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How to Handle Burnout in the Fashion Workplace

Creative cadences, competitive colleagues and an ‘always on’ mindset create ample opportunity for failing to maintain a healthy work-life balance in fashion. Psychologists, mental health experts and industry professionals share their advice on mitigating burnout in fashion.
An employee working late at night, sat in front of two computer screens.
Work overload is one of six 'mismatches' between an employee and the workplace that can lead to burnout. (Shutterstock)

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The fashion industry is no stranger to poor mental health. From the classroom to the boardroom, a relentless seasonal cycle creates a pressure cooker environment of unremitting deadlines, creative pressure and an “always on” mentality. Its reputation as a glamorous industry makes for a highly competitive workplace.

Consequently, burnout in fashion is rife. A now regularly parroted phrase, burnout was defined only as recently as 2019 by the World Health Organisation as an occupational phenomenon and syndrome “resulting in chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

“A lot of people oversimplify [burnout] and just think it’s overwork to the point of exhaustion,” says Dr. Jacinta Jiménez, an award-winning psychologist and leadership coach, and author of books including The Burnout Fix: Overcome Overwhelm.

However, three components make up burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, or feelings of incompetence. Then, “when exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy come together, [it’s] like a Venn diagram and that’s when burnout happens,” Dr. Jiménez explains.

A Deloitte survey in 2022 found half of respondents have experienced at least one symptom of burnout. What’s more, people in creative industries are three times more likely to experience mental health issues, according to research by the University of Ulster in 2018.

Burnout is not solely an issue for the employee — it is costly for organisations. Employees miss an average of just four days a year in the UK due to sickness or injury, according to the Office of National Statistics. But the inefficacy of burnout means limited productivity — and a study by Global Corporate Challenge found employees are unproductive almost 58 days each year.

Importantly, while there are steps individuals can take to mitigate burnout, Dr. Lotte Dyrbye of the University of Colorado School of Medicine estimated in a recent interview that only about 20 percent of the work can be done by the individual, like setting boundaries or taking annual leave. Organisations should be responsible for achieving the remaining 80 percent.

Below, BoF gathers advice from an award-winning psychologist, a self-discovery coach, HR leaders, former and current fashion professionals on how to navigate burnout in fashion.

Seek the root of the problem

While the symptoms of burnout are well-documented and relatively straightforward to self-diagnose, identifying the cause of burnout is more complex.

Psychologist Dr. Jiménez identifies six “mismatches” that happen between the employee and workplace that can lead to burnout. These include: work overload; a breakdown in community, or a lack of communal support; values conflict, when your personal values do not align with your work; command and control leadership, such as being micromanaged; absence of fairness, such as bias in a team; and a lack of reward — being passed over for promotion, pay increases and recognition.

“The more targeted you could get with what is causing the burnout, the more efficacious your response can be,” says Dr. Jiménez.

Calypso Barnum-Bobb, a former fashion buyer, left the industry after 7 years due to burnout. “And I burnt out for a few reasons,” they told BoF, citing issues like “difficult demands as I rose [up] and more responsibility came to me with having to manage teams in a way that felt really out of alignment for me.”

Before Barnum-Bobb left fashion to become a self-discovery coach and speaker, working with organisations including Nike, Adidas, Soho House and University of Arts London, they were signed off work with stress and anxiety.

“You don’t want to end up in a position where you are looking back, in retrospect, and you’re thinking, ‘I could have caught the warning signs a bit earlier’. […] Listen to the whispers before they become screams.”

Track your mental well-being

In order to recognise where or how you are struggling, experts suggest tracking your mental health as you might your fitness goals or blood pressure.

Using a spreadsheet, for example, can offer a space to track your moods. Barnum-Bobb alternatively recommends journaling to recount emotions from the day and monitor changes in behaviour.

It’s data that empowers you to either react and fix the conditions of work, if you can, or lean into the things that are helping you.

“Look back at a time when [you] have [experienced] high burnout — most of us have at some point. What did that show up as? Was I really exhausted? Was I cynical? Was I ineffective? […] Then, on a weekly basis, like every Friday, track how you are doing on these things,” says Dr. Jiménez.

“People can have different burnout profiles so someone can have a lot of exhaustion, a little bit inefficacy and a moderate amount of cynicism. […] I show high cynicism, so now, I always look for signs of cynicism. […] It’s data that empowers you to either react and fix the conditions of work, if you can, or lean into the things that are helping you after that.”

There are also apps designed to assist in this process, such as the non-profit app How We Feel, created by the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence and Pinterest, designed to help people better understand their emotional landscape.

“You go in numerous times a day, you decide how often, you have a scale of energy and mood, [...] and you start to see what your personal trends are,” says Meredith Arthur, a chief of staff at Pinterest and author of Beautiful Voyager, who helped launch the app. “The goal is emotional literacy for the world.”

There are also workbook templates available to help employees and managers monitor and track wellbeing, like the Wellness Action Plan created by UK mental health charity Mind.

Prioritise rest to re-engage your creativity

Burnout has a detrimental impact on employees’ productivity, but also their ability to create and innovate. Stanford research found that creativity disappears after working more than 55 hours a week — productivity drops to such an extent that putting in any more hours is pointless.

“Creativity is a superpower […] and it’s also the first to go through work stresses because creativity feeds off of freedom and energy,” says Arthur.

The knock-on effects of burnout on creativity and productivity can impact self-confidence, as you will likely not be working at capacity and critiquing yourself.

A first step to re-engage your productivity and creativity is to carve out some personal time, whether that involves taking a week off or a few personal hours each day. Should the situation necessitate it, consider taking sick leave as you would for a physical illness, rather than using annual leave designated for holiday.

Creativity is a superpower […] and it’s also the first to go through work stresses because creativity feeds off of freedom and energy.

“When we’re thinking a lot, we are using our executive attention network in our brain. […] But the area of the brain that synthesises information and helps with creativity is our default mode network, which happens when we are ‘doing nothing’,” explains Dr. Jiménez. “Preoccupation with productivity does more harm than good, where we are not giving our brains and our bodies adequate rest.”

The churn of projects following the fast-paced nature of fashion can make taking time off feel like an impossibility, but it is necessary for recovery — even if just carving out an extra 30-minutes a day to take a break from your laptop.

Some companies, like the Gen-Z favourite retailer PacSun, have integrated personal time into their corporate policies. From protected lunch breaks to “flex” days to counterbalance busy periods, corporate parameters can help employees bake in personal time each week, as its chief people officer, Hope Milligan, told BoF.

Taking time out might feel more challenging for freelancers when it is unpaid and no HR department is mandating you take holiday. Arthur recommends freelancers “look at seasons” in their working calendar, noting busier times of the year and scheduling holidays around that.

Learn to assert your boundaries at work

With control (or a lack of it) a key instigator of burnout, locate what you do have control over — such as your values or from whom you gather advice — and assert boundaries where you can to reclaim some control.

“[Asserting boundaries] is the one that we often want to run a million miles away from because we think […] saying ‘no’ is potentially going to affect our career opportunities,” says Barnum-Bobb.

Through their coaching, they help clients locate triggers, like if a boss regularly shares urgent tasks late in the day, or if there is no downtime between major projects. Once you have located the trigger, you can figure out with whom you need to set the boundary.

“Is it a manager? Is it a peer? Is it your partner […]? Is it your friends? […] Then start to explore: what do you want or need instead?” they say. For example, asking that timely projects are given to you at midday instead of 5pm.

To help set boundaries, approach the conversation with a solution and communicate it calmly and directly. You may also have to reiterate yourself, to reassert your boundary, if it is not upheld or respected.

“The common misconception around boundaries is that people are going to think you are demanding, think you’re a bitch,” says Barnum-Bobb. “But boundaries […] give other people solid expectations. […] It can be like a domino effect — if they know that they need to get that from you, maybe they can then set a boundary with somebody else.”

It can be hard setting boundaries as a junior employee with more senior staff. PacSun’s Milligan explains that, should you not be comfortable in addressing senior leaders, or your requests are not upheld, to elevate the issue. “It’s my job [as chief people officer] to realign the executive team [...] on boundaries. We have to lead by example,” she says.

Boundaries give other people solid expectations. […] It can be like a domino effect — if they know that they need to get that from you, maybe they can then set a boundary with somebody else.

The pandemic revolutionised how many organisations approach work, including the commonality of remote work. While this option has helped many find new freedoms, it has alienated and disadvantaged others who struggle to separate work from home life. As a result, setting boundaries is also a practice to apply to yourself.

“Self-boundaries are one of the biggest boundaries needed and the hardest boundaries to keep. […] If you build a habit of rolling out of bed and opening your emails first thing, or replying to emails straight away, the first step is just having the awareness and noticing that you are doing that because you may have normalised things that are affecting you mentally without even realising,” says Barnum-Bobb.

This process requires being honest with oneself, to challenge preconceived notions about what it means to be successful at work. For example, whether it will make a difference if you immediately reply to an email or send a message at 8am rather than 9am.

Put parameters around technology usage

When imposing self-boundaries, a regularly touted challenge is switching off from technology, especially social media. As of November 2021, Statista cites a cross-generational average of 1.75 hours spent per day on social media worldwide. This is driven by Gen-Z, who spend an average of 3 hours a day on social media.

“These apps are made to be so addictive, so it’s not just a ‘you’ problem,” says Barnum-Bobb. “I think, first of all, give yourself [some] compassion.”

There is extensive advice for setting boundaries around technology usage, from regulating time spent on apps with built-in timers (or self-discipline) to only interfacing with social media on clunkier browser pages rather than apps. Arthur suggests seeking out information on websites rather than apps to avoid “getting sucked in,” while Barnum-Bobb’s advice includes setting up a “phone prison,” i.e. relegating your phone in a cupboard.

Some workplaces are integrating technological parameters into HR policies. Milligan told BoF: “Our corporate guidelines say no Zoom calls, no meetings, before 9[am]. [...] That protects you from that rollover, out of bed, right onto the Zoom call.”

Reconnect with your community

Lacking or losing a sense of community is another critical instigator, as well as symptom, of burnout. It will also compromise creativity, as participating in new activities and conversations with people sparks creative thinking, Dr. Jiménez says.

“[If] you’re feeling resistant to do things that usually excite you, you just want to go home, go to bed, or not talk to anyone, that’s cool. You should have your own time. But noticing a change in your social appetite is another [thing],” says Barnum-Bobb.

Consider talking to your manager about how you can feel more connected. It could start by dedicating five minutes at the start of each meeting to conversation outside of immediate projects or finding time for team socials.

Should you struggle to connect with your team, look into employee resource groups or pockets of community at work where you can meet others with interests similar to your own. If this does not exist at your organisation, see if you can organise something like it or request HR to do so.

Normalise talking about well-being — and say it with data

Mental health remains a taboo subject for many, despite many companies expanding their support for mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic. Harvard Business Review (HBR) cited a 2021 survey that found 47 percent of employees believed their company leaders were advocates for mental health at work, compared to 37 percent in 2019.

As a result, efforts need to be sustained in normalising conversations around mental health — be it talking about it with colleagues or, at managerial level, baking wellbeing into reviews or onboarding processes. While individuals can request this change, organisational behaviour should be set by leaders.

Managers might want to check-in weekly using a system to monitor the wellbeing of their team, suggests Dr. Jiménez, such as a traffic light system, asking employees to indicate if they are feeling “red, yellow or green”, and intervening should a pattern or areas of concern arise.

Dr. Jiménez also recommends managers ask employees how they, as a manager, can best check-in with the employee on their wellbeing. Should an employee not feel comfortable disclosing that information to their manager, ask if there is someone else that they would consider checking in with.

Employees wanting to request their organisation create more formalised infrastructure around wellbeing should make the point with data. After all, one in two employees reportedly wants a greater focus on wellbeing at their company, says Dr. Jiménez, so it is also a tool for “employee engagement and productivity, even retention too.”

HBR reported 68 percent of Millennials and 81 percent of Gen Zers (versus 50 percent and 75 percent respectively in 2019) have left roles for mental health reasons, both voluntarily and involuntarily.

“If your employees have better wellbeing, they do better work,” says Dr. Jiménez. “You save a lot more money because you have less medical insurance, legal costs, you have less absenteeism, mistakes, all of it. So, it helps the bottom line too.”

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