Why Designers Burnout Faster Than Other Disciplines

Burning match


Sally Grisedale

Are you a designer feeling burned out by all the Slack, email, and a million other notifications you get daily? 

Or that your dream job would quickly turn into a nightmare, which the darkest reaches of your subconscious couldn’t conjure.

You’re not alone in your newfound disaffection for your job. 

With over 4.3 million Americans quitting their jobs in December of 2021, burnout is a pandemic. 

UX design burnout

Symptoms of Burnout

Burnout is the feeling of being constantly overwhelmed to utter exhaustion. Burnout leaves us mentally tired, physically exhausted, and emotionally dehydrated. The feeling that despite your best efforts, you’re making little progress isn’t unique to any single profession. 

Everyone from nurses, servers, teachers, and even UX designers feel the effects. 

But like the coronavirus, the disease that brought on, if not compounded, burnout, we’ve developed effective means to mitigate the risk of catching and preventing burnout. 

As a Design Coach, I’ve devised solutions and routines to target UX design burnout.

But before we understand the solution, let’s better understand the problem. 

Burnout Defined

Burnout was here before the pandemic and will be here long after. In 2003, psychologists Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson conducted the most groundbreaking research on burnout. 

Their research identified three symptoms that arise from workplace stress.

  1. Emotional exhaustion: Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion 
  2. Depersonalization: Increased mental distance, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job 
  3. Feeling ineffective and lacking any sense of personal accomplishment

Why Burnout Happens To Product Designers

The best products are designed when an eclectic mix of individuals are given equal ownership of a product. It’s a collaborative process that requires teams that ostensibly have little to do with each other to work together, which takes time. 

In modern high-tech, fast-paced, rapid-growth product design platforms, speed to launch is a competitive advantage, and a philosophy of done support is better than perfect

Naturally, this attitude fuels tension between teams who don’t want to waste time collaborating with other groups. However, suppose they are not connecting; consequently, roles, ownership, and accountability become unclear. In that case, teams become less efficient, less coordinated, and less supportive of each other. This dynamic can lead to and perpetuate silos that cause individuals to feel “self-justified for bad behavior, like exaggerating other people’s faults or inflating their virtue.”

UX designers suffer when infighting, caused by a lack of alignment over product expectations,  creates a toxic work environment. According to a Harvard Business Review study of leading corporations, 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional.

Working under constant tension and ambiguity can turn a talented, creative employee into an unhappy, unproductive, emotionally distanced one. 

Would you happen to know this person?

Do you know a highly detail-oriented, enthusiastic UX designer who stopped caring about the quality of their work because they were emotionally exhausted?

Have you met a design leader who fears meeting with senior business partners because they’ve been made to feel rejected and depersonalized and have given up believing they could influence product strategy among the senior leadership team?

Do you know a UX researcher who shares research findings selectively? 

Why would they do that? 

They feel they are personally ineffective because they’ve learned that qualitative insights won’t change product direction in a data-driven business.

It takes a fearless UX designer to ask to be included at the leadership table where the decision-makers sit. But getting a seat at the table is one thing; getting heard is another. I’ve earned a place at Meta’s, Yahoo’s, and 247. AI’s tables and have made my presence known. I know what it takes to be a fearless leader and can help you become one, too

Predicting Burnout

According to Herbert Freudenberger, there are three predictors of burnout:

  • Role conflict
  • Role ambiguity
  • Role overload

Sound familiar? 

They should be; they are all at the center of the design process in modern software design.

Fraudenberger found the three predictors to be shared amongst healthcare workers, teachers, and people in social services. If he’d studied the roles of UX design professionals, I’m sure he would have included them in his demographic. Here’s why:

1. Role Conflict in UX Design

UX designers must negotiate conflicting goals between cross-functional team leaders, often with competing agendas, to find solutions to optimize the product’s user experience.

While conflict helps validate and elaborate ideas on which the product development process is established, it forces designers to rationalize and justify every decision made in the design process to every team member. Ultimately, this makes work tedious and undermines the role they occupy on the team.

What if you didn’t have to justify your ideas at work?

Suppose you are a UX designer, product design leader, researcher, or content strategist who impacts other disciplines’ workflow. In that case, you need to adapt your communication (not the design process), so they become co-creative partners, not critics of UX design. 

How do you do this?

Remember, people only care about their role and getting their needs met. An engineer wants design specs that are easy to work, perform well, and be reliable. A product manager wants design specs to fulfill market (business, technology, customer) needs and become an industry leader.

So when you waste meeting time rationalizing every design decision, at best, you will be ignored or accused of wasting time, and at worst, you may be charged with questioning management authority on decisions taken when you weren’t in the room. 

While the prospect of investing time in building a rapport with colleagues in other departments and learning their needs can be daunting, waiting for colleagues to reach out and make introductions will only lead to more waiting. 

“You can’t sit around waiting for that invitation – you need to reach across the table,” said Katie Dill, Head of Design at Stripe.

If engaging in healthy conflict is too scary, why not practice prior? Let’s role-play in a safe 1-on-1 environment where you can practice having tactful, constructive discussions with me, someone who has had these exact discussions before. I can provide real-time feedback and refine how you communicate with non-designers. 

2. Role Ambiguity in UX Design Burnout

Managing ambiguity is what UX design professionals do. They take all the ingredients from user needs, business expectations, and technology standards and translate abstract ideas into concrete product experiences from the front end to the back end. 

UX professionals rely on UX research and design processes to sort out the ambiguity inherent in their role, e.g., missing product requirements, product scope creep, competing priorities, missing resources, etc. 

No single design process exists to deal with all the ambiguity across a product’s development life cycle, just as no single business strategy exists to deal with every step of its business development life cycle.

To overcome role ambiguity, designers must become strategists of both qualitative and quantitative business and development methods and articulate the ROI of their design work in a language accepted and understood by the business.

As a former chief design officer at 247.AI and product design director at Meta, I’ve learned the inside track on how to avoid ambiguity in UX design by speaking on the ROI of UX design in quantitative terms that business leaders value. If you’d like to learn to talk about the language of business for UX design leaders, set up a complimentary strategy call, and let’s chat.

3. Role Overload in UX Design

Overload is part of being a UX design professional. UX design professionals work out all the difficulties on the back end, primarily by removing anticipated cognitive overload, so the user experience is a sleek front end that is desirable, viable, and feasible.

Designing complex dynamic systems, interaction patterns, user interface design across platforms, and meeting the needs of often competing stakeholder ‘wants’ and ‘needs’ is highly stressful. 

The role inherently consists of too many responsibilities for one person to handle in a reasonable amount of time. When the demands of your work role exceed your personal resources, role overload can lead to burnout.

Just as the product you are designing needs to avoid cognitive overload for your user, you need to avoid any cognitive overload in your role. 

But how? 

By applying design thinking to avoid cognitive overload on yourself!

If you google “Stop Cognitive Overload From Killing Your UX,” you will get a list that includes things like:

  • Eliminate Unnecessary Steps
  • Keep it simple
  • Declutter
  • Offload tasks
  • Reduce stimulation
  • Offer fewer options

Now, imagine if you applied the principles for reducing cognitive load on yourself. How powerful would it feel to eliminate unnecessary meetings, declutter your calendar, offload tasks, and free up more time?

What if you had a daily routine to look at the next day’s schedule and optimize it? You might ask yourself these four questions:

  • What will I delegate?
  • What will I reschedule?
  • What will I say no to?
  • What can I eliminate?

A New Response to Burnout

Get the idea? This powerful performance optimization routine takes the tools you already know and uses them to reduce overload and avoid burnout. 

World events have created unprecedented stress, exhaustion, and mental fatigue. Are you yet another UX designer suffering from burnout?

How will you continue to work and support the team when you have reached your limits?

The truth is you can’t be productive or engaged when you’re burned out yourself. Negative emotions are contagious and hard to hide. Working from home made it easier to hide feelings from people, exacerbating burnout for so many people.

Burnout stops when you regain control over your anxiety – but how is that possible? What can you change if you can’t eliminate conflict, ambiguity, and overload?

You can change how you respond to conflict, ambiguity, and overload. Burnout symptoms can be minimized by how you react to them. 

Addressing Burnout

Being burned out is not a personal failing; it’s addressable, and the way you do this is with consistent self-care of your physical, mental, and emotional health to help you respond with detachment.

To become healthy, self-aware, and optimistic again, you must operate from a foundation of your creation, not someone else’s. 

This means strengthening the connection between your mind, body, and spirit. It takes all three working together to improve your overall health and well-being.

A cornerstone of my coaching program teaches you simple routines that strengthen the connection between your mind, body, and spirit so you get your habits working for you.

An example of such a routine is to look at your calendar each week on your planning day (I prefer late on Friday afternoon looking at the week ahead) and color code where you are scheduled to spend your energy.  

  1. Wealth (this is your work) – Red
  2. Health (eating, sleeping, exercising, preventative health care) – Green
  3. Relationships (pets, friends, family, community) – Blue
  4. Dreams (what you do to get inspired, creative, and follow your passion) – Yellow

Amazingly, more people don’t use color in their calendar to see where their time and energy is going. To avoid burning out at work, you must spend some percentage of every day investing your time and energy in all four areas. 

Where are you spending most of your time?

Case Study Leila

Leila is a Senior UX design manager and a former UX design burnout. When she tried this simple routine of color-coding where her energy would be spent the next week, she saw the proof of her source of burnout. She was so busy working that her dreams (Yellow) were forgotten, she took her health (Green) for granted, and when she was with friends or family (Blue), she was thinking about work. She spent her entire day most of the evening ‘in the red’ zone. 

How did this happen to Leila?

As her calendar filled up, the job she loved took over her life, and Leila was still saying yes to any project, meeting, interview, or project review that she was included in or copied on. 

Her meetings began at 8:00 a.m. and continued in 30-minute increments, mostly back-to-back until 4:00 p.m. Lunch was an apple, coffee, mozzarella sticks, and yogurt grabbed from a vending machine.

She ran from meeting to meeting, interviewing people, receiving updates, giving presentations, holding 1:1s, and running product reviews.

On the hour and every half hour, she and her fellow employees would emerge from meeting rooms, their faces glued to their phone screens en route to their next meeting. Ask her on Wednesday what she had done on Monday, and she could not immediately tell you.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not how full your calendar leads to your success; it’s how you level up your relationships and expand your sphere of influence that leads to your success.

Leila’s story is not unique; every ambitious UX designer starts their career as an individual contributor and, over time, takes on more responsibilities and projects, leads teams, and expands their sphere of influence. 

It reaches a point where the creative work you know and love is happening less and less, and relating to others you weren’t trained to do takes more time.

As the cycle escalates, it’s easy to burn out, or worse, get sick, be let go, quit, and job-hop every 18 months until you burn out again. 

according to Albert Einstein, this is the definition of insanity:

“Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” 

  • Are you an ambitious UX designer or manager giving all your energy to your work?
  • Do you keep saying yes to everything on your plate and expect your work-life balance to improve and your career to remain on the fast track?

Leila didn’t want to leave her company; she loved her team and enjoyed crafting great products. But she knew she couldn’t continue working this way. It was time for a change.

UX design burnout

Leila’s New Calendar 

With my support, Leila learned strategic routines to optimize her time and devote her energy to every part of her life: wealth, health, relationships, and dreams.

For example, this routine helps her find places to take back time on her calendar to give her energy to all the essential parts of her life, not just working in the red zone.

These are some of the concrete changes that mitigated burnout and boosted her well-being:

How to Apply This

  • Leilas started delegating meetings to junior UX designers so they could grow their leadership experience by attending in her absence.
  • Every day, she made time to switch between mental work, a physical workout, and the nourishment she badly needed by refusing lunch meetings. 
  • To build up her creativity by focusing on her passions, she got up an hour earlier to practice meditation and journaling. Doing this built up positive energy that lasted her through the day. This routine helped stave off ‘the tyranny of moods’ as described by Mason Currey in his book “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.” It won’t improve during the day if you are in a bad mood in the morning. A bad attitude leads to a 10% drop in productivity because you are taking more frequent breaks and not engaging with people
  • Today, everything Leila does goes on her calendar, including scheduling time with family and friends so she can be fully present. She checks her calendar each week and ensures she has a balance of time devoted to wealth, health, relationships, and dreams every day.

Learning performance routines helped Leila optimize her life for outstanding balance. She is happy and doing well at her work again by implementing what she learned from our sessions together. 

Routines that Prevent Burnout

Routines are the actions you do regularly to bring order into your life. A key benefit of having routines for creative people is its calming constancy. Doing something you know you can do well is comforting in an unpredictable world; routines anchor predictability. 

Having routines helps you manage your energy to achieve more, think more precisely, and focus on what matters. These are all tools to prevent UX design burnout. 

“What you can do, or dream you can begin it; boldness has genius, power, and magic in It.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Managing your time and carving out time to pursue your passion daily helps you establish priorities and decide where to spend your time. It keeps projects percolating in the unconscious mind, which helps make better decisions.

And on days you don’t have the energy to do much at all, it builds forward momentum and limits procrastination.

If you’d like to learn more about leveraging routines to craft the life you want, not the one that leads to UX design burnout, set up a complimentary strategy call and see if coaching fits you.

Your work with me as your coach will change how you show up and others respond to you. You are inviting positive change at a fundamental level from the inside out.

Are you reading to redesign your life and stop suffering from burnout? 

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Leading by Design is a blog for creative leaders working in tech. It’s not a “Why You Should Use AI in Design Thinking” or “How to Hire and Retain Product Design Teams with Impact” type of blog. There are enough of those.

I write about the challenges you can’t safely discuss as creative leaders working in tech. The stories come directly from my experience leading teams at Apple, Meta, Yahoo!, and some start-ups and from the executive design leaders I coach today.

I have written about the stressful magpie boss, hateful cross-functional peers, creative burnout, the shame of job loss and survivor guilt, and the fear of becoming irrelevant in the marketplace.

I publish once a week and offer strategies to reframe your challenge so you can return to being the creative leader your team loves you to be.

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