DISCLAIMER: This is not a substitute for therapy, counseling, or a mental health diagnosis. These are tips and tricks that I have learned along the way as a counselor and how I have applied them to my photography business, and with other photographers that I have mentored. Some of the skills that we discuss may or may not work for you. One piece of my mental health journey is seeking guidance from a licensed clinician. If you have questions or concerns about YOUR mental health, please get in touch with a qualified mental health provider for help.
At some point or another, almost every photographer has experienced burnout or has experienced some symptoms of it. But what exactly is burnout…and how does it relate to our roles as photographers and business owners?
Burnout is not only stress. With stress, you still care. With full blown burnout, you don’t care anymore. According to helpguide.org, burnout as, “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.” (2020). This is something that builds over time. Burnout is not a medical condition, but experiencing burnout can absolutely impact your mental health and your photography career.
I like to think of it as hitting a brick wall going 100 miles an hour…and when you do,
you don’t really care that you did.
Photographers often feel that push to create more, do more, reach more clients, book more clients. That mentality of more, more, more all the time, can contribute to burnout. Yes, there are seasons of pure grit and unruly hard work. But those seasons are not meant to be sustained for long periods of time. That’s why they are seasons. Not every season is a season of extreme hustle.
We are going to reframe the hustle mindset of constant more with a mentality of alignment. This framework will set you up for a more sustainable business and the ability to better serve clients because YOU are taking care of mental wellness before anything else.
You are worthy of having a business AND a life that lights you on fire, not a business that burns you out.
Know Your Pattern
Think about the last few times you hit a wall where you were absolutely drained after a prolonged busy season that felt out of control. I’m willing to bet you can notice a pattern.
Pay attention to it. This is where you can start to uncover your warning signs and prevent a spiral into burning out completely.
Maybe it started off with overbooking during a busy month. One extra booking led to five, which resulted in a few all-nighters of editing marathons. A week or two of that back to back trying to catch up, and you are still sleep deprived, glued to your computer juggling emails, editing, marketing, and social media. Repeat for two more weeks, and after that, you crash.
For a short period of time, you may have been able to keep it up. A few days of no sleep and constant connection doesn’t feel so horrible at the time…but when you keep up that pace for weeks on end, your mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing takes a hard hit.
Looking back on your situation, think about any feelings you may recall. You may have experienced feelings of depression, anxiety, fatigue, irritability, insomnia, and even physical illness. But what about specific behaviors may manifest as a result of this as it relates to photographers? Is it possible to identify those in relation to your specific career?
Know Your Warning Signs
Think back again and notice if any of these behaviors or thoughts sound familiar.
1. Your creative juices are dried up. Those sessions or weddings that feel blah. Like you’re just going through the motions. Nothing feels new or inspiring. You don’t feel excited about the work you are creating anymore. Maybe you’re dreading shooting all together. Maybe you’re thinking about quitting.
2. What about missing deadlines or running late on delivering galleries? Procrastination. Actively avoiding responsibilities, pushing things off, or finding excuses to not work may all be signs of burnout.
3. Mental fog. This is the kind of brain fog that leads to double booking or re reading the same email over and over again. It can’t be helped with coffee, and it can start to feel like you’re moving through sludge to complete what should be simple tasks.
4. You’re getting more than annoyed at minor inconveniences…like when a client asks the same question twice about what time you’re meeting. That irritability might also bubble over into family and home life.
Ever snapped at someone in your family for interrupting your 8th straight hour of The Office and editing marathon?
Yeah. Me either.
5. That cold or sinus infection you can’t seem to kick is STILL hanging around.
6. Changes in sleep or eating habits. Maybe you are sleeping too much or too little…maybe you’re falling asleep scrolling social media instead of putting your phone on the charger in a separate room. Eating too much or too little. If you are scarfing down a protein bar for the second week in a row at your desk while culling, you probably aren’t giving your body and brain the proper fuel it needs to function.
7. Isolation can also be another warning sign of burnout…and that can be a really tricky one to navigate during a worldwide pandemic. If you are pulling back from your usual support systems, including your online meetups and socially distanced walks or Facetime with your loved ones, that may be a warning sign to pay attention to.
When one of your warning signs pop up, do not ignore them or shove your feelings down. The answer is not to keep pushing, to keep working, or to suffer through it. Listen to those alarm bells! You have the ability to mitigate the damage and potentially get back on track.
You don’t have to spiral into a full-blown state of burnout if you listen to your signals. Ask yourself in that moment, what can you do to manage the situation.
Techniques to Manage Burnout
H.A.L.T: Remember this acronym to focus on your basic needs and can help you take a moment to step back from the situation to refocus and reframe. This is a personal favorite of mine because it is an instant action you can take. This is your pause, and one way to get out of your head, and into your needs.
H: Hungry. When was the last time you ate something? Like really ate a meal that gave you fuel? Or drank some water for that matter?
A: Angry. Are you harboring feelings of anger or resentment? How is it impacting you at this moment?
L: Lonely. Have you been holed up in your house for days with the blinds drawn editing or plugging away at the computer? Get off the computer. Phone a friend. Facetime someone you care about. Get out for a socially distanced walk if you are able and feel comfortable. Connect with people who care about you in a way that is both safe and supportive. This is also a great time to ask for help from the people you trust.
T: Tired. If you are exhausted from not sleeping or not sleeping well, it can be difficult to feel like a normal human being. Set up a sleep routine and get your sleep hygiene back on track. Leave that phone plugged in downstairs, brush your teeth, get into comfortable sleep clothes, and aim to get no more or no less than what you would normally need to feel rested.
A Few Tips
Setting Firm Client Boundaries: If you are responding to emails and inquiries at all hours of the night, you are telling your clients that you are available at ALL times. That could be one of the reasons why you feel so exhausted. You are always plugged in to the needs of people around you.
Get out of the inbox when your business hours are up. Draft an email to be sent during your normal business hours if you have to, but do not respond after you are done for the day. You NEED time off and away from work. Create an auto responder. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it needs to set the stage for when you are available…and when you are not.
“Hey there! You have reached me after business hours. I will return your request at XX time when I get back in the office.
Thanks so much!
Hours of operation XXAM-XXPM
Managing Client Expectations: If you are feeling irritation towards your clients for asking questions like, “hey just checking to see if our gallery is done yet!” or, “where are we meeting again for our engagement session? I forgot!” it is totally possible that you haven’t established clear expectations with clients. Creating swipe copy for frequently asked questions in the same format as the email response above is a huge time saver and can be duplicated for future clients.
“Client galleries will be delivered via email within 4 business weeks from the event date in an online, password protected gallery.”
“Our session time is at 3PM-4PM on 10/25/2020 at XXX location. Here is the pin for the parking lot I will meet you in. Looking forward to seeing you soon!”
Keep your responses on your notes in your phone, your client management system, or a google doc. Include them on your website when applicable, contract, and questionnaire forms so your clients have multiple opportunities to see it. By managing expectations for deliverables, you are also keeping yourself on a deadline.
Procrastination: Dreading a task? Habit hack it.
Make your daunting task seem more attractable, attainable, and enjoyable.
If you are dragging your feet on sending out client contracts, you can make the experience more attractive and enjoyable by creating a ritual around it. Appeal to your senses and light a candle that makes you happy, but only light it when you sit down to send out client documentation. Over time, when you smell that candle, your brain will remember that it’s time to do work and send out client communication. You’ll start to associate that task with a pleasant smell and routine, making it more enjoyable.
Giving yourself enough time to actually complete the task from start to finish makes it more attainable. You could be setting unrealistic time expectations, and not allowing yourself the adequate time to do what you need to do. That can cause stress, which can lead to feelings of wanting to avoid it all together. By setting a timer the next time you get to work, you can figure out exactly how much time you need to get it done.
Saying No: Do it. Say no. If you are overbooked and drowning on the backend, say no. Every single time you say yes to something, you are draining your energy levels and losing a precious commodity…time. If you have a limited supply or nothing left to give, you are not only hurting yourself. You’re hurting the client. If you can’t show up in the capacity to serve them the way you normally do, you could potentially damage a great client relationship in the future.
Resist the urge to hustle more and take more on right now. Know that in the long run, saying no at this moment is going to allow you to have time to recharge, rejuvenate, and have more fulfilling opportunities to work at a later time. You’ll be stuck in the same cycle if you don’t.
Capturing Creativity: When you are off work, BE off work. Pursue the hobbies you have that are not related to work. Knit. Paint. Walk your dog. Do anything that is not photography related. Even the “just for fun” creative workshops can be draining if you are burning out.
You have to get in touch with other areas of your life that allow you to dream to refuel. Dare to get bored and let your mind wander instead of binging Netflix in the name of “self-care”.
Working Towards Alignment
Sustainable business practices mean that you are employing techniques that allow you to continue your business for years to come. There is no quick fix when it comes to building a career that supports alignment. It takes work and conscious effort. At times, it can be downright uncomfortable. Especially if you are uncomfortable with putting yourself first, asking for help, or saying no.
The greatest gift you can give yourself is wellness. Often self-care is depicted as bubble baths and pedicures. That image of wellness only scratches the surface of what true self-care looks like. In reality, self-care for photographers is actively working towards a lifestyle that leads to self fulfilment, and not burnout. If you value the hard work and dedication you have put into your business, you should equally value the effort it takes to sustain it. You don’t need to be perfect in these endeavors, but you owe it to yourself to care of your wellbeing.
Take care of yourself first, and your business will follow.
Written by Kate Spitz – Photographer, Educator, Substance Abuse Counselor and MSW
Connection is what it’s all about. Feel free to reach out to us with any comments or questions you might have, even if it’s only to say hello. If it wasn’t for our beautiful community, this place just wouldn’t feel the same.