3 Strategies To Help Navigate Work Grief and Burnout

For over three years, people have carried a crushing burden of unprocessed grief while enduring a withering barrage of change at work. It’s a many-sided issue with no clear cause or fix.

But the result is that content marketers are burnt the font out.

Today, I’ll share the stories of folks who are going through it – and some who’ve emerged on the other side. The sooner you make these changes to your work environment, the better because mental unhealth can cause physical ailments. And if you can’t stop overworking, eventually, overworking will stop you. And nobody, no matter how creative, does useful content marketing when logging in from the hospital. (True story.)

Nobody – no matter how creative – does useful #ContentMarketing when logging in from the hospital, says @cgillespie317 via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Content stress stories often begin with the loss of a leader

In interviewing seven individuals for this article, one theme emerged: Content teams’ wellness declines the moment they lose a leader.

The leader doesn’t just leave behind a hole – they leave an open door that anyone in the company can stroll through and make demands. It also leaves that team exposed to well-intentioned but taxing (or nonsensical) requests from higher-ups. If those higher-ups don’t feel the team is working fast enough, they may micromanage them and increase the burden.

A leader’s departure leaves the team exposed to higher-ups who may micromanage and increase its burdens, says @cgillespie317 via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Content marketer Dominika Stankiewicz says when her marketing leader left, things grew chaotic. “Our manager was pretty much Ted Lasso. Everything was fantastic,” she says. “But when he left, all hell broke loose. We lost our guiding light. There was no more vision, just pressure from all sides to not only keep up but to increase performance.”

Another content marketer, who wants to remain anonymous, had a similar experience. “When our VP left, we lost our layer of defense,” she recalls. “Now nobody’s there to filter.”

Both of these content marketers grew unwell as a result of the stress. Dominika developed a body rash so intense she and her coworkers could play tic-tac-toe on the back of her hand, which should give you a sense of her humor and resilience. She developed allergies to metals, foods, and makeup, and everything itched. She stuck it out for a long time, but once she quit, the rash disappeared. One year later, it has not returned.

“The greatest gift a content leader can give her team is focus,” explains Sonja Jacob, director of content marketing at athenahealth. “Whether that comes via the goals you set for the work, the space to do it in, or both, the recipe for success on content teams is narrowing the aperture on what qualifies as ‘work.’ This will give your team the ability to focus on – and deliver – what’s critical to business success.”

But when you lose that leader? You have to build those boundaries on your own.

1. Build polite but firm boundaries

What can you do when your team’s protective shield disappears? First off, understand what the person you now report to seeks to achieve. Present your content expertise in terms of supporting those goals. If they want sales, explain your effect upon sales enablement. If marketing awareness is the goal, share how you build audiences.

Find out what the person you report to wants to achieve and present your expertise in those terms, says @cgillespie317 via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

If they understand how your work supports their mission, you can say you need guardrails to ensure you aren’t overstretched. For them to get what they need, they have to shield you.

Ask for their help in setting boundaries:

Make a list of what you do and do not do.
Set response times and working hours.
Create a content request form and use it.
Require a content brief (or similar).
Manage a public backlog of projects so others are aware.
Grant access to your project board so they don’t ask for updates.
Be proactive so people don’t feel compelled to check in.

And because those leaders are probably under pressure right now and inclined toward rush requests, reply with options. Say, “To start this new thing, which existing thing should I pause to accommodate it?” This gently reminds them of your capacity and invites them to do the rearranging.

And, if you’ve got all the above handled, investigate how to achieve more with less. For example, that anonymous content marketer has been investigating how she can incorporate generative AI and making a case for that investment in terms of her boss’ goals.

2. Sustain your creativity to prove your value

Right now, you may not have the option to simply switch jobs. They have grown scarce. Countless qualified marketers have joined the “double layoff” club, and most are making the best of the job they’ve got, as Nia Balbo, Ashley Dyment, and Jeremy Hunt share in their LinkedIn posts.

If that’s the case for you, worry not. There’s a lot you can do.

That anonymous content marketer, for example, is committed to staying in place because prior to her current role, she was part of a large layoff. Then, she went through a long hiring process just to have the offer rescinded. “Basically, my mortgage requires me to stay,” she says with a laugh.

That’s why she’s so committed to protecting her mental health and seeking help. “I think everyone should see a therapist,” she says. “I’m not embarrassed about that. I think everyone should see one.”

You can also guard your creative time by placing recurring “focused work” blocks on your calendar and insisting on working some days from home. Research from the University of Chicago, Stanford, and Microsoft suggests workers are more productive in their own environment, free from distraction – 8.9% more productive by some measures.

If you can set aside some days for all the calls, meetings, and status updates, you can leave other at-home days for deep work.

Consider these additional ideas:

Defend your work hours (no nights and weekends).
Carve out daily time for things you enjoy, like reading or music.
Commit to recurring physical exercise.
Use all your allowable leave (and make a coverage plan now).
Consider taking an unpaid vacation if it provides a true reset.

Of course, you may not be able to fully control your environment, and you shouldn’t blame yourself.

3. Organize chaos to eliminate needless tasks

As teams and priorities shift, content marketers are being asked to wear three, five, or seven hats, which, as my colleague, Fenwick writer and strategist Donnique Williams, points out, “is as weird as it sounds. Just think about that. Visually.”

Talk with your peers about what they are experiencing. “Everybody’s trying to do 10 different jobs,” says Kristin Hillery, director of content and brand at the AI conversation design startup Voiceflow. “And on the back of that, I don’t think people are acknowledging what’s going on in each others’ personal lives. Maybe it feels inappropriate. But I think that shared understanding helps.”

You may find your peers are burned out, too, and you can work together to improve how you work.

For example, consider diagramming your content marketing operations end to end. Tweak it to eliminate needless tasks by asking:

Must so many approvers be on this email chain?
Must so many sequential steps be documented?
Must the design team always build from scratch?
Must the brand always promote across all these channels?
Can we write pieces in batches far in advance?
Can we set any of these programs to run autonomously?
Can we lean more on any partners to do the promoting?

These questions may lead you to find, like we have, that companies tend to involve far more reviewers than are necessary. We helped one client kindly evict the PR and legal teams from reviewing articles. Instead, they each provide a one-page policy with their guidance. It saves everyone time.

Where can you make similar no-regret cutbacks?

And similarly, where can you cut unnecessary chatter, especially outside of work? “We all know at this point that Slack has a feature that allows you to schedule messages during work hours,” says Kristin. “Set an example by using that and silencing notifications after work. If you’re working all hours, it suggests others should too, and that’s bad for everybody.”

How to find your stride after being let go

This leads me to my most egregious story.

As the pandemic began, the software company hit hyperscale. Overnight, it was a household name. Overnight, a woman on the marketing team was asked to work seven days a week and transition to PR crisis communication. It started to affect her health, and then she learned she was pregnant.

“I didn’t want to tell my managers, who were already unsupportive of anyone taking time away, because what was the point?” she recalls. Her health failed. At a routine checkup, she was admitted to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a condition that has a 37% mortality rate for mother and child. Weeks later, she gave birth prematurely. The cause of her illness, according to her doctor, was work stress.

When she returned to work after maternity leave and additional unpaid time off to care for her son, who “has a long road ahead,” the company laid her off.

Suffice it to say, it’s rough out there. Companies have fired a half million workers this year, many of them in marketing. When Disney fired 3% of staff, it was mostly from its demand-and-marketing division.

How do you re-find your confidence after what, for many, is an emotional moment of reckoning? Here are a few tips:

1. Remember your personal value has nothing to do with work

The new mom bounced right back and found a new job. “At the end of the day, it’s a numbers game,” she says. “I’m a professional. I loved my team, and I’ll continue to do good work.”

Similarly, Greg Cooper, a creative director, says, “Know it’s just about the company’s bottom line.”

If you’re having trouble maintaining this distinction, ask friends and family who can reflect your value back to you.

2. Use what you’ve learned to apply to the next role

“Ask yourself, ‘How has the layoff increased my wisdom of the field?’” says Cody Lucas, a creative producer. “Layoffs happen at every company. Try to understand why your role might not have been a critical asset.” In which case, the layoff wasn’t personal. It was business, and you now understand this type of business better. That helps you tell a better story in your interviews.

3. If it’s a group layoff, stay in touch and work as a team

“I’ve been through two layoffs as an entire team, and both times, my former coworkers have helped me pick up the pieces,” says Kathryn Casna, a writer and editor. “You have a ready-made job hunt mastermind group.” Trade ideas, support, and links to jobs you know they’d be a fit for.

4. Keep moving and working on something

Take your time and process the change, but don’t stop moving, advises Michael Fasciano, a brand and content leader. “Get back into the things you’re most passionate about. Exercise, read, learn, or start new projects. This keeps you focused, gives you something to talk about, and momentum builds momentum.”

5. Ask your friends in the human resources space for advice

Nobody’s better at advising on your resume than people who do it for a living. Ask for a resume makeover. Get practice telling your story and having someone repeat it back to you. Begin your job search with the warmest introductions, and let your network know you’re looking. People want to help more than you’d think, and LinkedIn’s green #OpenToWork badge has become a sign of confident vulnerability.

The only emergencies are the ones we create

One of our firm’s principles is “No marketing emergencies.” Behind almost every deadline is an arbitrary date that someone forgot to question, and if higher-ups are shown how it impacts their team’s physical and mental well-being, they’ll happily change it.

Plus, work just isn’t worth burning out over.

“Try explaining your job to an ER doctor, as I have, and you’ll see their eyes glaze over,” Kristin says with a laugh.

This is not to say our work is not important – it is vital – only that your health comes first. You deserve to live a fulfilling work life that doesn’t impact your personal life and offers you space and time to be creative. That creativity is what the company hired you for in the first place.

You can safeguard it by creating boundaries to deal with the loss of a leader, carving out time to do what gives you joy, simplifying your content workflow, and remembering that none of this affects your personal value.

Want more content marketing tips, insights, and examples? Subscribe to workday or weekly emails from CMI.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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