Web Burnout


If you have been working in the Web Industry for a while you would have been burnt out to some degree at one time or another. If you haven’t you’re kidding yourself. It has been my experience, over the years that the industry tends to promote a very dangerous lifestyle of an overwork ethic. You know the score, working long hours, working endlessly week in week out. This can lead to isolation (more on this later), depression and burnout.

Burnout is dreaded within the design community. Burnout is that horrible time when the ideas don’t flow any more. We all personally know of at least a few people that have even left the industry altogether due to burnout. Which is extremely sad; if not a massive loss of skill and talent?

Are we the cause of the burnout?

You know the routine; you have a mountain of work. It seems endless, not that you are complaining. The boss / clients are on your back. You can’t see the end of the tunnel. Sound familiar?

Then suddenly the ideas will not come, when you need them most! You just can’t find the spark for the next design; the muse has died. What to do? Panic, quit, and just churn out some old reworked design.

The question really is what is causing the burnout in the first place:

  • Is the work environment not encouraging creativity is there a work ethic of just get the job done and out the door with no really regards to design professionalism?
  • Are you stagnating, are you all out of ideas. Are you doing the same thing week in week out to the point that the design that is being worked on seems immaterial and the same as the one that was done last week (when its not).
  • Are you coping with the workload? Are the major projects getting done or are you spending all your time on the little jobs?
  • Are you living at the office, or working from home, and spending very little time away from a work environment?

Its human nature to want to produce the best you can, but are you forcing this issue personally. Considering the hours of work and professional development time required in the web industry. Is the web industry itself to blame, are we burning people out? Are we expecting too much from people, especially new graduates. Jennifer Senior at the New York Magazine tends to think so.

I know that there is a range of web design firms, ranging from the people destroying sweatshops to the ones that are considering that people are more important that the work they are doing. As in any industry we have the entire gambit. But the real concern is the underlying ethic or degree of professionalism that causes people to want to finish the application or design at any personal cost. Is the industry to blame for this or the individual?

What can be done?

So if we are being burnout out what can we do about it? A lot of it I have found comes down to stress, anxiety and professional stagnation. So let’s try and reduce those:

  • Look around you. Turn the computer off

    We all work long hours at our computers, but really you can get a lot of inspiration from your environment (outside of the office). Go for a walk, notice the natural patterns in things, (take photos of them for future reference), visit you local library, grab a bunch of old magazines (theses are great for design ideas) or go to a bookshop and buy a few books, look for design mediums outside the one you are working in. Listen to music, not just the usual tracks; expand your music tastes try something new.

  • Tell people you are over loaded.

    If you have too much work on; tell your boss, tell clients. In general people understand. Clients have come to use your services, from you or your firm. They are usually willing to wait. You can get overstressed on the project list and think only about the workload and not on the project / design at hand.

  • Look at the way you deal with the work.

    Sometimes burnout is because you are wasting time or not spending enough time doing the task. Have a close look at what you are doing and how you are doing it; this is what you need to manage not your time.

  • Don’t get isolated

    Talk to peers, talk to mentors; get direct face to face contact with people, don’t get into the habit of working without people contact for long period of time. Don’t just IM people or ringing a client on skype. This gives you the chance to see new things, talk about non work related topics and be generally exposed to a different environment.

  • Get some exercise

    Creativity comes from a healthy sharp mind and that comes easily if the body supporting the mind is healthy too. Go for a walk, go to the gym, take up a sport, just get active and get the blood flowing, it will clear your head and again expose you to new senses.

  • Get some sleep

    Don’t work 18 hours days, don’t work till you drop asleep at the computer. Yes we all do it from time to time. I’m guilty of that too. But do not make a habit of it. Three times a week is a habit. Your body needs to sleep, it needs to recover from the stresses you have put on it. Sleep is the natural way to recharge you mental creative batteries too.

    The more rested the brain generally the better the creativity. Anyway you know that you’re almost non productive after a certain hour of night. If you work beyond this hour you usually have to rework that night’s effort in the morning. Isn’t this double the effort? Wouldn’t it be easier to just do it in the morning in most cases?

    Mind you if you are sleeping too much, that’s another problem, frankly you are avoiding life.

  • Take a break short or long

    Your mind can become too focused on the task at hand that you can’t see the solution in front of you. Hence you need to recharge. During the day at least once an hour, refocus; take a break for 5 minutes, recharge, get up out of the seat and walk around.

    Take holidays, or at least take time off when your clients are quiet. Use the long weekends, get away from the Internet and your mobile phone, and go discover that there is a life outside of the web. Socialise with people face to face. Have a weekend, chill out and calm down, and don’t turn the computer on.

  • Do something new

    Stagnation is a big creativity killer. It’s easy to just keep on pushing out the same jobs and same way. Why not change them slightly, implement some new ideas, learn something new, and expand your knowledge base. Challenge yourself.

    If you don’t do it professionally, then take up a new hobby, learn a new skill, and take up a new sport.

  • Fire the client or move jobs

    Well after all this, you still can’t get rid of the burnout blues, consider it maybe you need to move on to a different firm or the client needs to move on.

The secret with all this is be doing all of the above constantly. It’s a well rounded lifestyle that with protect you from the burnout blues. You need to get your life back. If you do the burnout time to recovery should be shorter. Burnout will still happen, but as I have found it will be shorter in duration.

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  1. I was just discussing the other day how I can foresee burnout with my current workload.

    I think the best thing to do sometimes is take a timeout. Communication with the customer about a days delays should straighten things out.

    Time away from the computer is time well spent and is something I am becoming more aware of.

  2. Karoshi (japanese word for death by overwork) is a growing problem in the world. Working from home and not being 20 anymore I have to admit the work-life balance went out the window and I’ve crashed dismally several times – the latest being the complete closing and deletion of my blogs which were a key to chewing up my spare time and work included. Blogaholicism is another related thing.

    In the end you’re right. Whether we step back from the work or fire a client or two its more important to survive and enjoy life than to be perfect or earn the maximum coin for our efforts. I’d advise the avoidance of industry expectation to work long hours, in fact I’m most creative when I’m not in front of the computer at all.

    Interesting article and there should be more of an ongoing discussion about this as the people coming into this work are continually having to learn this one the hard way. I read where our industry attracts people who are perfectionists and who also tend to be isolated so this combination leads to burnout and a high rate of physical depression.

    One other thing. My brother in law is a computer programmer who ended up wearing down his pituitary gland to the point he needs testosterone injections for life and other medication. Don’t underestimate the damage your body can receive from staring at a bright light for 16 hours per day and not getting enough rest. Without medication he would die now. He was lucky they caught it at the point he couldn’t get out of bed anymore – not just depression.

  3. @Steven C, thanks for the Japanese definition.

    Yes, the critical thing here is to remember you aren’t going to say on your deathbed.. “Gee I wish I had worked more and longer hours”.

    It’s very much a taboo topic. A lot of younger designers consider that it will not happen to them. I just smile when they say this.

    Extreme stress on the pituitary gland is more common than people realise, especially in high tech industries.

  4. sigh…yep I’m there. Overworked, tired, up all night with a 6 month old. Trying my best to keep up with endless demands of clients. I found your blog by searching for “web developer burnout” LOL. Nice to know I’m not alone.

  5. @Melanie – you are never alone, the important thing is stay focused and make sure you are okay first. Things will bet better with the baby, trust me it’s not like that forever.

  6. I am currently suffering depression and axiety brought on by a hectic work environment that couldn’t be sustained by one person “me” when I asked for help I was given a trainee as a short term measure and led to believe that something more permanent would be put in place, when the traineeship was completed. I believed that in the next 12 months if I worked harder and kept up with the work whilst training a trainee with little experience at the end of the 12 months we could appoint this person and have an additional worker to help with the workload. How wrong was I, when the 12 months was up I was given a new trainee and raked over the coal for attending the interview to recruit this person as the office couldn’t survive without me for one morning. I was always over supervised and watched by every manager in my division. It sounds like I’m paranoid but I can assure you I’m not, as I was too busy to be dreaming up conspiracy theories. Anyway, in the end I broke down and ended up in a Psych hospital after trying to overdose on my prescription medication. I identified myself through my work and my depression plunged once I went on workcover, I had never even recieved the dole or family payments from the government. I’ve now been on benefits for quite a while and don’t see an end to my depression and anxiety. I feel like my future has been taken from me, me and my family are suffering financially even though I’m on workcover, but its amazing what a drop in your take home percentage makes. We all work just to survive, what happens long term when you break down and its not fixed quickly? Anyway I was just wondering if there is anyone else out there that’s suffered at the hands of business, when you’ve done your best to be a good worker.

  7. Frank,
    I can understand the position you are in. After I got married, I experienced much of this type of abuse from management in a few positions I held in the late 90s. I now realize that _most_ of this abuse was caused by me. You have to be able to decide what really matters in life. Work does not define us, but it can definitely confine us 🙂
    It may be best to focus more on yourself instead of the career. Put things into perspective and ask yourself what you really _need_ out of life. Chase money and regret will greet you at the finish line once the race is over. Good luck and hang in there.

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