Using Your 5 Senses to Navigate Your Way Through Creative and Professional Burnout

Artwork Archive | August 16, 2023

Artwork Archive artist Kim Klabe, Candy-O, 30" x 40," wine pour, photo courtesy of the artist.
Ashley Witherspoon is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and the Founder of Hand Made Dreams®, a platform dedicated to bringing mental health awareness to everyday spaces. Ashley is a North Carolina native who received her Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Master of Social Work from the University of South Carolina-Columbia. Her latest initiative is the Art Wellness Exchange®, where she has partnered with multiple museums to curate mental wellness experiences, aimed to reduce stigma and strengthen community connections.  


Our “always on” culture is overwhelming, but we can use our senses to recalibrate and further balance the scales of work life balance. 

As artists and creatives, we are hyper-aware of our senses when creating. 

We’re drawn to the vivid colors on our palette and to patterns that make their way onto our canvases. We feel a form come to life under our fingers in cool clay. We tune into the feel of our brush strokes against the canvas–the bumps and grooves as we layer paint. We’re inspired by the music we play in our studio.

But, our senses can also play a part in burnout. We live in a culture of screentime, constant alerts, dings in our back pockets (thanks to our phones), and other sensory overloads.

This article addresses how we can use our senses to recalibrate and further balance the scales of work-life balance.


How do our senses and sensory adaptation play a role in our work life?

From the beginning of time, we have utilized our senses to navigate the world, gain perspective, and make informed decisions. Our senses are constantly adjusting to what’s around and what we are experiencing. For example, when you mistakenly hit the light switch in the middle of the night, your initial reaction is to shield your eyes as your vision has been slightly impaired. Within a few moments, you quickly recover and navigate your surroundings with ease. This process is called sensory adaptation, which is a reduction in sensitivity to a stimulus after constant exposure to it. 


The transition to a hybrid work model leaves many of us still adjusting

Over the past 5 years, many businesses and organizations have transitioned to a hybrid work model to accommodate the needs of their workforce. According to a systematic literature review, the main positive effects of remote work include increased flexibility, autonomy, and job satisfaction. Adverse effects can include isolation, perceived threats to professional advancement, increased emotional exhaustion and greater cognitive overload.  

Although productivity reports have increased, the “light switch” for many individuals in the workforce continues to flicker, and we are all trying to adjust accordingly to balance professional and personal demands.


Expanding the definition of wellness and the impact of burnout

Wellness has been widely discussed as burnout swiftly moves throughout many sectors including ours in the arts.  

Individuals are complex, and as a result, the definition of wellness continues to expand to reflect a holistic approach and the dynamic way in which we interact with systems. 

Work-related burnout is classified as an occupational phenomenon, a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Unlike stress, burnout has been described as emotional exhaustion, depersonalization/cynicism, and reduced personal accomplishment.  

Many of the suggested remedies to combat this occurrence have included various forms of increased vacation time, physical movement, and diet modifications. Building on the research around burnout and our innate ability as humans to adjust, we can navigate this uncharted terrain by utilizing our senses as a guide.  

Work in progress in the studio. Photo courtesy of Artwork Archive artist Marisabel Gonzalez

The contributions of sensory overload to chronic exhaustion

Individuals within the workforce have multiple points of contact for professional and personal use. These modalities include email, text, video, and various forms of instant messenger just to name a few.  

Multiple points of communication have increased the time in which information is received and simultaneously created an “always on” culture.  

The uptick in screen time among adults has contributed to the escalation of headaches, eye irritation, and blurred vision. 

Alert notifications have heightened our sensitivity to touch and sound, as we anticipate the vibration of the buzz or await the ding alert.  

The sense of smell raises a set of memories from your subconscious and can trigger a wide range of emotions. Are there specific smells that you associate with your occupation or dedicated workspace within your home? How does it make you feel?  

Taste also shares the unique ability to summon memory and emotion as well. Many individuals rely on food and beverages to sustain energy levels throughout the day. Some of these specific dietary choices can become routine and adversely associated with the workplace.

Within my clinical experience, I have encountered many individuals who have reported an increase in anxiety symptoms due to mounting external demands. I encourage us all to reset by taking an inventory of what we can realistically control and what strategies we can utilize to establish boundaries when applicable. Tapping into past interests such as enjoying the silence of nature or engaging in activities that require your hands can reignite your senses in a different way.


Using our senses to discover a new path and enhance resilience

As we center our minds around this new perspective, it allows us to take a deeper dive into how we deploy our senses and assess the need to reset them periodically to decrease the impact of burnout.  

For example, when presented with the opportunity to select an audio call versus a Zoom call, selecting audio can create an opening to decrease your screen time.  

Alternating your food choices to stimulate your sense of smell and taste, such as packing an orange for a snack, can provide an uplift in mood and decrease stress. Additional studies have also highlighted the use of aromatherapy to break through anxiety, cognitive performance, and depression.    

When applicable, dedicating a specific time slot to select the "do not disturb" option on your electronics can give your sense of touch and sound a breather.  

We understand that challenges and roadblocks will ultimately occur, however developing strategies in your toolkit can mitigate these responses when setbacks occur.  


Establish intentionality in your lifestyle decisions

Our lives are complex, however, we continue to search for balance amongst the demands of our families, communities, workspaces, and organizations. We have an opportunity to build on what we already know and incorporate additional strategies within our wellness regimen. 

Extended breaks on the weekend and holidays are vital to reconnect with yourself and others without professional obligations. Continue to search for golden opportunities throughout the day as well, letting your senses guide you to further balance the scales of work-life balance. 

Continue prioritizing your wellness with this article – How Artists Can Protect Their Mental Health

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