The inevitable fizzle

The 5 Stages of Burnout: how to diagnose early and beat it to the punch

It’s not as simple as stress, and not always as serious as depression

By Shea Lord |
March 4th, 2023
The inevitable fizzle

The 5 Stages of Burnout: how to diagnose early and beat it to the punch

It’s not as simple as stress, and not always as serious as depression

By Shea Lord |
March 4th, 2023

Read time: 3 minutes

It’s unrealistic to imagine you can always avoid times of heavy workload.

  • Exceptional careers require exceptional work (the difficulty of which varies according to your privilege)

We freelance to be in control of our time and energy.

  • That means it’s your responsibility to manage workload and mitigate burnout.

5 Stages of Burnout

1. The Honeymoon

  • Work is going so well that you don’t recognize you’re going overboard.
  • Or, you want to work extra to impress a client or peers.
  • This isn’t a bad place to be as long as you’re self-aware and it has a specified end date.

2. Stress Onset

  • The pace of work doesn’t decrease, but your enthusiasm and energy have left.
  • Stress and fatigue make it more difficult to complete tasks.

3. Chronic Stress

  • Symptoms become persistent throughout each day.
  • Procrastination, apathy, and missed deadlines begin to compound.
  • Social withdrawal as activities outside of work just creates more stress.

4. Burnout

  • Limit reached: Compounding problems have become overwhelming and you cannot function creatively
  • Dropping one ball causes another to fall…and another, and another…until it’s an unstoppable cascade of disappointing your clients, peers, and loved ones.
  • Obsession: You can’t stop thinking about the work, but you no longer have the capacity to make progress either.
  • Numbness and imposter syndrome settle in. Socially, you’re more prone to outbursts and isolation.
  • Physical manifestations of burnout can include headaches, trouble sleeping, and stomach issues that may quickly deteriorate your health

5. Habitual burnout

  • Working to burnout can actually become a habitual cycle
  • Chronic fatigue and stress can lead to anxiety and depression
  • Your career comes to a halt and stays at high risk until the burnout is addressed
  • Recovery can take months, years.

Prevention and Early Treatment

1. Critical: Recognize the path by knowing the stages above.

2. Set end dates for your heavy work sprints. Keep the light at the end of the tunnel in sight and schedule rest.

3. Set more granular to-do lists so you can take baby steps and recognize all your accomplishments.

  • Try automating daily tasks and sub-task lists in an app like Notion

4. Manage your energy. Identify critical tasks that you can allocate more focus to and ease up on others. Practice letting go of perfection.

5. Mindfulness. I wrote about mindfulness for motion designers on the School of Motion blog here.

6. Intentional inspiration. Fill your cup regularly with reminders of why you got into this business.

  • I watch cartoons and anime while on the elliptical each day. Good stories + good animation keep me enthusiastic about the job. Open to recs!
  • Check out this incredible animation showcase that industry pros can view for FREE (just provide a link to your portfolio)

7. Get a life. (IRL.) Leave the house. Schedule time with friends** preferably doing something that fills you with positivity and not too much alcohol.

8. Exercise. Have a system that makes this possible for you, in whatever form you prefer.

  • Take walks. Keep dumbbells at your desk. Squats can be done anywhere.
  • I use Apple Fitness and am currently rocking a 60-day all-ring streak. ✌️

“Sitting is the new cigarette.” -Dan Go

If you’re already at stage 4-5

1. Know that you can recover. I’ve been there. So have others.

2. Quit projects/teams that aren’t supporting you. It’s not worth your health.

3. Get help from close friends/family, or consider a mental health professional.

  • I had a therapist once who actually specialized in treating overworked creatives, many of which came from SCAD…😅

It’s not always the workload.

I’m somewhere around stage 2, bordering 3 right now. But it’s not my work.

  • I have one active project right now. It’s cool work and a relaxed client.
  • But I’m currently closing out 3 straight weeks of having various house guests who, as much as I love them, have made it difficult to work—while deadlines and bills still loom.

When your business levels up, your personal life has to level up. And vice versa.

Personal growth can refer to your mindset, your physical health, your home and social environment, and your relationships and marriage.

  • Work-life balance is just how all these things support, and are supported by, your career.
  • It’s a two-way street that we design as freelancers.
  • When one is off, the other suffers.

To that end…

** Sometimes you need a break from friends to recalibrate.

  • If your social calendar is anything like mine, it might make sense to schedule a “No People Weekend” from time to time.
  • (h/t Sara Wade who, like me, may need occasional people breaks, but never from dogs)