Before the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout as a syndrome in 2019, there was already a mounting wave of high-profile creators speaking out against what they felt as pressure from platforms to churn out content consistently or their channels would suffer. Unsurprisingly, the past two years have only made burnout worse.
“It’s more common now than ever,” says Kati Morton, a licensed therapist and YouTube creator, in the latest episode of Fast Company‘s podcast Creative Control. “We’re not getting that break from our stress response—and a lot of times it doesn’t have anything to do with our work right now.”
Of course, burnout can occur in any occupation. For creators specifically, it’s acutely felt when their content largely crosses over into their personal lives, as YouTuber Emma Chamberlain explained in a previous episode of Creative Control. Chamberlain is currently taking a hiatus from YouTube, citing that, in addition to feeling like she couldn’t take a break from posting, her style of vlogging her everyday life was becoming untenable.
Morton offers a clearer picture of where we are now with burnout in the creator economy, ways to cure it, and the myths around recovery.
WHO listed burnout symptoms as exhaustion, increased mental distance from your job, and reduced professional efficacy. Morton puts an even finer point on defining burnout as a misalignment between the effort put into both work and everyday life and the rewards, or lack thereof, we get in return. That triggers a stress response in our brains between the amygdala, which is responsible for behavior and emotions, and the prefrontal cortex that’s tasked with decision making and moderating social behavior.
Basically, as Morton puts it, our amygdala is throwing a tantrum and the “adult part of our brain” is having trouble regulating.
“When we get to come out of our stress response, our system actually gets to release that nervous energy and it gets to repave those roads so that when we are in an emergency situation, we can respond appropriately,” Morton says. “So burnout is like we’re driving on a road that hasn’t been paved.”
Symptoms of burnout—irritability, fatigue, and so forth—can mimic symptoms of anxiety and depression, which is why Morton says that it’s important to recognize triggers.
“Let’s say, I’m depressed all day most days, it doesn’t really go away. It doesn’t come and go with another request of my time from work or another thing that pops up—it’s just there,” Morton says. “Burnout comes and goes with these peaks and wanes of that effort. When people ask for more of that effort, you can start to resent the work.”
The creator conundrum
For creators specifically, resenting their work can stem from social media itself feeling nonstop.
“In order to feel relevant or kowtow to some algorithm, we’re doing all these things trying to earn a living,” Morton says. “We feel like our relevancy is tied to our financial stability. That’s very tricky.”
Morton notes that in the creative space, that urge to constantly churn is disproportionately felt by digital creators as opposed to those working in more traditional entertainment media, such as television and film, where there are built-in breaks between seasons or projects.
The notion of YouTubers uploading content as seasons is actually something Chamberlain alluded to when asked about the future of content creation amid so much burnout. But in addition to creators being more mindful in how they approach their content, there’s the question of what more platforms such as YouTube could be doing.
In a statement to Fast Company, a YouTube spokesperson reiterated what CEO Susan Wojcicki mentioned in her 2019 open letter to creators about the algorithm not taking into account upload frequency as a metric to suggest new videos to users. “Our data shows, across millions of channels and hundreds of different time frames, that on average, when creators take a break, their channels had more views when they returned than they had right before they left,” a spokesperson says.
YouTube’s statement also highlighted the platform’s creator-focused videos and courses on burnout, work-life balance, and other relevant topics as an available resource, as well as the fact that YouTube offers 10 ways to monetize on the platform to help ease the burden of relying solely on pulling in new viewers with fresh content.
“We want creators to produce content in ways that will allow them to be both successful and sustainable,” a spokesperson says. “And we’re investing in the tools to help them do that.”
Rest and recovery
Taking vacations or any time off is certainly an effective cure for burnout. But Morton notes those breaks don’t have to be anything grand—they can smaller moments throughout the day and bespoke to whatever fills you up, e.g. going for a walk, calling a friend, etc.
“I’ve always been really frustrated with marketing companies for leading us to believe that self-care costs a lot of time and money,” Morton says.
However, the key is being consistent. When Morton was supposed to film a collaboration with YouTuber Casey Neistat, they had difficulty nailing down a time. The one slot Morton thought would’ve worked for both of them was blacked out on Neistat’s calendar because he was going for a run.
“I said, could you do your running later or early? Because it’s running, you know?” Morton says. “And he said, that’s the one thing I do for myself every day. And it’s a non-negotiable.”
The collab never happened, but the experience has helped Morton feel less guilty about carving out those non-negotiable moments throughout her day, which she recommends to everyone. “Why are the things that we do to take care of ourselves so easy to dismiss or mark off of our to-do list?” she says. “We have to do things for ourselves first.”
Another possible fix to shake burnout: actually shake.
When our brains are going through that stress response, it can be difficult to work out the pent up nervous energy. So physically shaking yourself could help with release. “Don’t knock it until you try it,” Morton says. “It honestly is life changing.”
She mentions that recently she was having trouble falling asleep because she started thinking about her to-do list, emails to send, and so forth.
“I’m starting to sweat. I’m starting to feel a little overwhelmed. And I flopped around in my bed like a fish,” she says. “I’m not saying I’m proud of it because it doesn’t look good. But it shut my brain down, and I was then able to finally fall asleep.”
Taking time off, having those small non-negotiable moments in your day, and yes flopping around like a fish, can be effective ways to combat burnout—and recovery can be relatively immediate, Morton says, despite what people may have been hearing online as of late.
A life coach on TikTok made a few headlines recently when she said burnout recovery can take anywhere from three to five years.
“I saw that TikTok and the researcher in me was like, ‘Girl, what are your resources? Cite your references,’” Morton says. “I don’t see any reason why [recovery] would be three to five years because everyone’s symptoms are going to be different. That’d be like saying you can recover from depression in six weeks.”
Morton admits it’s hard to put any time frame on recovery, but if people are able to recognize burnout early on and make those key behavioral changes, “I don’t think we’re talking years,” she says. “I think we’re talking months.”