The pandemic became a catalyst for creative burnout. So how do we move forward?
57 per cent of our readers say their workload has increased during the pandemic – it’s no wonder they’re burned out as a result.
Over the course of this week, we’ve been investigating the ways in which the pandemic has affected the fulfilment gained from creative work. Influenced by our readers who completed our Balancing Act survey earlier this year, we’ve heard from individuals who have restructured their creative processes, switched careers, relocated homes or moved into new modes of creating with emerging media. Despite these tangible changes adopted by our contributing writers – and being the subjects discussed by our survey respondents – one overall feeling has been made glaringly clear: our industry is exhausted and unsure where to turn next. In short, they’re burned out.
A creative who has reckoned with the overwhelming feeling of burnout since 2020 is LA-based art director and designer Heejae Kim. Touching on how he has worked on these feelings through creative projects in an article earlier this year, we invited HeeJae to dig into our survey results surrounding these emotions. The following text sees the creative track back to where the initial drive of overworking stems from, and offers his personal approach to overcoming burnout in order to get back to the joy creativity once brought.
2020 was a blur. At the beginning of the pandemic, between reading doomsday ringing headlines, I remember sitting in the shower of my LA apartment. Feeling the cool water pooling around me slowed my mind from sifting through unwanted, familiar memories as the cold pierced through layers of accumulated stress.
I learned recently that there’s more to burnout than just feeling exhausted. It can be the loss of feeling accomplishment. Lack of motivation. Cynicism. Self-doubt. Feeling detached and defeated. And like this list of symptoms, there doesn’t seem to be a single or definitive cause for it. Resonating with these feelings over the past two years, burnout is a topic I’ve been thinking about lately — and I want to share my journey with it.
Within The Balancing Act survey, conducted by It’s Nice That, 57 per cent of respondents say their workload has increased during the pandemic. 75 per cent also noted they’ve worked overtime, yet 74 per cent of these individuals do not receive extra payment for documented overtime hours. On recollection of my own experience, I don’t think I’ve left work earlier than 7pm at most jobs. I remember thinking that was admirable and something to be proud of.
There’s a romanticisation of burnout that I can trace back to grade school. Bragging that’s sometimes disguised as deprecation, akin to sharing your most grotesque scars or contests of who stayed up the longest. As we enter the working world, these contests become lists of clients and accomplishments — where the cover of humility wears thin. The urge to relay such accomplishments in conversation with friends or family feels right in the moment, but is often followed by a tinge of regret as you finish the sentence. We each feel a need to impress and overtly quantify hard work, to make everything more tangible.
I grew up in a traditional South Korean family. As immigrants, my parents stressed hard work and academic achievement. Humility was an elemental cornerstone, as well as being proud of our culture. Growing up in America complicated things as most second-generation kids will tell you; feelings of cultures at odds with each other while the feeling of alienation remains familiar. But where the two cultures vaguely overlapped was the idea of the American Dream – the outdated notion that everyone has equal opportunity to achieve success through hard work. On further introspection, growing up gay and in the closet intensified my identity of feeling very different. Invisible and seemingly at odds with society itself.
As a result, I didn’t excel in high school, well, not as much as my sisters did. What came easy to me was creating. It offered escapism, joy and hope. It provided the realisation that I had something to offer, that I had something I could be good at; it came neatly packaged with a need for validation.
It was compensation – a feeling that left the strongest impression. After all, validation feels good. It’s universal. A dopamine rush that quells indignation and feels like it can justify existence itself. Such rushes present themselves in various forms in our field of work. Can your parents understand what you do? Fine. A like from your local design legend? Nice. A presentation that went better than expected? Amazing. Credit from your boss? I think I’m healed. But like any rush or short term solution — the sheen fades.
The Balancing Act survey displays this as an experience which resonates. When readers were asked if their enthusiasm lessened since progressing in their careers, 43 per cent agreed, while 33 per cent said it remained the same, and only 24 per cent said they were more enthusiastic. The past two years have only intensified this further, with up to 79 per cent stating that the pandemic has affected the personal enjoyment gained from their jobs.
Likewise, my love for the creative field has worn thin as I’ve progressed as a designer. Factors include societal pressures of success and the feeling that I wasn’t good enough. I became disillusioned as the space that once offered solace became a breeding ground for untreated scars to flourish. No amount of validation or short term rushes could fix it. Social media only worsens this feeling as an infinite scroll satiating your imagination. Like a lenticular image, where the very inspiration can pervert into an endless list of things you’re not doing. Even those algorithmically curated likes so often feel like intrusive reminders of your worth.
During the time I mentioned in those early days of the pandemic, as soon as the day ended and my laptop closed, I felt empty. I withdrew socially, and questioned why I was a creative in the first place. The pandemic served as a catalyst for this burnout. An echo chamber that failed to preserve the age-old wound — the American Dream, a bleeding societal narrative that there’s equal payoff to simple, hard work.
As a culture, I don’t think we give ourselves the freedom to step back enough. The narrative is often that we should keep work and life separate, but I actually think that enables burnout culture. It feels systemic. Our identities are the foundational blocks and beams we use to navigate our lives and offices, and it’s disingenuous to ignore the architecture. Our experiences as people of different genders, colour, class, sexuality and the trauma we all experience — informs who we are. It doesn’t make sense to see life and work separately, when life experiences inform how we behave and, in turn, our creative output. There also isn’t a single clear cut answer to how we should deal with it.
What eventually helped me long-term was focusing on my personal growth. We often get stuck in cycles and trying out more interests helped me break out of the familiar. I started writing more, experimenting with music, learning 3D and started swimming. Advancing in seemingly unrelated skills gave me confidence and positively reframed my perspective. It informed my design thinking in unexpected ways and felt connected to a larger field of exciting possibilities. Likewise, finding more time to read and finally making a dent in a list of recommended movies from friends and family felt satisfying — something even as insignificant as demystifying those persistent pop culture references. It’s the feeling of inspiration that is a powerful, hard reset in making the familiar vivid and new again.
Ultimately, I’ve found that my love for creating will always be there. Going to therapy has helped, and I’m more grateful and proud of my experiences and achievements than I’ve been in the past. There’s a bigger emphasis on how I view validation and how it plays a part in how I see my worth. And I also see that there are still issues. I’m still figuring it out. And that's okay.
The Balancing Act
The Balancing Act is an Extra Nice-supported editorial series by It’s Nice That investigating how our industry has altered since the first wave of Covid-19 in early 2020. Developed from a survey shared with our readers, the resulting pieces are a reflection of the way the creative industry was feeling two years later.
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About the Author
Heejae Kim is an independent designer, illustrator and art director. He’s currently based in Los Angeles. Since graduating from RISD in 2016, he’s worked at Sagmeister & Walsh and Apple with an ongoing freelance practice and an interest in personal projects. He’s a Young Guns 19 winner and also loves New Jersey.