What does burnout look like in a design studio?

In 2016, a survey by University of Chicago found nearly 50% of us say we are often or always exhausted due to work. Added to that, there’s a relationship between feeling lonely and work exhaustion: the more people are exhausted, the lonelier they feel.

What I found interesting is that the loneliness is not always a result of social isolation. It can be due to the emotional exhaustion of workplace burnout.

What does that mean for the average Australian design studio with less than five employees?

If we accept the survey results — and given the General Social Survey is an influential study frequently referenced by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Associated Press, we must – nearly half of all designers might be exhausted, or burnt out at any one time.

That’s a problem socially because studies say loneliness/burnout can reduce a life by 70%. And it’s a problem commercially because loneliness/burnout can cause 37% higher absenteeism and 16% lower profitability.

Why designers may be lonely or burnt out:

  • maybe they’re in stage three of the three stages of learning – something we covered in an earlier article.
  • maybe they’re struggling with their workload
  • maybe they’re not feeling supported or respected, or
  • maybe they’re not feeling valued.

The good news

The good news is that small actions count big.

Studies have found work happiness improves by having a positive social relationships with coworkers. The result of feeling socially connected means greater psychological well-being, which translates into higher productivity and performance.

That’s easier to achieve in small teams.

3 things we can do

  1. Ensure your studio culture is one of inclusion and empathy. Designers practice client empathy but do we actively practice empathy for each other? Young designers specifically are struggling with the need to be robust and resilient – one University of Michigan professor argues the answer lies in compassion. Simply being compassionate can foster greater workplace resilience.
  2. Encourage designers to build developmental networks. A DBC mantra is to help designers move away from the computer, out of the studio and become part of a physical design community. For nearly three years, the first of our breakfast crews have met monthly at 7:30am for breakfast. This meetup has proved time and again the value of a network available for advice or emotional support.
  3. Celebrate the small successes. One of the mistakes Greg and I made with our studio was not stopping to celebrate the small successes. We do now. We have our ‘deal bell’. Everytime an EDM response hits a benchmark, a new client comes on board, or even a design collaborator kicks a goal, the bell is rung. You should try it … I am positive this small ritual of sharing studio successes does increase a sense of belonging.

Take away

Research is clear, loneliness and burnout are linked. There is much a small team can do to help a designer that’s feeling lonely. The first step is just taking the time to recognise the problem.

Want to discuss any of the above? Email Carol or Greg.


Carol Mackay

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The Design Business Review is Australia’s only online design management magazine. It’s professional development information written specifically for Australian designers by Australian designers. Best of all, it’s free.

After 30+ years running a graphic design firm, Carol pivoted from client-focused projects to consult to the design industry. Now with the Design Business Council she uses her experience, and research, to help designers build robust, sustainable businesses, and help businesses integrate, and profit from, design.

The core of the DBC is the building a design community – over 85% of designers work in businesses with less than 5 employees, many less than 3. That means designers don’t have the same support network of other professionals. The DBC’s solution is supplement  paid gigs with mentoring breakfast meet-ups, informative UNseminars and practical workshops in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney.

In 2018 Carol co-founded the Clear Communication Awards, and the Business of Design Week. Both will be run in 2019

An archive of her design work at mbdesign.com.au.
Her current work can be viewed at designbusinesscouncil.com and designbusinessschool.com.au.

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