/ 10 October 2023

How creativity solves burnout

Burnout At Work Occupational Burnout
Nearly four in 10 employees worldwide have reported burnout in 2023, costing businesses nearly R20 trillion. (Flickr/ https://www.microbizmag.co.uk)

“No great mind has existed without a touch of madness.” — Aristotle

October is Mental Health Month. It is an important commemoration, given that more than one of five people around the world live with an ongoing mental health condition. 

The numbers are worse if you look at short-term mental issues such as burnout. Nearly four in 10 employees worldwide have reported burnout in 2023, costing businesses nearly R20 trillion. 

Not everyone considers burnout a mental illness but increasingly, experts do. And on top of that, burnout contributes a great deal to traditionally diagnosed mental conditions such as depression and anxiety. We’ll come back to burnout in a bit.

Mental health and creativity are very closely linked. On the one hand, society has long connected creative genius to mental unwellness: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and more. The absent-minded professor, the mad scientist, the tortured genius — these stereotypes did not just fall from thin air. The idea dates back to Aristotle. 

Among many other studies, the US National Institute of Health found that people with bipolar disorder scored 50% higher on tests of creativity. Kanye West, Mariah Carey, Demi Lovato, Russell Brand, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and, here in South Africa, Bonnie Mbuli and Nina Hastie comprise a short list of creative celebrities diagnosed with bipolar.

Clinical psychologist Kay Jamison says that 38% of writers she studied have been treated for a mood disorder. Nearly nine of 10 have experienced a type of mental state akin to mania. 

The malaise extends to creative geniuses in non-arts fields too. John Nash, the mathematician featured in the movie A Beautiful Mind, was a paranoid schizophrenic. Charles Darwin had OCD as did Nikola Tesla. Fredrich Nietzsche’s career ended abruptly in a mental breakdown resulting from an extreme mood disorder. 

Psychiatrist Gail Saltz explains that neurodivergence is a powerful source of divergent thinking — the process of generating a profusion of ideas without filtering them, a key feature of successful brainstorming. For example, ADHD is a source of unique thinking, as is autism. The CEOs of Ikea and JetBlue, and of course Elon Musk, are among the admitted geniuses with such conditions.

Correlation, however, does not mean causation. And creativity is versatile. There are quite a few studies linking creativity activities, on the flip side, to improvements in (or even healing from) many of these same mental conditions. 

Research published in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association shows that creativity can hugely improve PTSD. The Cleveland Clinic found that creative pursuits can reduce stress by up to 75%. The American Psychological Association reports that 71% of participants reduced stress, depression, and anxiety through creative activities.

Creativity puts us into flow, flooding our brains with dopamine. Creativity reduces dementia and stress by mimicking the effects of meditation. It boosts CD4+ lymphocyte count, empowering our immune systems. Creativity invigorates the connection between brain hemispheres, strengthening mental resilience.

Again, by creativity, I do not only mean painting, dancing and shading in colouring books. Creativity is any search for a novel solution to any challenge you are facing. Leaders engaged in creative problem-solving have higher levels of life satisfaction and well-being

Bringing more creativity into the workplace improves collaboration, encourages open-mindedness, promotes diversity and allows the acceptance of failure — all of which reduce stress.

Which brings us back to burnout, arguably the work world’s most urgent mental health issue today. A McKinsey study showed South Africa running at roughly the same rate of burnout as the UK, the US and Australia, with the rest of the world slightly behind, and only India, Egypt and Japan significantly higher. 

As for other mental challenges, a recent WHO study shows that in South Africa about 10% of the population suffer from mental illness — about half the percentage of the developed world. 

But these numbers are understated. Traditional African culture often considers mental illness as bewitchment, a spiritual calling, or a supernatural curse, not a medical condition. It’s a stigma that does not get recorded.

African countries spend on average less than 1% of their budgets on government support for mental health, less than a fifth of the global average. South Africa is doing much better, on par with the lower estimates of world levels and the McKinsey study puts South African companies at the top of the list as most concerned about mental health issues. 

Despite that, only one in 10 South Africans with a mental condition get the treatment they need. And the treatment is mostly not of very high quality. Mental health patients in South Africa stay in hospital for nearly half a year on average — up to eight times longer than in developed economies. 

It’s not because they’re getting great treatment — one in four of them end up back in hospital within three months due to a lack of community support.

The biggest block against treatment for mental illness is poverty. People in the 20% poorest households are four times as likely to have serious mental health issues as those from the wealthiest 20%. Debt and unemployment correlate directly to mental unwellness — more than 40% of unemployed people have mental health challenges. 

The stress of underearning is greater than the stress of overwork. The Harvard School of Public Health states that 20% of people below the poverty line experienced “a great deal of stress” in the previous month due to money issues. And that is in the US.

Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir says that this stress is true of all kinds of scarcity. When humans don’t have enough of something, that is almost all we think about.

“When you’re poor,” he says, “a large portion of the day is spent entertaining thoughts related to the source of your scarcity.”

Poverty of pocket is quickly followed by poverty of mind for most people. Creativity can play a critical role in overcoming this. Doing the same thing you’ve been doing so far is not going to solve your crisis. 

As difficult as it might be, letting your mind wander to other thoughts will not only give you more interesting ideas to pursue. On its own, it will make you feel better.

The fact is most of us have scarcity thoughts, even if we’re not poor. In fact, any negative thought is a form of scarcity mindset. If you’ve ever thought, “I can’t do that” or “that’s not going to work”, you are moving toward a form of mental fatigue. 

By helping switch off the normal train of thought and allowing the brain to track in a different direction, creative thinking helps prevent and heal burnout.

One powerful feature of our subconscious is that it doesn’t know the difference between the imagined and the real. Healthier thoughts create a healthier mind. 

One of the basic rules of creative problem solving is to generate as many ideas as possible, even if they seem ridiculous. So a great way to commemorate Mental Health Month is by generating creative ideas about whatever you’re stuck on — as many ideas as you possibly can — and encouraging those around you to do the same.

Try it now. Think of something that’s troubling you, disturbing your peace. And make a list of at least 30 solutions. I promise you, you will feel better.

Michael Lee is a creativity expert, an advisory board member of World Creativity and Innovation Week/Day, and Radio 702 creativity contributor.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.