Have You Ever Been Burnt Out?

If you have to think about that or you’re not sure, the answer’s “no”. But what about this one?

Have you ever felt like you’re running on pure adrenaline, able to work all hours of the night and day, slept like a log (after a few pints) and woke up (after a few coffees) chomping at the bit for the next “big opportunity” to land on your desk?

If the answer’s “yes” then you need to keep reading because odds are you’re staring down the barrel of burnout right now. And trust me, when that switch if flipped, it won’t take a couple of Neurofen and a week off work to pull yourself back together.

Recently, I conducted a worldwide study into the emotional health and wellness of the creative industry (you can complete it here if you’d like to take part) and the results made for very sobering reading.

When I started the study, I half-expected the creative leaders I approached to ignore it because it wasn’t of concern or relevance to their lives, or tell me that they were a bit stressed at times but it wasn’t a big deal.

But the complete opposite happened.

Of the hundreds of creative heavyweights and leaders I spoke to and surveyed, a whopping 91% cited chronic stress as a dominant factor in their day-to-day life. 72% were regularity experiencing anxiety, 67% said anger was a prominent emotion, frustration stood at 87%, low self-esteem at 63% and low self- confidence at 68%.

70% said they had burnt out in the recent past, 7% said “not yet” and 97% said that there wasn’t enough emotional support of guidance for creative leaders in our industry… No shit!

Some of the things I was told resonated with my own previous experience as a creative director but others we’re more upsetting because they talked about how their emotional state was negatively impacting the limited time they spent with their children.

It’s obvious that a great many people in our industry are silently suffering and it’s not as simple as putting that down to the recently resurrected clichéd “it’s lonely at the top”.

I’m not saying it isn’t lonely when the buck rests with you of course, but that’s only a fraction of the problem and the lazy way into a solution.

Another half-truth that well-meaning coaches and ‘gurus’ spread is that we need to hire them to help us develop more mental toughness.

Not only is that bullshit, it’s downright dangerous.

The problem isn’t that we need to become more emotionally bulletproof, the problem is that we’ve become FAR TOO emotionally bulletproof.

For years, we’ve been programmed by our teachers, parents, industry role models and “the job” to be so emotionally dissociated that we can’t hear the neurological smoke alarm screaming in our head as our house burns down around our ears.

Our threshold levels for stress and anxiety, for example, have become so high that we can shoulder an insane amount of the stuff without us even being consciously aware of it or the damage that it’s doing to our minds and bodies. That is until the volcano eventually erupts and we collapse in an unceremonious heap at the prime of our life and career.

So what can we do about it?

The bottom line is that we need to stop living in fear of our ‘negative’ emotions. Instead of pushing them away or repelling them with a clunky, wrought iron shield, we need to (re)learn how to hear them and understand the messages that the sensations and feelings we experience in our gut, head and heart are trying to tell us.

To do so isn’t to be a flaky, crystal swinging, New Age hippie (a movement I have zero time for), to do so is to be a fully-functioning human being who has plugging back into their critically important Emotional Guidance System.

Although painful and uncomfortable, our negative emotions aren’t there to piss us off or ruin our day. They’re there to protect us from danger, teach us a valuable lesson and make us take positive action. If we rob them of their role they won’t go away, they’ll simply take root in our subconscious mind and grow in intensity until eventually (maybe tomorrow) they’ll smash out of the glass box you’ve shoved them into and bite you on the arse when you can least handle it.

If you don’t believe me, ask someone who’s pushed themselves to the brink of, or into, burnout. Not only does it shut down your ability to function with clarity and connection in your personal life, it’s a bullet in the head to creative thinking – which is not ideal when that’s what you’re paid to do.

Unfortunately, the path to burnout is rife in our industry and it’s not something that we can easily spot.

The reason it’s a fire without smoke is because the people most susceptible to it (high-achieving perfectionists who care deeply about what they do) are so engrossed in their mission to succeed, serve and/or win awards, that they aren’t looking out for it, or installing the necessary mental trip switches and daily habits and rituals to keep it at bay — which is something I teach my clients to do, and something I’m going to be teaching you how to do in further posts.

As a general rule, burnout takes place over several years (or sometimes months if you try really hard!) and it happens in five different stages.

At any of these stages you can apply the brakes and stop the downward spiral, when you know how. But before you can do that, you need to know how the journey unfolds and be honest with yourself about you stand on the path.

1. The Honeymoon

In the honeymoon stage your job is incredible. Everything seems possible to you because you think you’ve got unlimited reserves of energy and enthusiasm. You love what you do and you believe that what you do is the answer to all of your problems.

You feel incredibly lucky to be working with amazingly talented co-workers within a brilliant organization. In fact, you’d rather work than do anything else and you can’t wait for the working week to begin – probably why you happily volunteer for frequent weekend work at the beginning of your career?

2. The Awakening

As the honeymoon period draws to an end you enter the awakening phase. Here you realize that the expectations you placed on the job were unrealistic. You start to become frustrated because things aren’t working out the way you thought they would. What you do no longer satisfies your needs and you start seeing flaws in your co-workers and the organization.

Maybe the rewards and recognition are less than you expected, so disappointment and disillusionment begins. In your gut you know that something’s wrong but you can’t quite place your finger on what that is. In an attempt to put things right you work even harder to achieve you goals. But because you’re becoming increasingly tired, you start questioning your abilities and begin to lose your self-confidence.

3. Brownout

As brownout begins the initial energy and enthusiasm you had at the start of the journey is replaced by irritability and fatigue. Your thinking becomes clouded and your anxiety rises. You don’t sleep as well as you used to and you try to escape through alcohol, sex, drugs and partying.

Your passion for the job is all but gone which makes you more and more frustrated and angry. But instead of looking inwards, you place the blame for your difficulties on others.

You become detached and pessimistic and openly slag off the co-workers and organization that were once the solution to all your problems. But because you’re still putting in massive hours (because you’re fuelled by the stress hormone ‘adrenaline’) people assume you’re okay, so they give you more stuff to do.

4. Burnout

Burnout is a right hook to your now ‘glass jaw’. Where brownout was a partial shutdown, burnout is a full-scale blackout. You feel an overwhelming sense of failure and despair and you have little self-confidence and self-esteem left. You experience depressive episodes and feel lonely and empty.

You distance yourself from old friends and immediate family members and you get physically ill much more than usual due to months, or years, of sub-optimal sleep. You’re physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted and you have little or no hope left for the future.

But there is a way through this.

5. The Phoenix Phenomenon

Treated right, burnout is a semi-colon not a full stop and you can rise from it stronger and wiser than you were before, given the correct knowledge and know how.

To start with, you need to actively place processes into your life that will reenergise and inspire you and rebuild your self-confidence and self-esteem — which is something that our industry is very bad at building and incredibly good at eroding.

You then need to challenge and change the limiting beliefs that are holding you back and instal conscious and unconscious rituals, habits and ways of reacting that will enable you to better handle the pressures, deadlines and demands that are an inevitable part of today’s world.

But above all, you need to know that you can’t beat burnout by burying your head in the sand; playing the victim who’s waiting for the third act turning point to get back into the game; or waiting until you’ve finished the next big pitch, important meeting or internal review to spend time on yourself and your emotional health and happiness.

To do that, is the guaranteed way to fast-tract yourself from the honeymoon period to the shutdown button without passing go.