Don't let work overwhelm you: top tips from creatives for protecting your mental health
Don't let the demands of a creative life get on top of you. Follow this advice from fellow creative professionals and get your mental health on the right track.
It's a great life working as a creative professional, but it's not without its challenges. Whether we work in-house, for an agency, or ourselves, the nature of our work can be demanding and stressful.
We constantly strive to meet client expectations and deadlines while dealing with the pressure to produce outstanding and innovative results. The advent of AI and the sluggish economy have added extra hurdles. And in some cases, this is all taking a serious toll on our mental health.
This year's Mental Health Awareness Week (15-21 May) serves as a timely reminder for us to focus on self-care and nurturing our mental well-being. But how, exactly, do we go about this? To get some insight, we asked the creative community for tips on keeping their mental health in check. We share some of their best insights below.
1. Put yourself first
Prioritising your mental health, above all, means putting yourself first. That doesn't mean being selfish or unkind, of course. But it does mean not trying to be all things to everyone and not trying to solve everyone else's problems rather than your own. It also means finding the right balance between earning enough to live and giving yourself enough time and space outside work to stay healthy and happy.
If you're a natural people pleaser, this may mean putting extra effort into saying 'no'. "Don't take on projects or clients that you feel will be a major stress for you: it's not worth it," advises designer Stanley Vaganov. "And don't take projects with unrealistically high expectations and fast deadlines. You'll never please those people, and it will ruin your mental health."
As Gawain Hewitt explains, it also means being kind to yourself. "As an artist and musician, my mood can be strongly affected by how I feel about my work and whether other people are paying attention," he says. "Consequently, I have to be proactive in my self-care to manage my mental health, and my focus is on supporting myself as a person outside of my status in the arts, demonstrating to myself that 'I am enough' through the way I treat myself."
2. Talk to yourself
The old adage goes that talking to yourself is the 'first sign of madness'. But Gawain believes the opposite is actually true. "I find positive self-talk – sometimes out loud! – can be very helpful," he explains. "What do I say about myself? I used to be hugely critical of myself, and my inner voice was borderline abusive. With this in mind, I have been trying to improve this for the last ten years."
The thing that really tipped it for Gawain, he recalls, was watching the contestant Santosh on the BBC show MasterChef in 2020. "He was so kind and supportive to himself – 'Come on, Santosh', 'You're doing really well!' So I try and channel my inner Santosh and cheer myself on throughout the day. Can I be a gentle, kind and benevolent presence to myself?
"Self-care comes first," Gawain adds. "I attempt to start the day with a few small things that support my well-being instead of pushing them to the end of the day, where they can become disposable. This demonstrates that I come first and have value before and beyond creating and making."
3. Trust your process
One of the biggest challenges of being a creative is doubting yourself and your abilities. So Gawan believes it's vital to trust in your process. "I am an experienced professional, but I don't always feel that way," he says. "But if I let my feelings dictate my work, it can be tough to get through the day."
The solution? "Over the years, I have tried to find a process in my practice," he says. "This has allowed me to learn that I am good enough professionally on my worst days and to have a scaffold for my process. I start this way, and then I do this editing/sorting, reflection/sharing, and then bring it together and share."
4. Plan for fun
We all want a good work-life balance in theory. But in practice, many of us fail dismally to achieve it. Marketer Barney Durrant believes that's often due to poor organisation.
"One way to avoid unnecessary stress is to plan, plan, plan," he explains. "Setting out tasks in your diary or time for clients creates an achievable structure and hopefully avoids being pulled in lots of different directions at once. So, for example, you should always leave good gaps between meetings to decompress."
What you do in those gaps is also important.
Doomscrolling or endlessly obsessing over social media is more likely to raise your stress than lower it. Far better to build in daily habits of doing things you love and that help you relax.
For Ann Summerhayes, CEO of film production company Inside Job Productions, that means: "Getting out into the garden. Planting seeds, tending to plants, and even digging the flower bed. All these things make me feel grounded and centred." For designer Berenice Howard-Smith, it means: "Afternoon tea with my rescue dog, each day at 3pm. There's nothing like a dog alarm clock that doesn't care about the weather! I also meditate each day and invest in yoga and kettlebells."
Graphic designer and letterer Annelies Stalpaert, meanwhile, loves a "Pilates or a dance workout to keep the body happy and energised. A lunchtime walk is also a must, along with journalling to get the inner critic out of your head and on a piece of paper… so you can forget about it afterwards." For Gawain, switching off means: "A short session of yoga, a gentle run or walk to get outside, playing the clarinet for at least five minutes." And he adds two tips for anyone wishing to build healthy daily habits for themselves.
"Firstly, it's so easy to tell myself I don't have the time, but in reality, I can always find 45 minutes to get lost in social media, so I do have the time," he notes. "Secondly, a critical part of making this work for me is to be really kind to myself if I don't achieve it. So I don't track my run or have any particular plan. Just turning up is the important thing. And if I miss it, I will try again tomorrow. Being gentle to myself as I try to support my well-being has really helped this to be sustainable."
5. Go for regular walks
It might not be the most original idea, but by far, the most common advice we hear from fellow creatives on protecting your mental health is to go for regular walks. "Getting out in nature, whatever the season or weather, is the foundation of good mental health for me," says Ben Veal, founder of Second Mountain Comms. "No matter how busy I am, I always try and walk at lunch. There's never once been a time when being outside, away from my desk, hasn't lifted my spirits and boosted my creativity."
"For me, it's about keeping that balance," says designer/developer Steve Perry. "I'll go for a run with the dog or a walk with my partner. I love my work, but I'm at my best when I have goals outside of work to help keep a healthy perspective."
And if you're a freelancer, there's no special reason you have to come back to the office afterwards. So why not follow the example of artist and educator Jo Blaker? "Nothing does quite as much for my mental health as outdoor drawing," she says. "I completely lose myself, get reacquainted with the wonder of the world around me, experience a slower pace in my mind and enjoy wrestling the elements to get a drawing done in the wind, rain or sun."