There’s more than a touch of irony involved in trying to write an article about creative burnout at 11pm on a Friday, when you’ve already worked a 40-hour week at your ‘day job’ – not to mention that you’ve got three manuscripts to read by Monday, you haven’t added a single sentence to your so-called passion project in weeks, and you definitely can’t remember the last time you went to a yoga class or for a run.
You scroll through Twitter, seeking reassurance from others like you – the writers, the editors, the freelance slashies. The ones whose laughter, when some innocent asks about their plans for the ‘weekend’, is flecked with bitterness. The ones still sitting in front of their tauntingly flashing cursors long after what most people would consider ‘regular working hours’ have ended. The ones burning the midnight oil, burning the candle at both ends, burning out.
Of course it isn’t always as bleak as all that. We are the lucky ones! We get to do what we love and get paid for it (at least some of the time). And yet, anecdotal evidence suggests an unusually high rate of burnout in the creative arts. Burnout and overwork seem to be the default mode for writers and editors, at least among the brightly burning scribes of my acquaintance. What is it about writing for a living that means we’re always skating on the edge of exhaustion? Does the privilege of ‘doing what you love’ make writers more likely to take on more work than they can foreseeably complete in a normal working week? Or is it just the tenuous nature of freelance employment that makes us feel obliged to say yes to whatever gigs come our way, regardless of capacity?
Psychologist Wilmar Schaufeli, a pioneer of occupational burnout research, notes that ‘as a metaphor for the draining of energy, burnout refers to the smothering of a fire or the extinguishing of a candle. It implies that once a fire was burning, but the fire cannot continue burning brightly unless there are sufficient resources that keep being replenished.’ He paints a disheartening image – a flame flickering into darkness, deprived of the oxygen it needs to continue to burn.
There’s an assumption that the resources required to keep the flame burning can be replenished simply by having enough time away from the ‘work’ environment. Yet in many ways the idea of work-life balance can seem redundant when your job is intimately connected to your passion. How do you draw the line between work and leisure when the two are essentially halves of the same whole – when, in your most fortunate moments at least, your leisure activities are merely an extension of your paid employment? If I read a book, attend a writers’ festival, or spend the weekend at a writing workshop, am I working?
How do you draw the line between work and leisure when the two are essentially halves of the same whole?
What if I’m chairing the event at the writers’ festival, or the book I’m reading is for a review I’ve been commissioned to write? And what if I’m writing the review for a publication that I really admire but one that – alas – can’t afford to pay me? Or if I spend two days polishing a manuscript, in the hope of applying for a residency, which, should my application be successful, I will pay for the privilege of attending? Which of these activities counts as work, and which as leisure? And which should I put on the backburner when, as suggested in numerous articles about avoiding burnout, I try to ‘take a step back’ and ‘make time for what makes me happy’?
Burnout isn’t just a synonym for overwork. Christina Maslach, who has been researching burnout for over three decades, is the co-creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) diagnostic tool, which isolates three separate factors that combine to make a diagnosis of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and professional inefficacy. ‘People experiencing burnout are not simply exhausted or overwhelmed by their workload,’ says Maslach. ‘They also have lost a psychological connection with their work, which has implications for their motivation and their identity.’ The last part of this equation is key when considering the effects of burnout on writers and other creative professionals, whose work is often intrinsically connected to their sense of self.
Much of the research around burnout focuses on what are known as ‘high care’ roles – doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, police officers and the like. In an examination of burnout among these professions, Schaufeli notes that ‘the experience of burnout was not merely an inconvenience or an occupational hazard, but a devastating attack on their professional identity … Exhaustion on its own would not be so compelling: dedicated people may even derive fulfilment from exhausting themselves through exerting extraordinary effort for a deeply valued cause. The lack of compassion and diminished effectiveness implicit in the full burnout experience had a much more devastating impact on their identity.’
In other words, the impact of burnout is not merely physical exhaustion, but rather psychological distress caused by increased disengagement with and apathy towards that which one previously held dear. Framed this way, it’s easy to see the crippling effect of burnout on creative professionals, whose engagement with their work forms the cornerstone of their identity. Having heeded the call to ‘do what you love’, and sacrificed many of the traditional rewards of labour – accumulation of capital, career progression, financial security – in pursuit of their passion, they then find themselves not only in a state of physical and mental exhaustion, but facing increasing indifference towards the very thing they previously valued most.
Studies have found that occurrences of burnout among employees can be predicted by an imbalance of job demands versus job resources. We can see this factor clearly in play within arts organisations, whose funding even at the best of times is tenuous, based on political whim. We can see it in the way that many reputable publications acknowledge that ‘we pay writers, but not as much as we would like.’ We can see it in the way that many defunded organisations, in the face of the Black Friday grants rounds of mid-2016, noted that they would have to find a way to ‘do more with less’.
But the idea that organisations can carry on expanding in the face of decreasing resources is an illusion. Research shows that having happier, less burned-out workers is likely to have a positive impact on organisational outputs, and vice versa. ‘Over time,’ says Schaufeli, ‘employees experiencing burnout lose the capacity to provide the intense contributions that make an impact. If they continue working, the result is more like smouldering – uneventful and inconsequential – than burning. From their own perspective or that of others, they accomplish less.’ It’s clear that burnout isn’t just a problem for individuals; organisations that don’t manage workloads in the wake of dwindling resources face higher rates of attrition and disengagement, which can have the same impact on productivity as funding cuts.
The idea that organisations can carry on expanding in the face of decreasing resources is an illusion.
The issue here is that the imbalance of job resources versus job demands is really an imbalance of the demand for artists’ work versus the ability of organisations (and consumers) to pay for it. Most writers – this one included – would say that they ‘don’t do it for the money’; that there are better ways, easier ways, to earn a steady income. Yet the very lack of financial security and linear career progression that artists accept – the assuming of greater burdens, without hope of a greater reward – is what makes burnout so crushing. The key factor in all this, Schaufeli says, is a lack of reciprocity; a ‘discrepancy between professionals’ efforts and the rewards they received.’
Much of the coverage of burnout in creative industries puts the onus on individuals to recognise impending burnout and take steps to mitigate it. But this approach ignores the institutional biases that consistently lead the brightest burning among us to flame out – and not merely into better-paying careers. At its gravest conclusion, studies have shown that work-related burnout can serve as a predictor for depression. It is at our own peril that we consistently place the demands of organisations – to do more with less – before of our own needs as individuals.
In the music industry, a 2015 study into musicians’ well-being found that 91% of artists had some level of precariousness in their work situation (be they self-employed, casual, or on temporary contracts), and that although almost 60% reported working more than the recommended maximum of 48 hours per week, at least 45% were earning below the minimum wage. The study found that ‘job insecurity and career uncertainty’ posed the largest threat to musicians’ mental health and sense of well-being, and was clearly correlated to lower life satisfaction, higher psychological distress, harmful levels of alcohol consumption, and the intention to leave the industry.
The researchers investigated several possible coping strategies for alleviating the psychological distress experienced by the study participants, including peer and professional support, increased job autonomy and reduced workloads. They concluded, however, that ‘none of the job resources or coping strategies investigated helped to alleviate the negative consequences of job insecurity and career uncertainty.’ Nothing made up for the discrepancy between effort and reward.
The researchers did make one simple yet radical recommendation to improve musicians’ well-being: a ‘shift away from traditional organisational and project-based funding models and toward providing more direct financial support to individual musicians.’ In other words, the simplest way to give artists back their mojo would be to pay them appropriately for their efforts. ‘Funding individual artists’, the researchers concluded, ‘could directly alleviate the financial pressures associated with precarious work situations (and reduce job insecurity and career uncertainty).’
The simplest way to give artists back their mojo would be to pay them appropriately for their efforts.
Consistent and adequate funding for individual artists – as a solution, this seems almost too obvious to state and yet, at least in the context of the literary industry, impossible to realise. If it weren’t for the underpaid, overqualified labour of thousands of arts workers, much of the literary output of our community would cease to exist. While there are some excellent programs that do offer individual funding for writers – including initiatives like the Wheeler Centre’s Hot Desk Fellowships and the Kat Muscat Fellowship, as well as sporadic individual grants from various state and federal funding bodies – these opportunities still present the same issues flagged in the musicians’ survey; they are short-term, mostly low-paid, one-off opportunities that – once their limited tenure is up – do nothing to mitigate the psychological distress caused by job insecurity and career uncertainty.
There are some things, though, that we as a community could try to implement for the sake of our collective mental health. We should abolish unpaid internships, which entrench privilege and set a precedent for underpaying arts workers. (This is a complex issue, I know – I’ve benefited from unpaid internships in the past, as does KYD.) In cases where there is no option but to allow people to work for free, we should offer as much value as we can muster in return: more recognition, more gratitude, more flexibility and more autonomy – and not at the expense of entry-level jobs. When applying for grants to cover organisational funding, we should ensure the salary component permits all staff to be paid fairly for their expertise. We should aim not just to pay the writers, but to pay everyone, regardless of their artistic contribution. Those of us in positions of power should make sure our staff go home on time, and are appropriately compensated for overtime work. We should not allow our colleagues and friends to devalue themselves. We should not try to do more with less, but rather should come to terms with the fact that sometimes we may have to accept doing less, so that we can continue to do more for longer.
In the short term, this reduction in the workforce may have a deleterious effect on some of our beloved literary organisations. But in the long term, we would hopefully end up with a more sustainable, equitable, compassionate industry. Perhaps, then, by preventing burnout, we might be able to accomplish more with less after all.