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Geek Mental Help Week Dealing With Loud And Silent Burnout

Many of us struggle silently with mental health problems and many more are affected by them, either directly or indirectly. It’s {Geek} Mental Help Week1 and we would like to help raise awareness with a couple of articles exploring these issues. – Ed. [Links checked March/20/2017]

We’ve all experienced that burnout moment. It’s that moment when we’ve got nothing left to give but keep trying anyway, when we’re left without much more than a shell to live in and motions to go through.

We’re fried and broken and wish desperately for our work to make sense, for our energy to come back, for things to be fun and as they were. In such moments all we want is for our work to feel like our work and not like torture.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

“Are you alright? You’re a little gray,” our friends and loved ones say with concern. “You should get some rest.”

The Loud And Silent Burnouts Link

With anguish, I remember my three biggest burnouts. I’ll bet you remember each of yours, too.

It’s hard not to — they’re like the huge fights we’ve had with family and friends. What was said and done may no longer be fresh in our minds, but the pain certainly is.

You might not even remember what project you were working on (for two of mine, I don’t), but you probably remember where you were and what was said when you genuinely realized you were at the breaking point.

Was it when a loved one was telling you that you weren’t looking so good or acting normal? Or was it the recovery, something that was forced upon you either by concerned loved ones or by your subconscious flinging you to the couch, knowing your body wouldn’t have the energy to fight back?

Since doing research for this article, I’ve realized that I’ve had a fourth burnout moment, one that I’ve seen others have, too, and it’s lasted years. It happens slowly and without notice. So, I’ve been calling it “silent burnout.”

You suffer from all the same symptoms as regular — let’s now say “loud” — burnout but in a smaller, more consistent way. Feeling bored seems normal, being agitated is part of the job, and not caring about the work or your skills is so common you don’t even notice it.

You might not be overly tired or look sick or feel empty, but you still, I’m afraid to say, have burnout.

Work or Play?

As designers and developers, we often tend to have blurry lines between work and play. However, leaving work at work is necessary for avoiding burnout. Image source: opensourceway5

Six Areas Where Burnout Hides Link

In doing surveys and interviews with over 10,000 people from a range of businesses and industries, professors Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter found that most issues come from a set of six categories:

  • workload (too much work, not enough resources);
  • control (micromanagement, lack of influence, accountability without power);
  • reward (not enough pay, acknowledgement or satisfaction);
  • community (isolation, conflict, disrespect);
  • fairness (discrimination, favoritism);
  • values (ethical conflicts, meaningless tasks).

What about us, designers and developers?

Heavy Workload Link

What designer doesn’t have a lot to do? Working 12+ hour days is so common for designers that it seems OK. It isn’t.

Lack of Control Link

Whether we work with clients or work in-house, we’re often doing work at the whim of people who know less about design than we do. We can do and say all the right things, but we still have to seek their opinion and approval. This doesn’t always work out so well.

But we will often get the blame when it doesn’t work as expected, no matter how much of the final design is or isn’t our own.

Inefficient Reward Link

Compared to other industries, designers and developers can earn decent pay, so it would be silly to focus on money, but acknowledgement often isn’t given. Inverse to what might happen when things don’t go as planned and we get the blame, when things go right, the client or a more senior staff member often takes the credit.

No Community or a Toxic Community Link

Designers can easily feel isolated, especially ones who work in-house. When you’re treated like a service that is just another item on a checklist for a product or event launch, it’s easy to feel out of the loop and as if our opinions aren’t worth much.

Unfairness Link

Much of the work we do can be an awful lot of fun, but with the fun always comes the more tedious tasks. If the fun aspects of a project keep going to another designer in your studio, and you continually get dumped with the more routine work, then it can be hard to feel as if going into the studio is worthwhile.

Challenged Values Link

It’s a horrible day when you have to work with a client or do a job that goes against your ethics, but it does happen, and sometimes it’s the only work we can get. And it doesn’t matter if you’re in-house, freelancing or part of a studio, I’ve no doubt that you have to deal with meaningless tasks, wild-goose-chase solutions or, worse, work that is meaningless to both client and user.

A Little Adds Up Link

With design and development being careers oft pursued for love, our ranks are filled by those who started down their path of their own volition. This means that the six areas from which burnout can arise were previously within our own control.

Maybe that’s why it’s common for designers to burn out to the point of starting their own business or freelancing full-time or simply abandoning their career. It’s when any of the six areas gets to the extreme that burnout gets loudest.

But what happen when a weak point in any of these areas is subtle enough to lurk daily without notice? For months, or years?

To me, that’s silent burnout.

A Few Signs Of Silent Burnout Link

Thankfully, most of you probably aren’t suffering from burnout, silent or loud. But it can be hard to tell without knowing the signs, some of which will seem to most to be the normal result of having a job. They aren’t.

Bad Work Habits and Routines Link

Our habits show how ingrained our path to burnout is.

A few questions for you:

  • How many hours do you work each day?
  • How much time do you have outside of work to relax? Any?
  • Are you sleeping less than you need to in order to get work done?
  • Are you sacrificing parts of yourself to do work that doesn’t hold any special meaning for you? Are you doing it for days or weeks at a time?

How Do You Feel Before Getting to Work? Link

I used to get physically sick every morning before going to work. I thought I had a stomach bug. For over a year. I was too pig-headed to think I could be suffering from some sort of burnout, and when I arrived in the carpark I could only think of what I’d rather be doing than walking into the office (read: anything).

How Do You Feel When You’re at Work? Link

Throwing in the towel on creative work, not caring about how it comes out at the end of the process, not worrying about your own concerns or professional opinion are all signs of burnout. As designers and developers, we put a great deal of effort into building our experience and knowledge. So, ceasing to care about such things is a sure sign that something is wrong.

This leads to personality changes — frustration and cynicism, difficulty thinking and concentrating, willingness to deliver mediocre work, eating and drinking badly and, most of all, a lack of motivation.

How Do You Feel When You Get Home? Link

We might treat it as such, but bringing your frustrations home isn’t normal. Spending what precious few hours you have with yourself or with your family thinking and talking about how painful your job is isn’t OK. We think it’s venting and that it’s cathartic, and it is both those things, but that doesn’t make it OK.

If you’re unable to leave the troubles of your workplace at the workplace, if they’re invading your home, then you’re priming yourself for burnout.

Have You Assumed You Can Power Through? Link

Don’t we do this to no end? We wear the long hours and little sleep like a badge of honor, proud of the effort we’ve put in. It’s as if powering through exhaustion is in our DNA as designers and developers.

So, it becomes a habit, and when things start to go bad with the boss, the client or the workplace, we just do what we know — power through. But do it too much and you’ll burn out before you know it. Sometimes “powering through” simply means ignoring warning signs.

Avoid Burnout By Finding Engagement Link

If we can find something in our work to connect to, we can often avoid burnout altogether. Achieving technical mastery over one’s craft might be where some find engagement. For others, it might be thinking about the short game and what they can achieve in a week. Yet for others, it will be the long game to be played over a career.

Or maybe for you it will come from considering how you can benefit the client and audience, how you can enrich their lives with your skills.

Whether you find one thing or multiple, what you find to be engaging has to be meaningful in order to withstand the threat of burnout.

So ask yourself, what are your most meaningful reasons for being a designer? There’s no wrong answer, as long as it gives you a reason for showing up every day. (Hint: Your answer doesn’t have to be something that can be found at your current job. If it isn’t, then it might be time to move on.)

Once you’ve established where you wish to find engagement, how do you foster and protect that connection so that it can withstand the occasional threat of burnout?

Do One (Interesting) Thing At a Time Link

Start by doing one thing at a time.

By now, we all know that multitasking simply doesn’t happen. At best, we switch from one task to another so rapidly and in such short bursts that we burn through whatever energy we have.

It’s no way to build skill or to engage with a task.

Give your attention fully to what’s before you, even if it’s boring — maybe especially if it’s boring, so that you can get it done quickly and well enough that you don’t have to do it again later.

Concentrating on a single task is also the best way to develop skill. Getting good at something often makes us infinitely happy. Why not chase that happiness as often as you can?

Rest Link


You need to relax more than you probably do. Without stopping to rest, the brain doesn’t get a chance to put away all of the information you’ve been feeding it, and your memory will start to get flimsy. All of that skill-building will be for nothing.

You’ll also be easily frustrated and simply bored.

Go find as much quiet novelty as you can. Read daily, go for walks, meditate, play video games, eat meals with family, grab coffee with friends.

Just stop. Often.

Have Distractions or Side Projects Link

A side project is a wonderful thing. It’s a way to build skill, one that you’ll bring back either to your daily craft or to a hobby on the side, and it lets your brain stay engaged and develop.

Without the limitations that clients and managers always place on us, we are free to explore and make mistakes. It also enables you to build your skills to a greater degree than your current job allows, which can be a secret weapon when you need it (we’ll come back to that).

Support Group (Friends) Link

When we work long hours, it’s easy to forget how helpful a small group of friends and family are. Friends and family, those who we know will be there no matter what, are exactly the ones we often push away first. Subconsciously, we know that those who love and care for us the most will be able to withstand the shoving.

They’re also the people who are best at giving us back our energy, happiness and perspective.

What a bad day takes from us can be restored in a 20-minute phone call with a friend. So, as things get worse, make sure to hold on to those people as firmly as you can.

Keep Your Portfolio Up to Date Link

This is your secret weapon.

First, it lets you see how your skills have progressed. If they haven’t improved, it could be that silent burnout has been distracting you. It might be time to find a side project. If they have improved, that’s a huge win. You’re now worth more than when you were first hired, which means more confidence to ask for more money or, if needed, to move on.

It’s also a reminder that you’re on a career-long path. You can either take comfort in knowing that where you are now is a short stop or get moving.

By keeping your portfolio up to date, you will have files ready to upload to Dribbble or Behance (if you’re a designer) or GitHub (if you’re a developer). The online design and development communities are so wonderfully rich that involvement in it will help to catapult the quality of your work, remind you of what work is like outside of your bubble (and we’re all in one) and perhaps lead to opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise have. These are all good blocks against burnout, as well as an awful lot of fun.

Burnout Comes From Mismatched Relationships Link

Burnout often arises simply because the relationship between you and your client, boss or even colleagues is out of alignment. Even your skill set, interests and assigned work can be mismatched.

An ideal working environment exists, but only because the right kind of relationship exists, and each party expects from the other exactly what the other wants to give.

Burnout can be avoided when the goals and expectations of both the employer and employee line up. Goals and expectations can be worked on to align more closely — finding them aligned from day one would be unusual — but if neither party wants to shift because the other’s expectations are so far off their radar, then naturally the relationship will be put under strain.

This doesn’t mean changing our ideals or who we are fundamentally. It means looking for problems we can solve so that we are an asset to our employer, while still being the kind of designer we want to be. Sometimes, though, a client wants their designer to be a button-pusher. And sometimes a designer wants to give a lot more.

Neither is wrong by any means. But it wouldn’t make for a good relationship if what we want to give and what we want to be as a designer don’t line up with what the client or boss wants from us.

So, as you would in any other relationship in your life, nurture the relationship, communicate openly and honestly and make sure that everyone is happy, while also being given room to grow.

Conclusion (TL;DR) Link

In my uneducated and highly speculative opinion, there seems to be two kinds of burnout. Perhaps you think that silent burnout, the one that you don’t really notice but slowly builds up, is just a stop on the way to loud burnout, the one that everyone notices you going through and that you can’t help but be brought down by.

Whatever the case, don’t be embarrassed by what you’re going through. You’re not alone, and it shows no weakness to ask for help or to let others know you need a break to recharge or to change how you and the company go about getting work done.

The best first step you can take is to look at the six areas from which burnout arises.

  • workload (too much work, not enough resources);
  • control (micromanagement, lack of influence, accountability without power);
  • reward (not enough pay, acknowledgement or satisfaction);
  • community (isolation, conflict, disrespect);
  • fairness (discrimination, favoritism);
  • values (ethical conflicts, meaningless tasks).

Finding engagement is also important.

This could mean looking in a lot of different areas. At any rate, you need to find meaning in your work in order to gain the energy to keep doing it. You might need to focus on your skills or perhaps focus on benefiting the user. Or it could be something else altogether.

Just as important, maybe even more so, is giving yourself the opportunity to rest. Stop, breathe, relax, laugh, have fun. You’re not wasting time by wasting time — you’re recharging your batteries. Your work will be better for it; you’ll think more clearly and get better results.

Burnout is rarely the fault of you or your co-workers, workplace, employer or client. It’s usually the result of a mismatched relationship and different expectations. Work on improving the relationship first, although you might eventually need to find work elsewhere.

Work is still going to be work. It’s going to be boring, and your relationship with the workplace, with coworkers and clients and with the work itself will come under strain on occasion, no matter how much you try to avoid it. It’s just part of the work day.

But learn to recognize when such strain is putting you under so much tension that you could end up snapping, either slowly and quietly or instantly and loudly.

Most of us are designers and developers simply because we love our craft. It would be a shame to let anything ruin that relationship — a relationship that is solely and completely in our care and that can last an entire, satisfying and enjoyable career.

Additional Resources Link

I’ve hardly scratched the surface on what causes burnout, how to treat it and how to avoid it. I’ve covered only a fraction of the things you can do to feel human again and to stop burnout from throwing you around.

A number of amazing articles have been written, and if you’ve come this far I highly suggest you keep going.

This article started when I looked at a PDF by professors Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter6. It’s only a few pages long, and even if you don’t read it, I’d highly suggest checking out the checklist that appears a couple of pages in.

You could even just fill it out in your head. It’ll be enough to help you see where things could be going wrong — even if you think they’re fine. That’s the thing about silent burnout: It’s kind of hard to hear it coming.

There’s also this list of wonderful articles that cover burnout from a few different angles.

(ml, il, al)

Footnotes Link

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Previously Smashing Magazine's Typography editor, and currently on the Experts Panel, Alex Charchar has had his writing published and referenced in some pretty cool places around the web and in print. He's fanatical about design, letterpress, espresso, and podcasting. Most of all, he likes helping designers and creatives hone their craft. You can visit Retinart to find more of his writing..

  1. 1

    Aleksandar Misin

    October 26, 2015 2:27 pm

    I found myself almost in every sentence. In future I will need to add more attention to that for sure. Thanks for very nice and detailed explanations! Cheers!

    • 2

      Alexander Charchar

      October 28, 2015 12:40 am

      Hey Aleksandar!

      Thanks so much for such a nice comment :)

      Burnout tends to hit most of us at some point, so now I hope you’ll be able to beat it back when you see it coming!

  2. 3

    Steve Ballmer

    October 26, 2015 5:25 pm

    Wow… workaholism is soo last century. Learn to leverage technology. smh!

  3. 5

    Nathan Lincoln

    October 26, 2015 6:20 pm

    I think it’s important to seperate mental heath issues and “burnout”. Depression is a disease, being exausted and uninspired isn’t.

    • 6

      Alexander Charchar

      October 28, 2015 12:36 am

      Hey Nathan,

      Yup, I totally agree. Depression is a serious issue, one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

  4. 7

    Thank you for writing this article! As I’ve currently been dealing with the slow burn out for one reason or another. I’ve been trying to do the typical power through it and hope for the best which has only been making the burn out happen quicker. This article gives me some ideas on what I can do to change things around a bit. Thank you again.

    • 8

      Alexander Charchar

      October 28, 2015 12:38 am

      Hey Kurtis!

      So glad this article might be helpful! Yup, take a break! Even a weekend with some movies, a book, something silly to waste your time on, time with friends, a glass of wine or a good beer, can make a world difference!

      Good luck!

  5. 9

    Hi Alexander,
    I want to thank you for your time and effort to share your thoughts with community. That’s great article and great insight how to deal with burnout, one way or the other. Highly recommended for everyone, not only the desigers. Unfortunately I’m on similiar path atm … basically my relationship with my employer is mismatched, while I want to take my best shot everytime I’m designing something – my superior always have “better” ideas or (what is even worse) watching at every design by the prism of himself forgeting that our projects will be used by users, not by us. Simply it’s tilting at windmills by some time now. Anyway, thanks again for your words, I have clearer view right now :)


    • 10

      Alexander Charchar

      October 28, 2015 12:34 am

      Hi Darek,

      That’s a hard one to deal with, isn’t it? Clients are one thing — at least we have a decent shot at helping them see things our way, but when it’s a boss, it can be flat out impossible. Sometimes it works. I’ve known some designers who have worked under very demanding, and very involved bosses, and have come out of it so much better for it, and very happy to have had the experience.

      But other times? It’s simply a nightmare. Being able to charm a boss into seeing things your way is an incredible skill. One, I think, we’re all capable of learning (I’ve been very, very lucky and haven’t had a boss like that yet, but who knows what’s in the future? heh), but one that takes practice and an ability to not only defend your own decisions well, but read their reactions and counter.

      I wish I could offer some kind of solid advice for your situation! The best I can suggest is treating it the way you would with a client. “Why?” is a great question that can be asked in a million different ways, and perhaps, hopefully, maybe, you can land on discussions of effectiveness and, as you said, what will work best for the user. It’s a lot harder for “Because I like it” to win, when it’s fighting “the user is more likely to click when …”.

      Good luck!

  6. 11

    Thanks for the open article! For me one key is your paragraph about “mismatched relationships”.
    I would like to add another mismateched relationship: our opinions and visions.
    Let’s say we have the opinion that our design is the “best” and the vision that every stroke should be loved by the client or boss… that’s a recipe for desaster.
    There is a saying: “suffering = pain * resistance” – Meaning: change what is in Your hands but learn to accept that the world isn’t always YOUR opinion and vision.

    • 12

      I struggle often with this. I get hired as a designer to make a professional and fitting work but with some customers it is going like: Can you make that green lighter, can you make that bigger, can you fill that empty space… etc. Sometimes I have to ask myself: Why do they need me? They know everything better. Good design makes no compromise. It is either the vision of the designer or it gets dilettantic because the customer usually has no idea and no background in design. What you mean with mismatched relationship is simply this: If the customer does not trust his designer, he interferes where he should not. And in many cases its just that the customer wants the last word, its an ego problem. And that is what really causes a burnout, its not fun to see ones work destroyed by such customers. In those cases in the end I say, okay I change everything a dozen times, he gets a lousy design, something I prefer not to write my name under it, at least I bill for all the changes. All I get out of it is money, zero satisfaction.

      • 13

        Alexander Charchar

        October 28, 2015 12:28 am

        Hey Thom,

        I think this might be one of the most common problems we face as designers. We want the customer to trust us, and the customer wants their way.

        We all have different ways of handling these kind of clients. What’s worked for me the most is working to earn the trust early, so that when it comes time to consider the crazy changes a client might ask for, they believe and trust that I’m really wanting to understand their outcome (rather than their means) when I ask them “Why?”. This tends, though not always, to make it easier to help them get to an end solution that achieves what they’re after when the say “make it bigger!!”, but in a way that’s still pleasing and effective.

        Though, of course, that doesn’t work when we’re on a bad run of bad clients. Some just want what they want and won’t budge, and just cause stress.

        Working hard to earning their trust, rather than expect it, and talking about effectiveness tends to make things easier in the long run. But, in the short term, I couldn’t agree more and have gone through it far too many times — it can simply cause burnout. I still remember throwing my headphones off my head, storming out of the studio, and desperately trying not to scream when I had one particularly bad client.

        Another real skill, aside from avoiding burnout, is being able to simply disengage from the comments and changes a bad client is requesting. Just getting the work done, shipping it out, and being able to get onto something more productive and interesting without a head full of frustration.

    • 14

      Alexander Charchar

      October 28, 2015 12:04 am

      This is a wonderful realisation Bo, thanks so much for sharing it. I think that’s something a lot of us go through as when we’re just starting out or are students. We think everything we’re doing is revolutionary and brilliant, then are shocked when a teacher, or art director, or coworker, or even client can break down who exactly inspired us, or simply remain completely unmoved by what we present.

      Unfortunately some of us are never able to get past this and end up remaining bitter about working with clients or others, and block ourselves off to going through the pain of realisation that our opinion and vision are skewed.

      Great comment, thanks!

  7. 15

    Michael Adewolu

    October 27, 2015 5:06 pm

    This is a fantastic post. Burn out is often over looked and easily dismissed it. I’d be keen to read a follow up article on how we can battle against it. Great work again.

    • 16

      Alexander Charchar

      October 27, 2015 11:48 pm

      Hi Michael, I totally agree — it’s so common for us to pretend like it doesn’t or won’t happen, or even worse, that it isn’t happening while we go through it. How we battle against it once we have it is something I’d love to explore and will probably do so in a future article!

  8. 17

    Awesome article! Thanks for sharing and being so candid about your own burnout. I think everyone faces burnout at some point, and I know in my own experience, it often creeps in without you even knowing. One day you are fine and the next you are bored and just don’t want to get out of bed. Like someone else said, I would like to see a follow-up post about how we can beat it. Also, if there is anything we can do to prevent burnout I think that would make a great post!

    • 18

      Alexander Charchar

      November 7, 2015 3:16 am

      Hey Cassie,

      Thanks for taking the time to read my article and leave a comment :)

      I think you’re right — we all get hit by burnout at some point, maybe regularly, and there’s a good chance people don’t even realise that’s what they’re going through!

      I’m really encouraged by the response the article has gotten, so think I will come back around and do pieces that specifically focus on how to avoid burnout, and what to do when you’re hit by it. Both are things that are circled throughout this article, but I think a specific hit-list of sorts could be a valuable follow up!

      Thanks again and take care :)

  9. 19

    Hi Alex. Very insightful article and covers a lot of what can add to a very unhappy place. More needs to be done by designers to ensure they don’t fall into this situation although it can creep up on the best of us. Really great to see it getting the exposure it deserves and hopefully it will make a difference to someone.

    • 20

      Alexander Charchar

      November 7, 2015 3:18 am

      Thanks Rob, I hope the post is able to make things easier for at least a few people, too.

      I think it’s easy for us to take advantage of our passion for what we do, and even easier for managers, bosses, and clients to do the same, so it’s no surprise burnout can come up and kick us in the back the way it can!

  10. 21

    A really great article thanks, I’ve agree further the more I think about every point you make. I relate to so much of it and didn’t realise fully until I read this.

    Thanks very much for highlighting the issues and causes here, I’ve shared it with a lot of my peers who also agree that this needs to be discussed more, and more openly!

    • 22

      Alexander Charchar

      November 7, 2015 3:20 am

      Hi Daniel!

      I’m so glad to hear you got something out of the article. It’s funny how by simply giving a name to a problem, or even just exploring it for a little while, makes it so much easier to find in our own lives. I know when I was doing research for this one I kept getting surprised by how often I’d read about a pattern that leads to burnout, and it would be one I’d gone through a dozen times before, but wouldn’t realise the connection it would have to low level episodes of burnout I’d have not long after.

  11. 23

    “Compared to other industries, designers and developers can earn decent pay, so it would be silly to focus on money”
    Except if you aren’t one of those who are earning decent pay. There’s plenty of designers being paid trash wages.

  12. 24

    Having finished this, I can’t help but think that the common thread in all of these articles on burnout is that it’s assumed that deep down we really love what we do. What if we don’t? It’s implied that that’s a temporary feeling and that the love will come back…but what if it doesn’t? I’ve done all of these things and honestly I’m at the point where I just don’t care about the work anymore, and it’s been this way for years now. The hours aren’t worth it. The meager pay isn’t. Constantly updating a portfolio with side-projects is torture, I would literally rather throw my laptop in the dumpster than do more work after the work I can’t stand is over.

    I’m glad there are people who genuinely enjoy this line of work, I’m happy for them and wish them the best, but I don’t truly believe I am one of those any longer, or even if I was. It’s a job. I’m pretty decent at it. I certainly am not “passionate”, whatever that means according to whichever hiring manager is asking if I am.

  13. 25

    Amen to this! A constant stream of clients who want the next ebay for a goat and a cabbage, clients who want enough colour splashed around to make a Banksy look monochrome. It all takes its toll, which is why I’m concentrating on side projects and passive income now. Got a bit of passion and excitement back, my inner nerd loves to experiment.


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