Designers: How To Recover From Burnout

A young man with his head down on the desk, resting on his arm - he looks stressed out.
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UX design is a dynamic and rewarding field, full of creative challenges and opportunities for growth. As designers, we have the power to make a real impact on people’s lives by creating products and services that are intuitive, user-friendly, and enjoyable to use. However, despite the many benefits of working in UX design, mental health issues are becoming increasingly prevalent in the industry.

Perhaps they always have been, but for whatever reason, folks are now coming forward to vocalize their frustrations. Whether it be Design Twitterr/UXDesign over at Reddit, or just anecdotal chit-chat from friends — it’s clear something isn’t working.

Perhaps it’s the pressure to meet unrealistic deadlines, juggle business and user needs, and keep up with emerging technologies while trying to deliver exceptional user experiences. Perhaps it’s because some of us feel UX isn’t taken very seriously. Regardless, this can take a significant toll on our well-being.

From burnout and anxiety to depression and substance abuse, mental health issues are a serious concern for UX designers. It’s time to acknowledge these challenges and take steps to create a healthier, more supportive work environment for ourselves and our colleagues.

So, what’s the problem?

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Dig a little deeper into the mental health discussion, and patterns begin to emerge. The reasons cited are as follows: lack of direction, poor management, poor expectations, and being undermined are substantial factors. So too is feeling disconnected from the end-user, or working with difficult teams.

“It can be frustrating when my colleagues don’t appreciate the importance of UX design. It kinda messes with my head, making me feel isolated and questioning whether I’m doing good work.” Sara, an old colleague of mine, has primarily worked as a solo designer for several startups. After talking with her for a while, it’s clear she has a real love-hate relationship with UX.

She continued, “Like, do they think it’s all just ‘busy work’ or what? It’s mentally exhausting, and it has led to me feeling ‘burnt out’. I just wish my colleagues would understand how valuable UX design can be and give me the support I need to do my best work.”

I know Sara isn’t alone, as I’ve experienced this feeling too. Most UX designers probably have. So what can we do to look after ourselves and our mental health? What can we do to support others who might be feeling this way?

Well, outside of packing it in all together to work on something entirely unrelated, which is an option that some take, here’s some practical advice that has helped me stay sane.

The justification problem

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Let’s face it, for whatever reason, UX as a discipline seems to need justification while other professionals from different backgrounds seemingly jump into their jobs and hit the ground running. This seems to be the number one issue that UX Designers have — I call it the justification problem.

How do I deal with this? By setting expectations and boundaries as soon as possible, and ensuring everyone knows what my job entails. Admittedly, this takes some confidence, and confidence is not something I’ve always had. Communication is important. It’s the number one most desired soft skill amongst UX designers.

Thankfully, becoming a better communicator is something that comes with practice.

To effectively communicate the value of UX design to stakeholders and the business as a whole, I often need to demonstrate how it can benefit both the company and its users. One approach, that I find very successful, is to provide concrete examples of how UX design has led to improved user experiences and increased customer satisfaction in previous projects.

“Conversation is the most delightful invention of mankind.” — Thomas Hobbes

Incorporating storytelling techniques while presenting information, and showcasing relevant metrics, can be an incredibly powerful way to capture the attention and garner the support of stakeholders. Specifically, by highlighting metrics such as enhanced engagement or reduced customer complaints, I can effectively demonstrate the direct impact of UX design on overall business success.

Another approach I suggest is to emphasize how UX design can help identify and address pain points in the user experience, leading to increased customer loyalty and retention. By framing UX design as a way to improve the customer experience and foster brand loyalty, I can help stakeholders see the value of investing in UX design.

“We are all storytellers because we all live and make sense of our lives through narratives.” — Paul Zak

It’s super important to be clear and concise in my messaging. I might additionally involve using visuals, such as journey maps, to illustrate how UX design can support business objectives and enhance the end-user experience. I might also highlight research to support my arguments, showing how UX design can lead to more effective decision-making and better business outcomes.

The key to effectively communicating the value of UX design is to be proactive, transparent, and data-driven in approach. By emphasizing how UX design can benefit both the business and the end-user, I can help stakeholders understand the importance of investing in UX design and give them a better sense of its impact on business success.

This has often had the effect of taking me from the periphery of a project to the very core of it.

Careful planning needed

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I know it’s crucial to keep it real when it comes to setting project timelines, planning for any unexpected roadblocks, and fighting for the needs of end users. But it’s also essential to work closely with teammates, such as developers and project managers, to divide and conquer, and consistently set out the expectations you’ll have vocalized on joining a company, or at the start of a project.

There’s power in numbers, and having people on your side can go a long way in championing UX throughout the workplace. As 

Tom Greever would suggest, bringing someone in with you to answer any questions you might have difficulty with.

“It helps to have a ringer in the meeting with you; someone who will support you and will ask good questions that you’ll be able to effectively answer in front of the people that need to approve your work.” — Jim Kennedy

Ultimately, sharing problems and involving cross-discipline teams democratizes the workload. It also creates a sense of ownership for everyone, and rapport when teams realize common goals. Involve members of the development team in user research sessions and keep them informed about design decisions for several reasons.

I’ve found that, at the very least, this creates a mutual understanding of me as a UX professional, just as it helps me understand how developers work, and the processes they like to follow.

It works particularly well because it further fosters collaboration and teamwork, helps developers gain a deeper understanding of user needs and pain points, allows for valuable input and problem-solving skills during design discussions, anticipates potential technical challenges or roadblocks, and promotes better communication and trust between designers and developers.

Involving developers and stakeholders in the design process leads to a smoother development process, better outcomes, and a product that meets user needs.

Any feelings of isolation and loneliness I might have harboured prior simply fade away, knowing that I’ve set clear boundaries and that I have the support of the team.

When To Seek Additional Help

If I could only share one piece of advice with other designers, it would be this: Do not be afraid to ask for help or advice. Some problems are problems that might seem insurmountable, and much bigger than your job title and the responsibilities that come with it. From personal experience, problems like that can only be addressed by reaching out to others.

Thankfully I’ve had the luck of working with exceptional managers who fight day and night for their teams and UX as a whole, but I appreciate it’s not always going to be that way. Please also try to reframe asking for help as a sign of strength, courage and ability to collaborate on potentially tricky subjects rather than any sign of weakness.

“Vulnerability is not weakness. And that myth is profoundly dangerous. Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” — Brené Brown

If feelings of burnout persist, it may be helpful to seek support from a mental health professional or career counsellor, who can provide strategies for managing stress and preventing burnout and offer guidance for exploring potentially new career opportunities or redefining professional goals.

Remember it’s perfectly acceptable to take breaks, prioritize self-care activities such as exercise or hobbies, and seek support from colleagues or mentors. As a much bigger talking point, and outside of the remit of this piece, is what we as a society could do by acknowledging that walking away from the problem can often be part of the solution.

It’s okay to step away from the whiteboard or computer, even if you feel you’re tantalisingly close to solving an issue. The problem will still be there when you return the next day, the only difference is that you’ll be all the fresher for taking a break!

Overall, from my perspective managing burnout as a UX designer has involved, and continues to involve, prioritizing self-care, always trying to centre the design process around the user, and establishing clear communication channels to manage stakeholder expectations.

By doing so, I can confidently say that I’ve created more effective designs and facilitated better working environments for everyone within the team. There’s no one silver bullet to solve the issue of so many UX designers feeling burnt out — but through collaboration, education and empathy, we can go a long way in making work just a little easier for everyone.

Chris Kernaghan

Chris Kernaghan

Chris is a UX Designer with over 10 years of exp. He's worked with businesses small, large, and everything in between. He's passionate about putting people first through user-centered design.
Belfast, UK