How to avoid burn-out

BurnoutIn an industry where 14 hour days and working weekends are the norm, how do you keep the tank full and avoid the crash and burn? In a piece that first appeared in EncoreMatt Smith investigates. 

In 2010 Steve Crawford reached his limit. He’d been working for six years as the creative director of M&C Saatchi and finally realised his workload was unsustainable.

“I got to the point where I was tired of working 14-hour days, seven days’ a week,” says Crawford. “I looked back over the previous six years and I’d worked half the weekends. I had lots of little mild inflammatories – hay fever, I couldn’t digest food, I’d been missing dental appointments for six years.”

“We were regularly expected to work past midnight and be ready to pitch the next day. Holidays could be cancelled at a moment’s notice. I was hardly unique. There’s a whole lot of people within agencyland for whom the work pressure is just expected. We very much bring it on ourselves.”

Crawford stepped down from his position, and together with colleague David Brown formed a new agency, CrawfordBrownPlus. The venture was purposely smaller, focussing on a limited number of clients and a more personalised service.

Crawford says that his work, and as a result his life, is now much more manageable. He says: “My ailments all disappeared over time. My workload is good at the moment, and I can appreciate that when I compare it to before. The smaller agency also means less people to deal with and fewer people crying at my desk.”

The management of work/life balance is a serious issue for many Australian workplaces, with burnout a particular concern in industries of intense competition. In fact, stress is the second-most common cause of workplace compensation claims according to WorkSafe Australia, and costs businesses billions of dollars every year in lost productivity and leave.

While there’s no evidence to suggest that those working in the media, marketing and entertainment business are more prone to stress than others, Dr Timothy Sharp of the Happiness Institute says there are unique factors at play in these industries.

“Creative agencies are pushed by certain conditions that will affect anyone,” says Sharp. “Perception of control, adequate support, task variety, as well as deadlines and the constant need to be creative and inventive.”

Sharp believes that while levels of stress need to be properly managed, workers shouldn’t attach themselves to the dream of attaining a ‘work-life balance’.

“I don’t like the phrase, it implies everything should be equal, which is impossible and not ideal,” he says.

“I know many people who work long hours, love their job, and find it energising. They don’t burn out at all. I fall into this category.”

Sharp believes that as well as proper support and efficiencies in the workplace, the simple strategy of taking regular breaks goes a long way towards keeping staff fresh.

“The brain only works efficiently for 30 to 40 minutes at the most in a single stretch,” he says. “You need to give yourself a break, even if it’s just short. Take a walk during the day, don’t eat your lunch at your desk, get up and move around. Sitting at a screen all day doesn’t do you any good, mentally or physically.” And Sharp says everyone needs to rest, from those of us experiencing the day-to-day life of an agency to the pointy end of the entertainment business where performers such as Wil Anderson, host of The Gruen Transfer, finds himself. While he may not be forced to pitch off the back of 14-hour days, Anderson is no stranger to a busy work schedule, so much so that at times he has to remind himself to slow down.

“In the past month I did some shows in Alaska, returned to Australia for four days, and now I’m in London. The only downtime I’ve managed to fit in is on the plane.” He says people who set their own schedules are often the most at risk and can miss the warning signs that they need to hit the brakes – a situation many freelancers can relate to when faced with an abundance of work after a quiet patch.

“Last year in particular I failed to get the mix right. A week after the Melbourne comedy festival, I realised I hadn’t taken a day off in three months,” says Anderson. “I ended up touring and performing my show 178 times over nine months. I would go for weeks at a time without talking to another human being except the audience, which hardly counts for a conversation.”

Anderson believes the solution is simple, but at times a challenge. Do something different every day; it not only gives you a new perspective and a break, but could inspire you to be creative. He says: “Part of being a comedian is getting out there and living so that you can then funnel this through to your work. No-one ever started a great show by saying that a funny thing happened between the bed and the computer. To stay creative you always need to take new risks.”

Anderson also believes that structure and routine is important, and enjoys returning to the schedule of Gruen where he knows Thursday is his day off.


Author of adland blog ‘Life. Then Strategy’ Mark Pollard says it is all too easy to risk burnout. “When I was younger it was a regular thing,” he says. “I used to write for magazines, work in ad agencies – for 80 to 90 hours a week – and then crash and burn. I was too young to know any better. It happened badly at least once a year.”

“The culture of advertising means there will always be a lot of internal and external pressures around us,” the New York based Aussie says. “There’s a pressure to not only do well, but to be the best. If you’re just starting out, there’s big expectations and big egos to deal with. You can go a long time without completing something as well, which doesn’t help.”

Now the vice president of brand strategy at digital creative agency Big Spaceship, Pollard says he reached a point where he needed to change. “I spent long periods being a workaholic, and at some point you realise it doesn’t work. For me, what pushed the change was doing good for my family, and being a good person to work with, or for. Things like renewal or mindfulness might sound hippie but I think they’re really important for leaders.”

In his current job, Pollard says a variety of approaches are being trialled to address renewal. “The other day we hosted a surprise game of charades for half an hour. We have dogs at work, and they’re a big part of encouraging a relaxing environment.”

“I also believe in encouraging sleep and trying to get people to leave work early,” he says. “In our industry long hours feel mandatory, and I make it clear to those who work for me that there’s no conspiracy to get them to work late, and they don’t have to be tied to the desk.”


According to a potentially biased survey conducted by travel website Expedia, Australia is a nation of workaholics. The annual international survey found that last year a quarter of our holiday leave wasn’t used with Australia ranking third globally with an average of five days unused leave per person.

One-time adland boss Nigel Marsh believes that it’s up to the individual to set and enforce the boundaries in their life. As he famously documented in his book Fat, Forty and Fired, 10 years ago he took a year off work to spend time with his family and take stock of his life.

“The phrase ‘work-life balance’ is misunderstood and trivialised. We’ve beaten the snot out of it,” says Marsh. “What we should be looking for is meaning in our lives, not balance, and there’s nothing trivial about having an old age full of regret. There’s too many corporate work cultures that glorify overwork – I choose to believe that’s moronic, not heroic.”

“The core of a business, at the end of the day, isn’t to care about you. You need to take ownership for the type of life you would like to design for yourself.”

Three years ago he delivered a TEDx speech in Sydney on the topic, which he believes is just as relevant today.

“If you want to make a change, make a conscious choice. Don’t be put off by what other people think is work-life balance. It’s going to be different for every person.”

And in today’s increasingly connected world, it is harder for us to switch off and get the respite required to avoid burnout.

“I’m in perpetual search for the solution,” says Steve Crawford. “Now, thanks to devices we’re always in contact, in a perpetual state of partial attention. I’ve seen quite a few broken marriages and early deaths in my line of work, and there’s no point in putting in all that hard work just to check out at an early age.” 

Encore issue 19This story first appeared in the weekly edition of Encore available for iPad and Android tablets. Visit encore.com.au for a preview of the app or click below to download.


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