In 2013 I experienced the first mental health issue, great depression in my professional career. In pursuit of a better life, I had emigrated from Iran to Europe. It was a brave move, but one of uncertainty and without any financial support to fall back on if things went wrong. I had joined a start-up in Berlin and, five months into the job was told the company had gone bust. This was it.
You can imagine how I may have felt. I was a young and ambitious designer, embarking on a new chapter only to discover I had joined a sinking ship. After barely finding my feet in a new city where I was, without any security and searching for a new opportunity.
The first few interviews went terribly, of course. Looking back, I realize I wasn’t only concerned for the future but working through the grief of what could have been. As a junior, dealing with depression and stress can be especially tough. It can take a while for feelings to completely surface and even longer to battle them face on.
I have worked as a founding member of two other companies and worked with several startups, some of which are among the fastest-growing startups in Berlin. While I’ve had my fair share of burn-outs and depression, I have also enjoyed moments of joy and pride. I suppose it would be impossible to know the highs from the lows without experiencing both, right?
Each time I encountered a serious mental health issue, it was different than the one before as if being an explorer discovering a new continent by accident. Once it took almost six months to get back on my feet and feel even remotely creative again (a longer story I may write about in another article).
Nowadays, when I mentor younger UX designers, the topic of mental health comes up again and again. It’s the reason I continue to mentor; to have a support network within the design community is so important and one I would have benefitted from greatly when starting out myself.
When it comes to mental health, there are two common archetypes I’ve encountered regarding companies and your role within them. Within fast-growing startups, designers may face burn-out more commonly. Designers who work for mature companies may face Uncreative Syndrome. Their work may feel robotic, repetitive tasks outweighing creative projects.
When you work for a fast-growing company, there is rarely a quiet moment and so much to do. Usually, the process of hiring new designers to share the growing workload is slow and takes time. So you become involved in all the creative challenges facing the business. This can be anything from conducting user research for new ideas, prototyping and designing interfaces, to preparing marketing collaterals.
Given a lack of time and fast pace, it is incredibly difficult to work on a concept through your preferred creative processes. You need to produce a hefty amount of materials in such a short amount of time that your ideas and concepts may remain unchallenged or sidelined altogether.
Designers in such situations often feel an extreme dissatisfaction with their work and may become confused about what they do or how to justify their design decisions. A combination of doing many things in such a short amount of time and a growing dissatisfaction with the quality of your work may lead you down the path of burnout. And if it hits, it can be a serious one.
After a startup matures and stabilizes the revenue streams, and steadily increases the head-count, then designer roles become more niche and specialized. A significant amount of your tasks as a designer is to mature the design and produce at scale; the rate of creative work decreases over time.
You may end up just perfecting pixels, preparing designs for A/B testing, adding components to design systems, and working in minor features. Lurking around the corner could be the threat of negative emotion. You may end up showing symptoms of resentment, impatience, and lack of empathy for both yourself and others. Rather than a creative individual, you may begin to feel like a cog in the machinery.
These are sentiments and struggles my students often share. I remind them as creatives, our job is to create something new and then produce it at scale. Creation is about exploration and production is about being efficient.
When producing, we need to use the right tools and establish processes so we can repeat the process frictionlessly. To create we want to break the rules and to produce we want to establish them. Too much creation may make us erratic or forget the importance of research; too much production may make us robotic or accustomed to the routine.
It is vital to have a balance between these two worlds, not only for our professional development but most importantly for our mental health. We have to take care of and check-in with ourselves, building boundaries and maintaining balances. It is important to share these experiences and have a network of support around us.
I hope this article may help you in 2021 and lead a healthier work-life balance. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Want to read more on how to manage your mental health? Read this article
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