How to handle poor mental health within a high intensity design studio

About five years ago I reached a pretty low point with my mental health, I was stressed, constantly anxious and struggling to keep up with the intensity of a top branding studio. After having some very dark thoughts and panic attacks in work, I sought help from my GP and was subsequently recommended Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, run by the excellent Mind charity. I know people have mixed feeling about CBT but for me it gave me some grounding and helped understand my thoughts better, most importantly it gives me a toolkit that helps me during low points; to balance work and life. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work for some incredible agencies, with individuals that have been very supportive such as DesignStudio and my buddies at Clock.

This leads me to the topic at hand, all design, branding, digital agencies and start-ups are fundamentally high pressure. So what can an anxious and/or stressed designer do to manage the day to day realities of agency or start-up life?

Without further ado, here are 10 things that a struggling designer (or anyone really) could adopt to help them with the realities of work while going through difficult times.

Talk to your employer

The worst thing I did was not to talk to someone at work and let them know I was struggling. At the time I had my first mini ‘breakdown’ I had been working for about 7 years and nearly always felt anxious, people can’t work with this sort of pressure and eventually it will catch up with you. Your agency or start-up should be run by humans who don’t look at you as a corporate drone, so your line manager, creative director or boss, will most likely be more than willing to chat to you but you must insitgate it. Even if they don’t fully understand what you’re going through, they can most probably establish a plan to help you. The last thing you want is to get the stage when you lash out and ultimately put your job at risk, so talk to someone higher up; they’ll most likely provide a sympathetic ear. If you work somewhere where this just isn’t an option, talk to your HR representative, too many agencies make a joke about HR, but they are there as an intermediary and can communicate to management on your behalf.

Also, I wouldn’t be afraid to request time off as sick should you need it; sometimes a couple of days rest can go a long way. An enlightened employer should treat mental in the same way as physical health. I realise there’s still a lot of stigma around this, so asking isn’t always easy.

Set expectations

Design should be fun and it’s an absolute privilege getting paid to do so! That said, it’s still a job and with that comes high expectations from clients, your agency and you. So if you feel you are being overworked or working unsociable hours, then talk to your employer about what you need as an individual in order to best perform. Some people work best just knuckling down 9 to 5, others work in fits and starts and there are some who thrive on late nights. Let your employer know what sort of designer you are and work with them to fit in around you. So often a designer must adopt work practices that just don’t suit their personality and while this might be a sign that that agency is probably wrong for you, a modern workplace should be willing to be flexible and fit the needs of an individual.

Also, set expectations with yourself, a lot of pressure comes from within, try to be kind to yourself. Design can be cruel at times and comes with enough pressure without feeling negative about your own work…

Design IS JUST A JOB

This leads me onto the next point and one that’s maybe a bit controversial. I would say nearly every interview I’ve had say pretty much the same things which boils down to ‘we work hard, we play hard’ or ‘this isn’t a 9–5 job’. You know what? I get it, design influences nearly every aspect of your life, it’s your job, the way you dress, the books you read and the podcasts you listen to. If an employer is forcing you to adopt a way of working that’s not right for you or making you feel like ‘career defining’ work is only possible with a lot of sacrifice, then you shouldn’t accept that sort of pressure. Unless that environment suits you and if it doesn’t, either talk to them or find an agency that does. Sometimes agencies aren’t right for your needs, producing work that you love and you can be proud of is totally achievable without risking your health, It’s just a job!

Try not to be negative but don’t force positivity

Design is an opinion game and sometimes it’s all too easy to be incredibly negative about the output of others. If you always feel negative about other designers’ work, you’ll never feel good about your own, worse, if you do always feel this way it could be a sign of poor mood. It’s an easy trap to fall into; there’s undeniably poor work out there, the worst is the kind that is essentially lazy work that is obviously conning clients out of money. However, there are an infinite number of designers, artists and developers producing incredible, inspiring work. I mentioned poor mood which can certainly make you feel negative (or even jealous) about others’ work, there’s no easy answer. What I would say, that if this is how you regularly feel (I know I have in the past) than all I can say is keep an eye on it.

If you work with someone who shows these traits, I’d say the worst thing you could do is to tell them to ‘be more positive’, that tends to make people feel far worse. Instead, just talk to them, usually this behaviour is a sign that something else is bothering them. Maybe they’re feeling undervalued or just not confident about their own output, whatever it is, look at ways to boost them by working closer with them. Well balanced enthusiasm can be contagious and I find working with other towards the same goal certainly keeps cynicism at bay.

Be active

Design isn’t traditionally the most active of disciplines, my experience is there’s a lot of screen time mixed with biscuits, free beer and a ‘healthy’ dose of free pizza, brilliant but not always so for wellbeing. Exercise is often encouraged as method to combat poor mental health and for some it’s easier to achieve than others. What has helped me is finding a job that’s introduced active travel to and from work, for me this is cycling, which was already a passion before I started but a 20 mile a day round trip has done wonders for me. What if that’s not an option, what if you commute via train or car? When I worked in London, I found that getting off a couple of stops early and walking or running to the station took a lot of the monotony out of what was otherwise a tedious trip down the Metropolitan line. I’ve noticed a lot more jobs that offer gym memberships or have weekly yoga sessions, this is perfect and it seems that employers are starting to understand the mental benefits of regular exercise.

Make lists

I make a lot of lists these days and not necessarily listing out everything that I have to achieve but making a list to make sure I’m getting the right balance of essential and fun things every day. This is a great technique and one that can work wonders, basically make a short list of around three or more items daily and base it on the following labels: Essential, Chore and Fun. For me this is usually for things outside of work, stuff that’s very easy to let slip when your busy but left unmanaged can potentially make you feel down. Achieving little things every day can really lift your mood, which is why breaking down things into little lists can be so helpful. He’s an example of a list I’ve made before.

— Breakfast (Essential)
— Clean bathroom floor (chore)
— Play video games (Fun/reward)

Just having a list of three little things, making sure they are all balanced can really help. It’s key not to overload yourself, especially if your mood is very low. This is great to give yourself a sense of achievement and also to make sure that really important stuff, like paying bills, isn’t slipping. It’s also is a way to make sure that you’re allocating time for yourself and providing space for the things you enjoy doing.

This stuff for me falls into life admin and it’s good to make a list just before starting work, so that you know what small things you need to achieve when you get home. If you work remote I’d say don’t try to achieve this during your breaks, personally if I work from home I achieve these tasks either before or after work and then end with a reward. Find what works for you and if it doesn’t work, that’s also fine but sometimes achieving little things can be a huge benefit. A good work life balance will help with your mood and prevent using work as a way to escape the realities of life.

Dribble is not design

This goes out mainly to younger designers. Never use Dribbble to measure your worth as a designer, the amount of followers and likes your work gets is not a way to measure success. I mean the same could be applied to any social network and Dribbble like Instagram or Twitter is not real life. It’s all to easy to judge the standard of your own work against other users on Dribbble. Make great work and share it but don’t threat it if it’s not getting the exposure you might feel it deserves, I usually think about three key factors instead: do you, the user and the client love it? If the answer is yes, then likes and shares don’t matter. Some designers see great success through that platform and good luck to them but the same can’t happen for everyone. It’s not worth putting that sort of pressure on yourself and ultimately you’ll be more fulfilled as a result.

Seek help

This one has nothing to do with being a designer. If things get too much, do something about it. Book an appointment with your doctor; they will help you with next steps. Mental health treatment in the UK has a LONG way to go but most GPs will treat mental health in the same way as physical health. You have to make that first step, which for men especially isn’t easy. If you want more advice or just want to learn more about mental health, Mind is an excellent place to start: www.mind.org.uk.


So there we are, some small things I use to help me navigate the mental health minefield within agency life. I could probably write an individual post for each of the points I’ve raised here and while I accept that this is an incredibly complex and sensitive subject. I hope that you have taken away at least one useful nugget of information.

If you like anything you’ve read here, have ideas for how I could expand this list or want to share your own experiences, then let me know via Twitter.