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The Unconventional Guide to Work

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4 Tips for Avoiding Burnout in Your Creative Agency

Image by Yurishopa.

Agency work is boom and bust. One minute you’re twiddling your thumbs at your desk because you’ve finished all your client hours for the week. The next you’re working late into the night to get a project done on deadline.

Some types of people thrive under this fast-paced, immersive environment, while others go quietly insane. But whoever you are, at some point you’re going to experience burnout. You’ll hit a wall where you can’t work anymore, and it will usually happen at the most inconvenient time (right at crunch-time for a large project).

In this article, we have a look at what exactly burnout is, how it’s caused, and how you can get through it.

What exactly IS burnout?

Burnout is a very real condition. Emotionally, creatively and spiritually, you are an empty well, devoid of inspiration, and sapped of the energy you need to complete tasks. Common symptoms of burnout include a gradual depersonalisation (distancing yourself from others), devaluing of work, emotional exhaustion, restless sleep, anxiety, irritability, a weakened immune system, and fluctuations in weight. Burnout is often accompanied by an extreme cynicism - not caring about anything in your worklife.

In the agency world of intense deadlines and expected overtime, burnout is increasingly common. You may even have become adept at noticing the symptoms in other colleagues. I’ve been in offices where burnout is so common employees share jokes and memes about it.

I know the experience of burnout quite well. A couple of years ago I suffered a pretty bad case of burnout. I’d been “burning the midnight oil” by working a demanding day job and then coming home and working on freelance projects. I’d been doing this for years while I worked to grow my client list and hone my skills. I was so used to it that I didn’t even notice when the burnout approached. And then, one day, it crippled me.

Boom. I couldn’t write. I would sit in front of the screen and stare at it and nothing would happen. I would search my head for the words I needed. It was as if I was trying to write in Sanskrit (actually, no, I understand a little Sanskrit. It was like trying to write in Russian.) I just had no clue. And what was worse, I was so over writing, I didn’t even care.

My burnout lasted for two months. Meanwhile, clients were calling, frantic because their work hadn’t been done. And I kept extending dates and putting things off because I just couldn’t get a sense of urgency through my mental block. I sent what I could to other freelancers, and pushed through the rest, but it was pretty hard and cost me some valuable client relationships.

It’s important to note that while burnout, shares many symptoms with depression, they are different things. A person who experiences burnout will experience symptoms primarily in the workplace - whereas a person with depression will experience negative and alienating feelings in all aspects of their life. It’s important to see a medical professional if you think you might have depression.

1. Stop multi-tasking

Research shows that multi-tasking actually makes you less productive, as it forces your brain to have to constantly switch between actions.

Instead of trying to do a little of everything on your plate, focus on one task - the most important and urgent - at once. This includes flipping between open tabs on your browser and trying to work while you’re on a conference call.

3. Treat yourself well

I find I can handle a lot more stress at work if my home, body and personal life are happy and healthy. Make your personal wellbeing a priority. This means:

  • Eating healthy meals at least 3 times daily. Don’t fall into the trap of eating crap food becaus it’s fast and convenient. If need be, organise a service to deliver a healthy lunch to you daily until you’re feeling better. We have a great article on healthy lunches to try.
  • Getting 30 minutes of exercise a day. I always find this does wonders for my stress levels. You could fit in a quick run at lunch time, get off a couple of stops early on the train and walk in to the office, or find a quiet place at home to do some yoga after work.
  • Enjoy your social life: Work shouldn’t be the only thing in your life. Make sure you’re doing things outside work that bring you joy. Meetup with friends after work or on weekends, organise a trip to the zoo or museum, indulge your hobbies, take a class in something new and interesting, or start making steps toward a dream (such as writing that novel!)

4. Balance Your Work Life

While only so much can be done to fix the dangers inherent in the ebb and flow of agency life, there are many things you can do at work to help prevent future burnout:

  • Communicate with your manager: Your manager is juggling a huge amount of work and responsibility. You can’t expect him or her to be a mind reader on top of that. If you don’t say something about your struggles, your manager is going to assume everything is fine.
  • Practice saying “no”: One of the biggest reasons people get burned out at work is they have too much on their plate. We fear that if we don’t take on everything that’s handed to us, it will reflect poorly on our performance. While there may be some truth in this, usually a manager will simply not realise you’re overloaded. A good manager respects an employee who knows their limits and can move work around to meet reasonable deadlines.
  • Consider leaving your job: Look, life is too short to be miserable every day at work. Occasional bouts of burnout can be expected, but if you’re feeling rotten all the time, perhaps you need to consider looking for another job. Maybe the agency life isn’t for you. Maybe you need to be in a different type of company.

4. Adjust Your Attitude

Certain personality types are more prone to burnout. You can do a lot to prevent future burnout by adjusting the way you handle certain situations.

Perhaps you need to try:

  • Letting go of perfectionism: The truth is, not every task needs you to go above and beyond. Some things just need to be “good enough”.
  • Delegating: How many of the tasks on your desks actually require your hand? Is there someone else in your team who could do the job just as well? Usually, refusal to delegate and perfectionism go hand-in-hand.
  • Get some support: it could be useful to examine your support network. Often, simply talking about your issues with a family member or trusted friend will make you feel better. If burnout or intense stress is something you deal with frequently, you could consider taking a stress management course.
  • Don’t be rash: Don’t make any life-changing decisions when you’re feeling burned out. It could lead you to quit your job on a whim or scream your frustrations to your boss. Wait until you’re in a better headspace before you do something you may later regret.

Burnout is real, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be part of your agency’s reality. How do you combat burnout in your busy agency life?