ll say no.

  • Overload

As a designer, you may be constantly working on various projects, swinging from one to the other on a daily basis.

You could try to finish the biggest item on your to-do list early in the week. This way, it won’t hang over your head for the rest of the week, allowing you to focus on the other tasks you need to complete.

Also remember to keep an open line of communication with your team, especially your supervisor. If you ever feel overwhelmed, try to reach out, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable. Sending in mediocre work because you feel pressured may make you feel even more uncomfortable.

Hopefully you’re lucky enough to have a great team of colleagues who won’t hesitate to help you if you’re in need.

  • A lack of “you” time

If you’re an introvert, you’ll likely need some quality “you” time to recharge. Constantly being in contact with your team and always being “on” can really take it out of some people, even if they’re working remotely.

Stay sane by fitting in some time for yourself in your schedule. I know it can be easier to say than do, but with a little time management, you may find that there’s room there for just you.

  • Rejection

As a designer, you’re likely faced with situations where you’ve poured your heart and soul into a design, perfecting it and solving every problem, only for your client to say they don’t like it.

This can be difficult not to take personally, but as a professional, you need to be able to handle criticism well and revise your designs to appease your clients.

However, this can take a toll on even the most experienced designers - perhaps more-so because they likely feel more confident in their work to begin with.

This can even lead to self-doubt, why is maybe even worse. You start to overthink everything and what was initially an obvious solution has turned into a myriad of variations because you’re not sure which one’s best and you don’t want to disappoint the client again. As a designer, trusting yourself is crucial to doing great work.

  • The hustle

The hustle mentality can sometimes be great for getting a lot of work done, it’s not always the best way to do things, especially if you’re a designer. A designer’s work is creative, which means it requires time and careful consideration to get right.

Constantly racing through designs with giving yourself enough room to breathe and craft multiple iterations can lead to poor designs and ultimately burnout.

“There is a pervasive belief that burnout is the price we must pay for success. As we know from recent scientific findings, this is a delusion. When we prioritize our well-being, our decision-making, creativity and productivity improve dramatically.” – Arianna Huffington

  • Environment

Constantly working in the same space, looking at the same four walls every day can simply get boring and uninspiring.

If the work you’re doing allows it, consider making a change of scenery. Maybe you could go work out of a coffee shop for a few days. Simply being in a more social environment and surrounded by people, even if you’re not actively participating in any social activities, can do wonders for your mind. And if you can’t physically leave your home or office, consider simply working from another room, or another place within the same room. While not as effective, it may still do the trick.

  • Lack of sleep

Sleep is essential to a well-functioning mind, especially if you’re doing work that requires a lot of attention to detail or creative work.

If you don’t get enough work and aren’t well-rested, it can be difficult to rationalize things and have the patience required to do a good job. Your day will consequently become less productive than usual, and your work’s quality will also suffer.

While you may have a very busy schedule and can only afford so much sleep, try to see if you can manage your time better and squeeze in a bit more sleep. Even half an hour can do wonders.

  • Lack of exercise and a poor diet

Just like sleeping, working out is great for your mental health. The beauty of it is working out doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym. You can simply get some basic equipment like dumbbells and do various stretching and weight exercises around your house or office – the equipment doesn’t even have to be new, so you don’t need to spend too much on it.

Additionally, you can just go out for a quick run. This has the added benefit of getting you out of the house. If running’s not your thing, just go for a walk. Even a mere 15 minutes would be great.

Whatever you decide to do and for how long, it’s sure to help. Find something you enjoy doing in your available time and stick to it.

Additionally, you can also start eating healthier. A healthy diet will make you feel less tired, more energetic, and it’ll also keep your mind sharper.

  • Stress

Client expectations, budgets, and the desire to do the best work possible can all come together to cause you a lot of stress. If things get bad enough, stress can cause you to completely shut down and be unable to work.

Remember to stop whatever you’re doing if things get too difficult to handle and take a step back to put things into perspective. While design is important, you’re not saving people’s lives, so try to slow down and relax a bit.

You could even consider looking up some breathing exercises to help you clear your mind.

The signs of burnout

  • Exhaustion – feeling depleted, both physically and emotionally. You may experience physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and changes in your appetite and sleep.
  • Isolation – you may feel overwhelmed if you’re suffering from burnout. This can result in breaking off contact with family, friends, and co-workers, and generally avoiding socializing with anyone.
  • Escape fantasies – when people become dissatisfied with their jobs’ constant demands and they’re suffering from burnout, they may begin to fantasize about running away from everything or going on a trip on their own to escape all the things in their life. In some extreme cases, they may even turn to alcohol, drugs, or food as a way to cope with everything and numb their emotional pain.
  • Irritability – burnout sometimes causes people to lose their patience more easily, even with friends and family members. Common tasks like getting ready for a work meeting, driving the kids to school, or just doing household chores may start to seem very strenuous, especially when something doesn’t go as planned.
  • Illnesses – as with any other long-term stress, burnout can weaken our immune system and make us more susceptible to things like the common cold, flu, insomnia, and others. Mental health issues can also arise, such as depression and anxiety, among others.

The 12 stages of burnout

Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North, another psychologist, outlined twelve phases of burnout:

  1. Excessive ambition – this is common when starting a new job or taking on a novel task, but unfortunately too much ambition can lead to burnout.
  2. Constantly pushing yourself – ambition naturally pushes you to work harder.
  3. Neglecting personal needs – sacrificing self-care like sleep, diet, and exercise.
  4. Displacement of conflict – you begin to blame other people like your boss, colleagues, or your job’s demands for your troubles.
  5. Not leaving enough time for non-work needs – you increasingly focus on your work and not much else.
  6. Denial – you’re becoming increasingly impatient with the people around you and instead of taking responsibility for your shortcomings, you start to blame others for everything.
  7. Withdrawal – withdrawing from your friends and family and avoiding social situations that now seem burdensome instead of enjoyable.
  8. Behavioral changes – you may start act more aggressively and snap at those around you.
  9. Depersonalization – you may begin to feel detached from your life and unable to control it.
  10. Feeling emptiness and anxiety – this may lead you to thrill-seeking behaviors like gambling, overeating, or even substance abuse.
  11. Depression – life loses meaning, you feel hopeless.
  12. Physical and mental collapse – this can impact your coping abilities and you may require medical attention.

Final thoughts

Keep in mind that there’s no single approach to combating burnout that works for everyone. What may do wonders for some can be completely ineffective for you, so don’t feel down if you’ve tried others’ advice and it hasn’t worked for you. You just need to keep experimenting with different methods until you find one that suits you.

Never lose sight of your goal. The frustrations you’re dealing with today are temporary and they will pass. The fate of the world doesn’t rest on your shoulders, so give yourself some breathing room and time to clear your mind.