A month or so ago, we published an article about why we need to rethink the way we discuss the knotty, complex issues around creativity and mental health. We posited that mental health issues may not necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to making excellent work, but the fact is that certain conditions and ways of thinking can render work—be that solo, untethered creative work, or 9-5 agency work—either supremely difficult or impossible.
Anxiety—true anxiety—is one such condition. It’s a double-edged sword: at times the self-criticism inherent with anxiety can encourage rigorous thinking. But that sort of detailed self-reflection can easily tip over into a state of perfectionism in which actually doing something can prove impossible. Like its frequent bedfellow depression, anxiety can strangle both a creative impulse and a person on a fundamental level.
“Feeling stressed can negatively impact your ability to generate ideas and be creative, which can be additional stressor,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at UK mental health charity Mind. Further complicating matters, employees working in the creative industries, like those in many other sectors, often don’t feel comfortable talking about mental health and stress. Of the workers Mind polled who had taken off work due to stress, just 5% told their employer they were too stressed to work. The remaining 95% gave another reason for their absence to avoid telling their employers the truth.
“Anyone working in creative industries knows only too well the challenging nature of the job,” adds Mamo. “Many people tell us that despite being hugely rewarding, the combination of high stress, relatively low wages, and long hours make for a workplace that’s not always conducive to good mental health.
“This can be even more heightened if you’re self-employed or freelancing, worrying about where your next job and paycheck is coming from, and not always having the security, routine, or line management support that you might otherwise have in a more ‘traditional’ setup.”
Of course, such anxiety—as Mind suggests—is perfectly natural considering the nature of, and pressures inherent in, working in the creative industries. As psychologist-turned-creativity coach Eric Maisel pointed out to us before, “there are scores of reasons that creative folks experience more anxiety without it being a mental disorder. If anyone had to put things out in the world like creative people do they would experience anxiety.”
But sometimes, these expected stresses are part of a condition, and they become dangerous. That’s something that designer Matt Stokes, a designer and illustrator based in Brighton, on the south coast of England, knows only too well. Stokes has struggled with anxiety and low mood for the past few years, but recently went to his doctor when it got to the point where “it affects everything—not just work, but home life,” he says. “Work might not be the thing that started me feeling anxious, but it’s another factor that makes it worse and magnifies it.”
Since seeking help, Stokes has found the CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) he was prescribed to be helpful. “It’s made me realize that I do a lot of things already to manage stress and anxiety, and it’s helped me understand what my triggers are. It makes you talk and think about [your mental health] more.”
But Stokes notes that when it’s your job to be critical not only about how things look but why they are the way they are, it’s easy for that to seep into your own life, too. “I’m a naturally critical person, and maybe design brings it out in me more,” he says. “You have to constantly justify and defend things to people; everything I do is completely scrutinized, and you have to work through it. You have to be thick-skinned, but if I do good work I really care about it and want it to be right. Sometimes the marketing department might say ‘I don’t like the color blue’ or ‘my husband or wife doesn’t like it.’ Well, I hadn’t realized they were a key stakeholder!”
The nature of making creative work for someone else—be that a client or an employer—means that designers are up against judgement, criticism, and baffling rebukes on pretty much a daily basis. As Stokes says, it requires a thick skin;
but it also requires understanding that just as having aching feet is part of being a waitress, constant scrutiny is part of being a creative.
Rob Clarke is a UK-based designer working across type, logo, and font design. He also has a family history of anxiety and OCD. “I’ve learnt to live with many of my insecurities by facing them head on, but they will never completely go away. I’m generally a happy person, but I’m definitely a worrier and a glass-half-empty kind of guy,” he says. “As designers, we are judged by our skill and what we put down on paper for everyone to see—this can eat away at your self-confidence. I may spend longer on a project, over-analyzing and reworking elements. I lie awake sometimes wondering… Have I understood the brief? Do my designs make sense? Is it drawn well? Is it any damn good? Will I get another job? Should I give up!?”
Still, Clarke describes a flip-side to his condition that many designers I spoke to for this article also mentioned. “My anxieties have probably made me a more conscientious designer. Over the years I’ve worked hard, making sure what I’ve produced is of a good standard, paying attention to detail and never missing deadlines.”
Edoardo Rainoldi, a design student based in Southampton, England, who’s suffered from anxiety for the past two years since his solo move to the UK from his native Italy, has also been grappling with depression for the past six months. He now sees a counselor weekly, and has been prescribed Xanax for acute attacks. Even so, he agrees with Clarke that anxiety has its positives for a designer. “Sometimes anxiety helps me since I always think about every problem with a project,” he says.
“I’m very attentive with every single detail and I think about every scenario in which a user could use my product. Of course, being too attentive to details can put a lot of pressure on me and my mind. The product needs to be 100% perfect when it’s delivered (as you can imagine, quite impossible) and I wonder whether I could have done a much better job.”
Yet while certain anxiety-making situations are part and parcel of being a designer anywhere, agency conditions can also play a huge role in exacerbating mental health conditions. Hannah Jones describes her last job as a graphic designer at a printing firm as a situation where she was “overworked, underpaid, treated like a factory worker, and very stressed out.” She describes being made to feel “worthless”—regularly singled out and humiliated. She became depressed, had a panic attack, and was later prescribed antidepressant medication, which she used alongside counseling in a bid for recovery.
“I think being a designer means you are always slightly anxious—you’re working to tight deadlines for multiple clients who can sometimes be very unreasonable and very poor communicators,” says Jones. “I also genuinely feel that creatives have heightened ‘imposter syndrome’ experiences compared to other industries. I’ve just never felt as if I’m good enough, which I think is a major trait of creatives.”
Jessica Christiana, a graphic designer at Indonesian advertising agency Dwi Sapta, has suffered with anxiety since her days at design school. She agrees that creativity and self doubt go hand in hand.
“[Anxiety] simultaneously motivates you to become better, and tells you that you’re not good enough,” she says.
“It doesn’t really help with the work because I will be stuck in the infinite cycle of ‘I’m gonna make this one good’ / ‘scrap it because it’s not as good as I expected’ / ‘start over.’ The only thing that’s moving things forward is deadline but again, with anxiety, it becomes the time when you just make mediocre work because there’s no time left and you just say ‘fuck it, I’ll just make it this way.’”
But what if you can’t reach the “fuck it” point? What if—like so many of us—the ability to say “no” is something you never quite managed to get a hold on? Designer and founder of the agency Brand Nu Radim Malinic found himself in a position where “no” had become an entirely foreign concept: he was working 18-hour days for a year straight, and eventually had a breakdown.
“When I arrived at anxiety it was through burnout,” he says. “At first, when I was working 18-hour days I was really happy, but after 10 or 12 months when I worked and worked and worked, I felt like shit—I couldn’t even walk down the street. I had to see a counselor.
“You’re running on adrenaline and coffee—I was doing everything in excess and I didn’t realize it. I was dreaming about templates. Every day I’m working harder not to go back to that place.”
So how do you overcome that? For Malinic, it was about being rigorous and disciplined in the hours he was working, and restructuring his life to make those hours into healthy ones through learning about “deep work,” he says. “I try to compress things more in a week day, and work from about 9 a.m. until 8 p.m., only four days a week, then Friday is for admin work.
“What really helped me and my business career is meditation and mindfulness, which helped me stay in the moment and focus on what I’m doing. Five or six times a day I check in with myself through breathing exercises,” he says. However, he warns against viewing mindfulness and as easy fix—“it’s more like a muscle, you have to train it.”
It’s also about re-calibrating client expectations. “Design is a complex equation; you can’t just be put on the spot and expected to say yes to something. If stuff is worth waiting for, then a client will make time for it. Just because you put extra hours in or do it quickly doesn’t mean it’s going to be good.”
Rainoldi, the design student in Southampton, sees that design educators and employers could also do more to help their students’ and employees’ mental health, by delivering critical feedback in constructive ways, and by taking mental health seriously. Most people wouldn’t hesitate to tell their employers that they can’t come to work because of physical illness. “[Employers] should definitely put an emphasis on mental health sick days, too,” he says. “Recognizing anxiety as a health problem like a flu would help a lot, both mentally and of course physically, just being able to rest when you feel down.”
Clarke also emphasizes the importance of the way that we talk about mental health. “All employers should be aware of the different types of mental health conditions,” he says. “Designers in particular use the term ‘OCD’ as a way of describing their attention to detail when lining things up, which can be frustrating, hurtful, and only undermines the actual illness. OCD is, after all, a mental disorder and can be debilitating.”
For the individual designer who’s suffering, maintaining a sense of perspective is vital. It’s not always easy to put into practice, especially when in the grip of anxiety, but it’s worth trying to remember that work, design, and being a creative person aren’t the be-all and end-all. It’s equally important to try not to equate who you are as a professional with who you are as a person. “When I think about my output of work, it feels intrinsically linked to who I am as a person,” says Stokes.
Something that helped him enormously, alongside his own CBT, was working as a listening volunteer with the charity The Samaritans, not only because he spoke to people going through similar (or worse) situations, but also because he was learning new skills that had nothing to do with graphic design. It drove home to him the importance of openness, and in each one of us doing our bit to chip away at the stigma still attached to mental health problems; and encouraging a culture with agencies that pays more than just lip service to helping people with such conditions.
On a personal level, massive life changes have played a role in gaining perspective on things. “When we had a baby I realized there’s better things in life than just designing or creative practices,” says Malinic.
Here are some tips from Mind to help manage your mental health at work:
- Avoid working long hours. Lots of deadlines can lead to longer hours, but try to avoid this where possible because it will only leave you mentally and physically drained.
- Take a break. Actually take your lunch break and use other regular breaks to step away and get some fresh air, if possible. Regardless of how much you have left to do, it’s really important to get away from work and clear your mind. Don’t check your emails, don’t take any calls that aren’t absolutely necessary, and absorb yourself in a podcast or a book and relax. A break should be a break.
- Schedule play time. Plan something fun to do for when you get your next day off. Having something to look forward to can make a big difference. Whether it’s a visit to a museum, a walk through your local park, or a trip to the cinema, try and put something in your diary that’ll help you achieve a good work-life balance.
- Be assertive. It doesn’t matter how busy your work gets. Say “no” if you can’t take on the extra demands that are being asked of you.
- Exercise helps use the hormones the body produces under stress, relaxes muscles, strengthens the heart, improves blood circulation, and releases endorphins. Cycle or walk to work if you can. Visit your local park.Sign up (and show up) to a new fitness class like yoga, Zumba, or spinning.
- Try not to do too many things at once. You’re more likely to feel accomplished if you take on tasks one at a time until they’re complete.
- Reflect on what you have achieved at the end of each day rather than worrying about what you have left to do or what you may have slipped up on. We all make mistakes. You don’t have to be perfect all the time so don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get everything right.
Illustration by George Douglas.