Spoiler: if you’re reading this, you probably are
Like most other sectors, the creative industry is one of deadlines. There’s that deadline to deliver the pitch, that other one to complete a project, that copy to write, that award to submit – and in all this time, the teams that are least organised are the ones who suffer the biggest consequences. There’s a distinct difference between being diligent and being overworked, and there are things not even the most desirable work ethic can ever fix.
The problem is that, if you are immersed in your own huge volume of workload, it’s hard to tell if you’re being overworked or if it’s just something that your team requires for now, in the short term, and that you are simply expected to do in your role. You’re lacking external views and perception. In short, it may be that your opinion of your workload is entirely wrong.
This of course does not mean that it is right for you. I could go on for a good while listing up to 50 signs that you are being overworked, but really, it all comes down to a couple.
Image credit: Richard Wadey
What’s your workload like?
In truth, a part of you will know if you are truly being overworked. Does it feel like you can’t catch up with work, no matter how hard you try? Is there always the next thing to do, the next project to tackle, the next small task to accomplish? Being part of a wider team, these things are bound to happen from time to time – and especially leading to an important pitch, you will feel that performance anxiety and that weight pressing on your shoulders.
An ever-expanding list of things to do isn’t a sign of bad time-management skills. It can be; but it’s most likely to be a sign of an understaffed team working over-capacity, and you are in the eye of the storm.
If it only comes in short pockets of time, that kind of stress can even be healthy. You will have the support of your team, your leaders, and hopefully also get that shot of adrenaline and dopamine that follows a big win. You will approach it as a challenge, learn from it, then move on. You’ll have some time to slow down, recover, then approach the next big thing with renewed energy. It is different if that feeling of accomplishment never comes, and instead you are constantly trapped in a loop of project-after-project that deprives you of the bare minimum time to even enjoy completion and success.
That is now being diligent – it is offering every inch of your mental energies to a job that does not value your efforts. Keep in mind that professional appreciation can come in many ways – not just money.
Image credit: Saddington Baynes
What’s your free time like?
Think about your weekends and free evenings. Do you rush to complete as many things as possible during the weekend? Do you get the Sunday Scaries (something for a later piece perhaps)? Are you actually able to disconnect from work, or do you dread the thought of waking up the next day to sit back at your desk?
If you don’t have enough time to enjoy your hobbies or pursue a million things at once when you have some free time, it’s probably a coping mechanism from your brain trying to help you escape from your own trap.
Here’s a story for you: when I worked in retail, every day felt the same. At some point you stop learning about how to sell new plushies to guests and start envisioning new ways to keep your brain creative while on the job. In my whole life, I don’t think I ever enlisted in as many online courses as in the two years I was in retail. It was my personal way to convince myself that I was doing something different, something worthwhile for my own professional fulfilment. It was a coping mechanism. And I know I keep going back to it every time I feel like I’m going in the wrong direction.
Are there enough hours in a day to do what you need to do?
It might be something similar for you. Do you feel like you’re wasting your time, or that you should be doing something else? Can you even enjoy your free time anymore? But most importantly, just how much free time do you have?
If you always feel like you will never catch up with work, that is a red flag. If you work constantly overtime (worse if unpaid), that is a major red flag. Your brain can only do so much work for free before it forces you to stop. If you don’t have a social life anymore, or you feel distant from friends and family, or you’re simply too tired at the end of any work day to find the energy to hang out – then yes. You are probably overworked.
Image credit: Harry Whatrup
How about your finances?
As mentioned a few hundred words ago, personal and professional fulfilment do not solely depend on money. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be cases of executives feeling stressed out. If you are overworked or feel like you have too many responsibilities, you are probably underpaid too.
When was the last time you had a salary raise? How do you compare to peers in your same field, doing your same job?
If you always feel like you are not being valued enough and you have proof that your peers are taking more value out of their jobs, it might be a sign that you need to do something about it. Pair that with a constantly increasing set of responsibilities (which don’t feel like being yours to handle in the first place) and your salary remaining largely (or exactly) the same, and you have the perfect recipe for an overworked employee.
If all of this rings a bell, you should act now. You should never, ever bring yourself to the point of feeling depressed due to your workload.
Image credit: Emanuele Kabu
How are you?
Perhaps the clearest sign that you are being overworked is the one you don’t even see, something you can’t tangibly notice but that you can feel pushing you from within. How are you, truly?
When we’re swamped with constant daily deadlines, it’s easy for some managers to underestimate the power of a simple, open-hearted conversation about your mental health. Mental wellbeing plays a huge part in your work performance, and if you feel like you are drowning in work, you have too many responsibilities or your work hours are getting too long, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and re-assess the situation.
If the thought of going back to work makes you feel sick, stressed, anxious or even nauseous, there is something wrong. We live in a world where the culture of workaholism is almost encouraged, but at no time you should ever feel burned out or depressed due to your job. If there’s one thing that Covid-19 has shown us all, it is that we want to be with the people who make us feel the best. It is possible to create new harmonies within work teams, and productivity can only benefit from all this. You should love your job. Your job should feel like fuel that ignites your passion for what you do. Once you start losing that spark, the flame will start to waver, and it will inevitably go out with time.
It’s even worse if you are experiencing physical consequences of this unhealthy work environment. Perhaps you lost weight, or you gained some. You start losing interest in things, your blood pressure increases, you constantly feel tired even when you don’t work. You should never allow work to affect your health. Stress can be an awful thing to deal with and it can have some serious consequences on both your physical and mental wellbeing. Act now, before it becomes late.
Image credit: Jonathan Knowles
So what do I do?
Obviously, looking for a new job is the first thing that comes to mind. If you feel trapped in a spiral of overworked, underpaid days that don’t make you feel as happy anymore, your brain will want to escape in any way possible. Online courses were my own way to do so, but it doesn’t mean they were right. In fact, they were just making the situation worse, giving me hopes and long-term dreams and pushing me to delay dealing with the situation.
Sometimes looking for a new opportunity can be the solution, but it should only ever be the last thing you consider. Chances are there will be a way to fix things even in the job you already have. It is much more valuable to work on building better relationships, rather than trashing them altogether.
Is your employer/leader/manager aware of your issue? Are they even the issue, or are you simply unable to say ‘no’ to anything that comes your way? That is natural and, in fact, quite widespread in the work environment. Many employees will naturally say ‘yes’ to anything, until they find themselves working over capacity. It’s a way to impress the boss, yes, but also to be helpful to others. The problem is that sometimes it is worth pointing out that that specific task cannot be your job.
Have you discussed a salary raise with your manager? Maybe new ways to distribute your workload, or to manage what you have? Perhaps a member of the team can help you adopt new approaches to handle your to-do list. Perhaps you can get an extra pair of hands to help you for a short period of time, until you are completely caught up with your work.
Life’s tough, but your job doesn’t have to be. Surely sometimes there will be occasions in which you are required to work a bit later – but it should be an exception, not the norm. Every time it becomes the norm, someone gets hurt, or productivity gets down. And then it’s a whole new mess for someone else to clean up. It hurts the job market, it hurts the business, but most importantly, it hurts you. So don’t let it happen.
And if your manager is completely unresponsive and unreasonable when it comes to any kind of request for help from you, well… perhaps it is time to start looking elsewhere. It may be scary. But your expertise will certainly be more required, valued and appreciated in another team.