Beating Burn Out: Leading a Healthy Lifestyle as a Designer-Maker

2019 has brought me so much happiness, but equally, and quite often in excess, it has brought me a lot of stress, doubt and anxiety. This may seem heavy subject matter for a blog that is about ‘nice people making nice things’… But in an age where we are constantly corrupted by Valencia filters, slick Instagram minimalism and relentless reminders that the ‘grass is always greener’, it is absolutely vital that we call this s*** out!

We are human. We make mistakes. And whether you like it or not, we sometimes need a break. But sometimes it is these low places we get ourselves into that show us just how resourceful and resilient we can in fact be; despite being the creative craftspeople that we already know we are!

For me, one of the highlights of this year was attending the Furniture Maker’s Young Professional Industry Experience Program. The company I was working for kindly sponsored me to attend the course, which stretched over three weeks and involved visiting the UK’s leading companies within the furniture and furnishings sector, such as Herman Miller, Parker Knoll, Blum and DFS.

It was on this program that I met Emily Nickless, who is a trailblazer to say the least. Emily and I both benefitted from the program, in the sense that it opened our eyes to the industry as a whole and forced us to evaluate our positions within it. The friendships that came out of the YPIE program were amongst the best aspects of the course. Therefore it isn’t much of a surprise that the 2019 cohort have stayed in touch.

I met with Emily for a drink earlier this month, when I was visiting her home county of Shropshire. Emily, can you introduce yourself?

“Hi, I’m Emily and I worked for one the UK’s leading upholstery manufacturers in Nottinghamshire. I’m now working in contract furniture, developing and evolving a national brand. I’ve always taken great pride in my work. I’m a ridiculously hard worker and am dedicated and passionate about making a difference. These qualities are both my greatest strength and, often my biggest weakness.”

As well as filling each other in on our new job roles, we took a moment to recognise the hurdles we had both overcome when battling with burn out. And for those of you who don’t know, and for some time I didn’t, despite hearing the phrase multiple times, ‘burn out’ is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion as a result of excessive and prolonged stress. Too much stress can cause your body to display a range of physical and psychological symptoms, such as irritability, lack of energy, tummy upsets, headaches, sleep problems, lack of motivation or focus.

Emily, what has been your experience of burn out?

“I have experienced burn out many times in my life and it’s only been in the past year that I’ve understood what was happening. The commonality of it left me unsure as to how I was meant to feel when I wasn’t experiencing burn out. I think that, too often, we blame it on external factors. We read articles about what burn out ‘should be’ that we should be speaking to our managers, pointing the fingers at the companies we work for etc. However, in my experience, burn out has been a personal hurdle that I’ve had to overcome. My willingness to please meant I took on too much work. I worked unnecessary hours and was hitting deadlines far before they were due, which led to unrealistic expectations. Over time, this became difficult to uphold. I was also living away from my friends and family, putting too much pressure on myself to be at 159% everyday, and not truly understanding what makes me happy.”

I must say, my experience has been very similar, and it is only when we truly recognise it in ourselves that we are able to make positive changes to our lifestyles. What were the warning signs for you, Emily, what made you realise that things were not as they should be?

“I noticed myself slowly acting less like ‘me’: less sociable, less bubbly, less willing to be involved. The smallest of tasks begin to feel overwhelming, such as replying to a text message or simply booking my car in for a service. Over time I’ve learnt to identify the signs and can now react to them more positively.”

So, what action did you take to change your circumstances?

“I took a step back and evaluated what’s changed and what it is that is making me feel this way. Living away from my friends and family was taking its toll. I decided that what I was doing wasn’t truly making me happy. I had a fantastic job in an amazing company and I have always dedicated myself to my work. However, my unhappiness outside of the workplace was affecting my ability to perform and I needed to learn to take time for myself. I found a different, creative, more advanced opportunity closer to my hometown, moved in with my boyfriend, and I’m now happier than I’ve been in a long time, both inside and outside of my career.”

That takes some real strength, to pull yourself out of a routine and do what’s best for you. I think, and this especially applies to young women, the feeling of obligation is one that can be so destructive. In light of this, what would your advice be to others?

“Take time: to do what you enjoy, to read, to paint, to work out, to reflect and to breathe. After a tough day, think about what made it so tough. Was it someone else that upset you and why? Is there any reason to feel so negative? The answer is usually no. These small daily activities will help to keep your stress levels low, reducing the opportunity for a great build up of negativity, which ultimately leads to burn out.”

I often quote designer-maker, Heather Scott, when she described being a craftsperson like ‘being someone who has to wear a lot of different hats’. So quite often amongst all the other jobs we are trying to get done, we forget, or don’t leave time to be our best friend.

Some other suggestions on how to avoid burn out are:

  • Be aware of your triggers (what causes you stress)
  • Look out for yourself and for others (support that sisterhood, maker-to-maker)
  • Give yourself some time on your daily to-do list (practice self care)
  • Maintain healthy boundaries (in relationships, your work-life balance)
  • Exercise (it’s important)
  • Rest (it’s also important)

So looking back, Emily, would you have done anything differently?

“It may sound typical but honestly, nothing. I consider myself lucky to be able to understand what makes me happy at such a young age, even if it’s been a long bumpy road to getting here. If I hadn’t have made the drastic changes I made, I wouldn’t be able to say that. I’m proud of the steps I’ve taken so far to lead a more positive, healthy lifestyle.”


One thought on “Beating Burn Out: Leading a Healthy Lifestyle as a Designer-Maker

  1. Carmel Allen says:

    What a great piece. And a good time to share it before Christmas when we all tend to do too much and end up wiped out. Always a treat to read you. x


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