Why stress and creativity do not go well together

You’re on a deadline – three actually. You have a tissue meeting to prepare for, a major brand campaign to crack and a client call in 23 minutes to review those scripts you’re still not happy with. The clock’s ticking. Surfin’ Bird plays loudly from someone’s Mac, a heated discussion escalates behind you, your phone alerts fire incessantly, your mind goes blank…. Shit.

If this feels familiar – you’re not alone. Similar scenarios get played out in their myriad forms daily in agency world, whilst the creativity whip continues to crack overhead. Work overload, unrealistic deadlines and frantic, digitally-charged environments are just some of the many forms of stress we heap on those expected to deliver the goods. That stress in the workplace is rife and that it negatively impacts your performance and health is sadly not news, but it takes more than just a personal toll … stress destroys creativity too.

Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we now know that even low levels of stress can rapidly impair the prefrontal cortex. This is the most evolved, ‘thinking’ region of our brain, responsible for many critical functions that feed the creative process, such as abstract thought, insight, judgment or reason. Under duress, the brain shuts down these higher-order functions and hands the reins to the limbic region, the more primal, ‘emotional’ centre of the brain, in order to focus on our survival. When stress strikes, you might be in the office but physiologically you’re getting ready to fight or flee an angry bear, not to crack that brief you’ve been wrestling with.

Unfortunately, as far as your brain is concerned, your capacity for a clever endline is not that helpful in a life or death situation and angry bears can come in the guise of looming deadlines, major pitches or even competitively demanding cultures. Whilst the ‘bears’ maybe illusionary, the neural damage they inflict is very real. Once fear kicks in, creativity doesn’t stand a fighting chance.

And it’s not just immediate ‘threats’ that can impair creative thinking. Multi-tasking and the constant sensory bombardment from our ‘always on’ digital lives and hectic offices, over-stimulate the prefrontal cortex. This causes extreme cognitive fatigue which destroys our ability to focus and generate new ideas. One study by a psychologist at the University of London found that the impact on one’s IQ (on average a loss of 10 points) from the constant distraction of emails, texts and phone alerts over the course of a day was the equivalent to losing a night’s sleep. The loss of mental capacity was double that seen in cannabis users.

According to David Rock, the author of Your Brain at Work, “Stress is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s how you deal with it that’s key.” However, once emotions take over, it’s game over – so if you lead creative people you have responsibility for managing their levels of stress as well as your own. Trying the following strategies might just give the messy and magical process of creativity a chance in the chaos of your margin-squeezed working lives:

Stop the noise

Research shows that when we quieten the constant assault on our thinking brain, then our imaginations can fire up. Calming activities, such as walking or listening to music, capture what neuroscientists call our ‘soft fascination’, the state in which we give minimal focus to gentle stimulus, allowing our minds to wander freely. It’s in this semi-meditative state that we are most likely to have flashes of inspiration or bursts of insight. It’s why some of us have our best ideas in the shower. So, if trying to crack a problem at your desk just isn’t working, give your brain a rest … shut off your phone and go for a walk. Just 20 minutes off the digital grid, in the calmest space you can find (a park, quiet backstreets, an art gallery etc.) can give your brain enough of a rest to give your ideas generation a boost.

Hit the pub

For those that harbour nostalgia for the passing of the alcohol-fuelled, ‘Mad Men’ era of advertising … science may be on your side. A moderate amount of alcohol has also been proven to bring about sufficient calming of the frontal cortex to help get the creative juices flowing. So, whilst our capacity for focus and rational thinking subsides, our capacity for inspiration thrives. Clearly encouraging your team to pack up and head down the pub might be unwise but an abstemious culture may not be that helpful to your creative goals either. As Hunter S Thompson once said, “I’d hate to advocate drugs, alcohol or insanity to anyone – but they’ve always worked for me.”

Champion flexibility

There are few agencies left that have resisted the urge to pull down their walls. Whilst open plan offices encourage collaboration and buzz, it’s amazingly hard to attain a state of high creative productivity when surrounded by constant distractions. In most open plan offices, you will observe people going out of their way to recreate the peace and privacy of having their own space; tucking themselves away in quiet corners or clamping on headphones. The key with open plan is to have a variety of spaces to suit different modes of working. Alternatively, you need to embrace flexible working practices, to allow your team to work in a way that works for them. Richard Brim, CCO of adam&eveDDB, believes in actively encouraging his team to “Find their own rhythm” by getting out of the office in the pursuit of optimum creative thinking. As he told CR, “I don’t care where you work, as long as you show up to your reviews with your best possible work.”

Stay focused

That pressure aids creativity is unfortunately an illusion. One Harvard Business study showed that under time pressure, creativity only flourished if the participants were allowed to totally immerse themselves in a singular task, entirely free from distraction. Whilst it’s tempting to believe that multi-tasking will get you through a heavy workload and tight timeframes, it’s actually impossible to effectively use the same systems of the brain on different activities simultaneously. In the face of almost inevitable time pressure, the best way to help your team is to ruthlessly prioritise their workloads and fiercely protect meeting-free creative time. Otherwise, as the authors of the study conclude, “When creativity is under the gun, it usually ends up getting killed.”

Make it a mission

Interestingly, minimising stress to inspire creativity is not about making things easy. According to creative psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, people are not only at their happiest but at their most creatively productive, “when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile”. As a creative leader, you can facilitate this, often elusive, state of flow by ensuring that your team feel appropriately challenged. Setting meaningful goals that stretch and inspire your team and providing reassurance that their work is important, will create a collective sense of mission that builds resilience and fighting spirit in the face of daily adversity.

Less is more

People who ‘put in the hours’ are often applauded for their admirable work ethic but working round the clock leads to diminishing returns when it comes to creativity. The problem with time is that it’s a finite resource, so helping your team to work smarter rather than harder is the key. The trick is to manage your energy rather than your time. The brain works in bursts of focused energy for roughly an hour, followed by 15–20 mins at a lower ebb. So rather than expecting your team to power on through, make sure they take regular breaks instead. Whether it’s ten minutes on Headspace, taking a nap or having a laugh with colleagues, fully switching off from previous tasks lets them refocus and recharge. And it’s not just creativity that gets a boost – because the working day will be less of a slog, your teams’ motivation and enthusiasm will be reinvigorated too.

The reality is that if you lead creative people, one of the best things you can do to keep their stress in check is to set a good example. If you don’t take proper breaks or manage your work-life balance, then they won’t either. If your team are regularly stressed out, look hard at your own behaviour and that of those that lead with you.

Despite the glaring daily evidence of the impact of stress, it’s sadly endemic in the creative industry, as agencies accept it as an inconvenient side-effect of fighting to keep their heads above water. Perhaps if it was more widely acknowledged that stress can have serious commercial implications, then businesses might start to take the problem seriously. The simple truth is that in an ideas business, the health of your people is inextricably linked to the health of your product. In a knowledge economy that places a high premium on creativity, can the industry really afford not to get its working practices back to a more balanced place?


Tanya Livesey