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Working in a Design Agency: How to manage your mental health and prevent burnout

12th May 2022

‘Burnout’ has become a bit of a buzz word recently, you’ve probably seen graphics across your social media talking about it, or watched users on Tik Tok talk about feeling ‘burnt out’ or discussing tips to help prevent you from getting to the ‘burnt out’ stage.

So, we thought Mental Health Awareness Week was the perfect time for us here at MH HQ to have an internal discussion about how we manage when we start to feel ourselves burning out, and how we protect our mental health whilst working in a design agency.

Asking for a friend… What exactly is burnout?

The Mental Health foundation define it as a “state of physical and emotional exhaustion.” We all have days where we feel frustrated at work, or we feel tired and know we’re not performing our best. But if you’ve been feeling this for a few weeks or more, it’s probably a sign that you’re burnt out in your job.

Common signs of burnout include:

  • Feeling tired or drained most of the time
  • Feeling helpless / trapped or defeated
  • Having cynical / negative outlook
  • Self-doubt
  • Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
  • Feeling overwhelmed

Why is everyone only talking about this now?

In short, the same reason that we get to work in our dressing gowns and go for dog walks at lunch; the pandemic. The pandemic suddenly opened a door for many people, who realised they could choose how they want to live, how much time they spend at home. It made many more aware of how previously they were working themselves to the bone, commuting for long periods of time, and spending little time with their family. Whether you’re back in the office, or you’re still working from home (all the cool kids do) there’s been a shift, this has become a core issue for many employers. We’re having more conversations about mental health and burnout at work. There’s a visible commitment to mental wellbeing, and companies are even coming out with burnout prevention plans.

Working in Design = Easily Burnt Out?

Whilst we can’t speak for other professions, we know all too well how easy it is to feel overwhelmed when working in a design agency. Tight deadlines, technical issues, and managing multiple clients at once is common in design agencies, and some people thrive in a high-pressure, fast-paced work environment, but many don’t. That’s why it’s important to take steps to protect your mental health and prevent burnout, and to encourage open discussions about your mental wellbeing with your employer.

Working in a Design Agency: 8 Tips to Protect Your Mental Health

  1. Take a break from social media
  2. Diversify your sources of inspiration
  3. Spend time in nature
  4. Set work/life boundaries
  5. Remember to take your breaks
  6. Create a life that you’re excited to leave work for
  7. Keep your expectations realistic
  8. Try to do one thing for yourself each day

Mental Health Tip No.1: Take a break from social media

Can you remember the last time you went more than two days without checking Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok, YouTube or Facebook? How about actively disconnecting, logging out and deleting the apps? Never? Definitely keep scrolling because this one’s for you!

Whilst social media is amazing, and can connect us in ways we couldn’t have possibly ever imagined, and exposes us to a wealth of cultures and inspiration, it can also be incredibly overwhelming, and can also increase feelings of imposter syndrome. Seeing other designers work, which they seem to do at the speed of light, on a loop, can make you start to doubt yourself and your creativity.

So, take a break from it. Allow yourself a few days (or more!) to unplug. It can seem daunting, especially if you’re constantly posting work hoping for new leads, but your mental health is more important! Not only will a break give you some time to reflect, it might spark new creative ideas.

Mental Health Tip No.2: Diversify your sources of inspiration

This one comes from our senior designer Stili, who says that when she’s feeling overwhelmed or can feel herself burning out, she rethinks where she’s getting her inspiration from. Whilst Pinterest, Instagram and Dribbble can be brilliant places to spark ideas and craft concepts, sometimes it can be hard to see past the work that’s in front of you. Inspiration can come from the most unusualplaces.

Stuck for inspiration for your inspiration? Read Stili’s recommendations below

  • Photography
  • Modern art
  • Nature
  • Visually rich books
  • Classical art
  • Films

Mental Health Tip No.3: Spend Time in Nature

Our client Melo put us onto this one. With their fantastic 5 Ways to Wellbeing, they encourage you to ‘Take Notice’ and spending time outdoors is a great way to do that. We’ve always been nature lovers, but only recently learnt about the wealth of mental health benefits spending time outside gives you.

“Paying more attention to the present moment, your thoughts, your feelings, your body and the world around you can help improve your mental wellbeing.”

Whether it’s sitting quietly in your garden to watch the clouds, or going on a walk and listening to the sounds around you, get back in touch with nature and see how it benefits your design process.

Whilst spending time in nature, you can learn how to look at the outdoors through a design lens, like looking at a sunset and extracting a unique colour palette from that.

Mental Health Tip No.4: Set work/life boundaries (and stick to them!)

One of the best ways to prevent burnout and to keep your mental health in check is to set your boundaries and stick to them. If you find yourself often working after everyone has gone home, perhaps consider setting a personal boundary of trying to leave when everyone else does.

Review your to-do list, do you feel overwhelmed by the amount on there? If so, methodically go through and see if there’s anything on there that can be deprioritised or moved to next week. Or are you able to ask one of your co-workers to come in and help you with a few tasks?

Other boundaries we’ve set at MH HQ include:

  • No replying to emails or DMs outside of work hours
  • No client social media at the weekend
  • Setting our OOO message and logging off our emails completely during our time off
  • Taking our full hour for lunch where we won’t be contactable
‘Out of Office’ by Arthur Chayka

Mental Health Tip No.5: Remember to take your breaks

Working from home means it’s sometimes tempting to log on early, or work through lunch, but at MH we actively discourage it. Your time is exactly that, your time. If you’re given an hour for lunch, take the full hour. Spend sometime in nature, or do some chores, or even just spend an hour on the sofa watching Netflix. Not only will this give you a breather from the fast-paced work environment, it gives you a chance to push a mini reset button and return for the afternoon feeling refreshed.

We’re also big advocates for taking breaks when you get stuck on something. If you’re struggling with something, or feeling like you just can’t nail this one idea, take a break! Go and make a coffee, put a load of laundry on and breathe, we bet that when you return to your desk you’ll feel better.

Mental Health Tip No.6: Create a life you’re excited to leave work for

Whilst we all love working from home, like everything, it has its downsides.You finish work for the day, you can go and put your pjs on and be on the sofa with a cuppa by 5:01pm if you want to.And whilst we all have days that end like this (it’s important to have some days where your goal is to do nothing!), if every day ends the same way, it’s easy to fall into the trap of overworking and risking burning yourself out.

Instead, create a life you want to log off for. Whether it’s going for an afterwork run, meeting up with friends in the pub, joining a book club, or going out on a date, make sure you have a range of hobbies and interests that get you excited to leave the office.

Mental Health Tip No.7: Keep your expectations realistic

Rome wasn’t built in a day, so why do you think you can build a set of brand guidelines in one? Keep your daily expectations realistic, think about how much you can achieve in one day.

This one links back to tip number 4. Are you feeling like you’re being overloaded at work? Schedule a call with your manager to discuss how you’re feeling, and work together to create a more realistic and manageable schedule for you.

Mental Health Tip No.8: Try to do one thing each day for you.

When you’re working hard, juggling a busy social life and staying on top of your housework, finding time to do things for yourself can be hard. Trying to carveout time in your day to do something for you can make the rest of it feel smoother and easier to cope with. Whether it’s waking up 15 minutes earlier to stretch and meditate, or taking yourself on a solo date to see your favourite film, or simply using your lunch break to walk around the block and listen to your favourite podcast, take some time to do something for you each day.

Remember: Ask for help if you need it

Mental health awareness in the workplace is increasing, but unfortunately a lot of companies still have a long way to go, and many still face challenges getting the help they need. Raising awareness about mental health and burnout is crucial for reducing stigma and increasing support given.

Since we’ve opened up the conversation about mental health, we’ve reduced our hours to give the MH team Friday afternoons off as well as offering mental health days to support our team when they’re struggling.

If things are getting too much, support is out there

If you feel unable to ask for help in the workplace, or you think you might be suffering from burnout, it doesn’t mean you have to suffer in silence. Below are some helplines and places you can reach out to for support:

  • Samaritans 24 hour Helpline-116 123 (UK)
  • CALL Mental Health Listening Line–0800 132737
  • Text Shout–85258
  • CALM for Men–0808 585858

Written by Alice-Rae Pringle
Digital Content Manager