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I was introduced to crunch by Alice*.

I’d fallen in love with her six months prior at a work conference. Our eyes met across the room over cheap beer bottles — lacquered nails obscuring the wrappers. She was beautiful, bright eyed and well dressed. She made a beeline for me, dodging creatives and ignoring executives who sought her conversation, as drawn to me as I was to her. I fell for her with a sudden kind of violence, all before she even told me her name.

We were fast friends. I learnt that she was a photographer and videographer in charge of several projects with an ever-increasing skill set. Anything that needed doing she taught herself to do. Often this learning found her in front of online tutorials at four in the morning, body shaking from too much caffeine, eyes dry and stomach cramping. Like her art, she painted this picture beautifully. ‘I can learn anything with YouTube and coffee. Anything!’

She was dedicated, talented and hard working. Eager to learn and eager to please. Eager to be recognised in a male dominated industry by working double their hours for half their recognition.

This is where our story starts:

12:01pm
It’s a really cool project

This is where it ends:

2:45am
I’m so tired and hungry

3:12am
I saw photos of you and cried

3:58am
I cant do this

4:03am
I

4:07am
Fuck

Creative crunch isn’t a new phenomenon, but it is a new name for an increasingly common problem faced by young creatives and freelancers. As our society and work culture continue to move into online spaces and jobs become more flexible, young creatives are more at risk of burnout than ever before. Work is no longer left in offices, it is now carried in phones that rarely leave hands — a constant reminder of looming deadlines and expectations.

In a time where one cannot escape their work, if only for an evening, how can they build a healthy work life balance? In many cases, it seems to be impossible.

The project Alice was working on saw her unbelievably excited. It had a strong ethical background and she had the final say on all things aesthetic. She would send me screenshots of her work with excited scribbling explaining what she was working on, highlighting her favourite parts in bright pink and circling small details.

We spoke about it at length — how it would further her career, how motivated she was to make an amazing product, how proud she was to be with her company.

7:43pm
Oops! I got a bit carried away.

7:44pm
Lost track of time. Heading home now. You up for a call in 20?

Crunch is loosely defined as the process of overworking oneself for an extended period of time. Crunching to meet deadlines is not unheard of and can be manageable short-term. It isn’t unreasonable to pull a few longer weeks in the lead up to a product launch, but prolonged crunch has been proven to be bad for both your physical and mental health.

Physically, crunch has adverse effects on your body. These can include chronic fatigue, insomnia, lack of appetite, increased chance of illness, chest pain, dizzines and fainting. Mentally, crunch can be deadly. When enduring long-term crunch is it extremely common to experience higher rates of depression, anxiety and feelings of worthlessness.

Alice started to worry about deadlines, often messaging me over weekends and when she was out with friends late at night. She had upped her 40-hour work weeks to 55 and still felt that she wasn’t getting enough done. One Saturday I asked what her plans were for the day and she replied to say she’d gone into the office to finish her assets for a deadline.

11:15 am
It’s ok, I need to get this done

11:15 am
Just sucks that I’m by myself lol

11:20 am
The quiet is nice though

The more prolonged the crunch, the worse the symptoms. Stress levels rise, anxiety closes in and often workers are put under undue duress. It is also not uncommon to see serious psychiatric disorders emerge, such as prolonged depression and eating disordered behaviour.

Are these consequences worth meeting a deadline? Fulfilling an obligation? Impressing a boss? At what point do we finally value the health of employees over their productivity?

Alice’s relationships started to suffer. She barely saw her partner around her now 80-hour weeks which saw her getting home at midnight and working over the weekend. Friends she’d known since she was a child accused her of ignoring them, though she had no time or emotional energy left to spare. She was running on empty. Each photo Alice sent me painted a stark picture that filters couldn’t hide. Lifeless hair, dark circles, stress eating her alive.

11:23pm
It’s not that I don’t love all my friends, I want to hang out. I just don’t feel like I can. It feels like I have no energy and I would be boring and I don’t have time anyway… so now I am scared that I wont have any friends when I get out of this hole.

11:50pm
I feel out of control

12:03am
I feel like I’ve lost all my self confidence and nothing is ever good enough and I’m never good enough

The time spent crunching is not equal to the time a sufferer needs to recover. In fact, research is starting to show that for every hour spent in crunch it takes six to undo its effects. We don’t have a lot of long-term research on crunch, but in creative industries many professionals are found crunching for months at a time over a period of years. How will this impact the long-term health of our creatives? How will this affect their families, friends and relationships as they struggle with impossible deadlines and failing mental health?

I missed Alice. I hadn’t heard from her in days, a rare occurrence in our rapid-fire friendship.

10:11am
Funny story

10:11am
The project has been pushed for another month now

10:11am
Crunch for nothing crunch for nothing

10:12am
Crunch

10:12am
For nothing

9:46 pm
I have been having a panic attack all day

*Name changed upon request.

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