Burnout can happen to anyone. Crunch, overtime, tight deadlines, constant changes and a huge amount of pressure burns the candle from both ends ... until there is nothing left to burn.
When I burned out I didn't even notice. I was just in the middle of 3 simultaneous projects as a first year Technical Director at the Filmakademie. We only had 6 months to finish those 3 one-minute-trailers for the ITFS (international trickfilm festival) while the best one gets the chance to be played at the FMX. To keep up with the workload I was practically living at my desk. Only going home to sleep for a few hours. This went on for over 14 weeks 14 hours/day.
It felt normal: Crunch! Everything was falling into place at the last minute. I was tired, emotionally drained, eating badly, not exercising enough but I felt okay. Until a few weeks after the projects when I suddenly had a hard time breathing through my nose at night. I found out later that it was due to a dust allergy. Very likely a direct result of the stress my body went through in those long months.
Burnout is "stretching yourself too thin. Likely not saying No! enough. Not setting the right boundaries."
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. It can occur when you experience long-term stress. Common signs of burnout:
Feeling tired or drained most of the time
Feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
Feeling detached/alone in the world
Having a cynical/negative outlook
Procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
We obviously experience those symptoms throughout our lives. The critical part is when they start to affect our life to an unacceptable degree or keep on going for a longer period of time.
"1 in 5 UK workers felt 'unable' to manage pressure and stress levels at work"
Burnout in Visual Effects and Games
Every industry can create burnout. What makes the Visual Effects and Games industry so particularly vulnerable is the passion and the lack of regulation behind it. If you ask anyone why they're working in the industry it's often a similar story:
Being inspired as a kid or wanting to create something beautiful, educational or motivational.
At the same time our industry is relatively new, exploited, underpaid, overworked, uncredited and poorly regulated. The pressure to perform from inside or outside can lead to long stretches of unpaid overtime. I once overheard a discussion in which artists were bragging about who collected the most overtime (they'll never be able to take). In most countries this is illegal but good luck building a case and staying employed at the same time.
The results are
constant overtime (60, 80 or 90 work weeks)
low job security
low recognition (Do credits matter?)
negative company culture
which leads to burnout symptoms and overtime to burnout itself.
How to avoid burnout?
Stress is individual. There is positive stress that helps us move forward (starting just before the deadline). There is also negative stress that keeps us up at night and takes away our ambitions (unrealistic deadlines).
Creating a clear line between work and life is often the best way to at least have time to recharge. Paul Kaynuk (Pixar) says that a clear schedule for exercise, family and when to work from home helps him to keep the stress levels in check.
Speak with someone
Often it's easier for others to see if we experience signs of burnout since it's a more gradual process for us. "When asked to identify the symptoms of burnout, 85% of UK adults correctly identified symptoms of burnout" So it can be helpful to talk about the situation, how it looks to others and what we can do to avoid it.
This includes a doctor or therapist to get a professional opinion and solution.
Reprioritize your tasks
Negative stress often comes from the feeling of "not ready" or "overwhelmed". By focusing on what really matters and removing everything that doesn't we at least have a fighting chance to finish each one by one.
Sleep and rest
The book "Why we sleep" describes how important sleep is for our physical and mental health. Making quality sleep a priority can help to deal better with stress.
6 - 8 hours of sleep
quiet, dark and cool room
no alcohol, coffein, food or anything disturbing your sleep
calm phase before sleep
Exercise helps with physical and mental stress by distracting our mind and balancing out our stress hormones.
No one is safe from burnout the same as no one is safe from being scammed. "People who never expected to be victims of scams and frauds often are scammed and really are among the most vulnerable." . It's important for us to reevaluate from time to time to catch early signs of burnout before it can really happen.
To this day I'm still happy to worked on this 3 great projects:
but looking back on it I'd rather do only 2, prioritized work-life-balance and say No! a few times more (mostly to myself). My symptoms went away after a while but they still come back in moments of stress as a reminder to take care of myself.
Stress is not our enemy but stress that lets us fight with our mind and bodies is. Our job is to change the things we can and accept the things we can't. If you need help with the things you can change let me know.
Thanks for reading,
The purpose of this article is to shine a light on the topic of burnout especially in our industry. There is much more to learn about it from the sources below:
I'm Alexander, an Award-Winning Technical Director & Coach in Visual Effects, Animation and Games. My skills are solving technical problems, simplifying workflows and mentoring career goals.