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Burnout seems to be the word of the moment, but maybe we should be talking about how to sustain the work we are doing. Vocational sustainability is a way of thinking about working and burnout. It is doing work that supports meaningful, even difficult labor while fueling inspired, creative, and productive work. Vocational sustainability may be, in many ways, the opposite of burnout.
This post will explore:
Burnout is a condition related to capacity and stress. Three things happen when someone is burnt out in their job:
When you think about work and vocation in terms of long-term sustainability, you can think about it in terms of “vocational sustainability.” While the word “sustainability” may be more familiar to us when we think of ecology, this same ecological principle that tells us to protect our natural resources by taking care of them and replenishing them may be a good model for an anti-burnout approach to a job. Vocational sustainability manages resources like talent and skill, allowing them to grow, shift, and regenerate through satisfying work instead of being used up.
Although vocational sustainability is essential for everyone in the workforce, in this post, I’ll focus on how it applies to people who work in creative fields, like artists, musicians, designers, content creators, entrepreneurs, and others who don’t work in the same way every day.
Despite what many people think, many creative people do not avoid the experience of burnout even though they are often in charge of their own work schedules2. Many people who aren’t working in a traditional job can actually work themselves into burnout simply because they do not have the boundaries of a typical work schedule2.
All jobs and cultures can lead to burnout, but work that is meaningful and valued by clients and employers is less likely to cause burnout34. Suppose you’re working in a job where you have less power than the people you help (like customer service) or don’t get as much positive feedback. In that case, you may be more likely to display clinical signs of burnout5.
A 2017 meta-study of 4,430 research papers exploring the effectiveness of various treatments for burnout found that “it is impossible to draw guidelines regarding how to treat burnout”6. So, while research is still ongoing, there doesn’t seem to be a straightforward, best-practice treatment for the condition. It might be because a lot of the literature on burnout and its treatment – both from the point of view of clinicians and from people who have burnout symptoms – talks about taking breaks, looking for restful experiences, setting boundaries, and practicing mindfulness. According to the meta-analysis above, these things actually do tend to have a positive effect on burnout symptoms5. Burnout treatments are still hard to come by, but research on creativity, flow, play, and the concept of thriving can help creatives keep their jobs.
The following are evidence-based steps that creative workers and those who support them can take to keep their jobs and avoid burnout. Inspired by other employment fields, this is a list of five practical interventions that might help artists and creatives recover from burnout or keep their jobs and avoid burnout in the first place:
In her book Art Will Save Your Life, Beth Pickens7 says that the three things that artists need to stay alive and thrive in the face of oppression are:
Creatives need to connect to other people, especially those who are also creative, as shown by the anecdotal success of content-creator pandemic housing bubbles in reducing burnout2. It is well known by health researchers that social connectedness is a helpful way to avoid many illnesses and mental illnesses8.
Here are a few ways that people who work in the arts can build social connections with other artists:
Play is good for us because it helps our mental and physical health ((Brown, S. (2010). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.)). For artists, entrepreneurs, and other people who work on making new visions come to life, play is a great way to develop new ideas, not just to keep us going as we work on existing ones9. When Stephen Nachmanovitch wrote about play and improvisation in 19919, he talked about Galumphing: “the seemingly useless elaboration and ornamentation of activity” that is “profligate, excessive, exaggerated, uneconomical.” According to Nachmanovitch, it is one of the main ways inspiration comes9. Creative people can try out new ideas without committing to them when they are galumphing, giving them more freedom to try and test new ideas.
Play can be a great way to boost productivity, inspiration, and satisfaction, and it can also help people avoid burnout. Playing on a playfield, for example, can help people’s brains transition from digital work to embodied movement. Play can also be as simple as switching media, like when writers try visual art or musicians try sketching.
Making space for play may be as simple as reducing the number of hours you commit to working each week. This list of 17 ways to make money on Amazon can open pathways to more freedom to play.
Seasons of therapy may also be helpful for artists and creatives. It can help them deal with:
Therapy may also help creators learn to balance their own initiative and self-imposed limits, which is essential for sustainability. In her book, Ahola says that interventions for burnout that use CBT therapeutic approaches often provide only short-term relief from burnout symptoms. Other types of therapy, like psychodynamic therapy, group therapy, and even peer support, were more effective at reducing burnout symptoms5.
Based on this, and on the unique psychological challenges of a creative job, most artists, content creators, and entrepreneurs might benefit from incorporating therapy into their job-sustaining practices. As a bonus: therapy has been linked to a rise in income over time11.
In the book Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is described as “…an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness…” which involves a person being “…fully immersed in what [they are] doing for the sake of the activity itself”12. People who learn how to get into a flow state with their creative work are more likely to enjoy their work, to feel like it is continuous, and to be satisfied12. These are all signs that flow experiences can help people avoid burnout and keep their jobs.
Burnout is a chronic stress disorder13. Chronic stress starts with acute stress that doesn’t go away or isn’t well-managed13. Over time, the effects of acute stress combine to form the set of symptoms we now call burnout13. According to Ahola5, an effective way to avoid burnout is to look for stressors and think of ways to eliminate, delegate, or outsource these stressors. Clinicians can help creatives stay in the workforce by helping them identify their sources of acute stress (like repetitive tasks they don’t like, responsibilities that don’t fit their strengths, or rote tasks that don’t stretch and challenge their creative muscles). They can also help creatives learn how to deal with these stressors with more support, specific boundaries, or by taking these stressors out of their work.
As a concept on the other end of the spectrum from burnout, vocational sustainability is creativity that fuels creativity. Vocational sustainability practices can likely prevent the start of burnout and even help people who already have it. Flow, psychodynamic therapy, social connections with other artists, play, and proactive stress management can all help. It’s possible to help artists and small business owners do well at their jobs if we know about vocational sustainability and how these ideas can be implemented in the real world every day.