We are in highly creative, highly competitive, deadline-driven fields, and as such, over-exertion and long hours are often the norm. I’m been through the delirium of long crunches dozens of times and have unfortunately seen amazingly talented people fall victim to the stresses and exhaustion, ending their careers and leaving the creative field far too young. There is plenty of great literature about crunch and burnout,why it happens and why it shouldn’t. Much of the problem lies in the existence of deadlines, the swirling nature of design, the uncertainties we schedule against and larger issues tied to company culture or corporate policy. Here I hope to look at some means that we can employ to help curb burnout when we may be approaching the precipice of crispiness. I’m not going to address ways to avoid crunch or how to change your company culture, but rather look at what causes burnout and how we, as individuals, can try to keep ourselves protected.
The Causes of Burnout
I’ve already mentioned some of the the causes of burnout, many of which are tied directly to work environment. Often one of these issues isn’t enough to drive someone to quitting either their job or the industry, but these causes often compound into each other and create an untenable situation.
Working long hours is never fun. It takes away from your normal schedule, your sleep cycle, spending time with friends or family, and just taking care of life itself. This is one of many things that can cascade into a case of burnout. And it’s not just working 12+ hour days, but the prolonged period of doing so that can be so draining on a person and their relationships. Sustained 100 hour weeks are a surefire way to ruin your health, potentially your marriage or other relationships, and send you looking for a new career.
Environment is another key factor in creating a situation ripe for burnout. A work environment that focuses solely on deadlines and forces employees to work late and long (or even rewards them for doing so) can be a dangerous place. Management who don’t appreciate their employees (or contractors) and treat them with respect, or pit them against each other to create unhealthy competition are all factors that can lead to a workplace where people want to run the other way.
Even repetition of a process day in and day out can be strong cause of burnout. Clicking the same buttons, doing the same work, performing the same tedious task(s) over and over for months on end is enough to drive someone crazy, or at least send them packing, looking for sanity elsewhere.
Most creative people are very passionate about their work, and usually this brings success. But there are also cases where an over-investment in time and energy goes too far. When our passion begins to affect our health, we walk a dangerous line where if we can’t maintain a balance of our creative energy and stress levels, we end up overexerting ourselves, ending up sick, burnt out, or failing at the core competencies of our job.
And none of this is even taking into account the potential daily stressors of our personal lives. From relationship issues to familial, health or financial issues, our personal lives can affect how stressful our work lives are as well. Especially when we have high standards for ourselves and a never ending pile of work to wade through.
When you take more than one (or possibly all) of these monstrous swells of potential personal distress together, you end up with a tsunami of overwhelming despair that can crash down on you, leaving a burned out shell in its wake. But fear not! There are some strategies we can employ to do our best to mitigate these pressures and hopefully carve out a semblance of sanity when we need it most.
Walk away…or walk somewhere
The best thing you can do for yourself when dealing with a prolonged stressful situation like a long crunch is to remove yourself from it, at least temporarily. Make some you time in your day. There are so many ways we can do this: step away from they keyboard or the mix room and take a walk. Or take a nap. Finding a little time, even a half hour a day, to recuperate can pay huge dividends in keeping you fueled and able to handle the stressors we face daily.
If you have a small bit of time and mental capacity, creative activities can give you an outlet to process your stress and relax. Now is a perfect time to learn how to program an Arduino, explore your curiousity about sub-Saharan mammalian wildlife or learn macrame. Carve out a little time to read during your day. Crack open that sudoku book you swore you were gonna tear through back in 2011.
If you can, take a personal day off here and there, or better yet, take a vacation! A few days away from the long hours can recharge you in such a way as to make you more effective and less error prone, especially during the home stretch of a critical project. This is the reason many companies who respect their employees give comp time at the end of a project. It acts as an apology of sorts, “Sorry you had to work so much. Please take some extra time off on us. Go be with your family. Go travel. Go recharge. Just don’t be here. We’re going to need you to do this again some time and we want to make sure you’re still here then.” The bottom line is that even when work is taking up so much of your waking time, you need to make time for yourself and your family. I know this is often easier said than done. But I also know it’s one of the most critical things to understand and adapt to in order to maintain both your sanity and your career.
One thing I struggled with immensely when I was just starting out as a sound designer, was not just perfectionism, but also a desire to craft everything in as artistic a way as possible. It took many discussions with a veteran producer to get it through my skull that our work is commercial art. To make great commercial art, we must be invested and do our best, but we also need to remember this is not art for art’s sake (usually). We need to understand what’s important and focus our time and energy there, while also maintaining awareness of where the line is between professional pride and personal sacrifice. This line is the reason we all crunch. We all want to do the best we can and make the most amazing products possible, but in the long term, if we end up sick or debilitated or in any other way impaired as a result, can we really say it was worth it?
There are some generalizations and assumptions made above in regards to both cause and remedy, and of course the potential solutions will be more difficult to realize when in an environment steering you towards burning out. But hopefully these suggestions will serve as a subtle reminder that when things are starting to feel dire, take some action for yourself as a means not just for self-preservation, but to give you the strength to keep doing what you love.
Victor Zottmann says
Hi Bradley, thanks a lot for this refreshing article. The second to last paragraph summarizes everything I’ve been tackling lately, and this read has given me a new perspective.
Bradley Meyer says
Hey Victor, thanks so much. These are all things I have to remind myself of from time to time. I feel fortunate to have survived this long doing what I love. But it’s always easier said than done, and I often struggle to remember to slap myself (usually figuratively), take a step back and put it all into perspective. Good luck!