Dealing With Loud And Silent Burnout

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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 … More about Alexander ↬

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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 Week and we would like to help raise awareness with a couple of articles exploring these issues. 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. In such moments all we want is for our work to feel like our work and not like torture.

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.

“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

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: opensourceway

Six Areas Where Burnout Hides

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

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

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

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

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.


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

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

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

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

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?

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?

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?

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?

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

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

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?



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

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)

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

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

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)

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

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. Leiter. 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.

Further Reading

Smashing Editorial (ml, il, al, mrn)