By Maureen Thompson

I encounter a lot of advice from the wellness industry on how to avoid burnout or maintain a balanced life while accomplishing all your career goals. These messages usually dovetail with some commodities or consumables. But the antidote doesn’t have to. Burnout includes emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, cynicism, and feelings of diminished personal efficacy or accomplishment in the context of the work environment. Burnout doesn’t just result in a temporary bad mood, but it can leave an impression on your brain and ultimately stifle personal and professional growth. Women experience more psychological and physical manifestations of burnout adjunct stress than men. As someone who looks for evidence to back up choices that I might otherwise consider guilty pleasures (i.e., chocolate, red wine, rest days). I went down a rabbit hole to justify the time and space I devote to papier-mâché projects.

I made a wombat piñata to commemorate my friend’s time in Australia

Sure, time spent in nature can improve working memory and increase cognitive performance. But time spent in nature is hard to come by right now, as I live in a 5-million-person city with no car and 5 jobs. For my PhD research, I use data collected by citizen science participants to learn more about Australian frog breeding and ecology. I love that the data was gathered by passionate and curious people volunteering their time all over the country. It inspires me to share something worthwhile back with them. But it also means I’m not personally connecting with the places where my study species live. When I hear frogs call, it’s through headphones. I’m not getting my shins wet stalking through sedges to find them or sneaking up behind them on a bedrock creek. Before embarking on my PhD, I spent 15 years as a field biologist, and I really miss that visceral, whole-body connection to my work.

The Herpetology department in frog head costumes for the Australian Museum’s employee costume party

But taking time to be creative is more accessible as it can be done in small increments anywhere. Doing something creative not only has its own benefits to physiology, brain structure, and quality of life, but by engaging your brain in different ways you give yourself space to reframe thoughts, personal experiences, and gain new insights. The positive valance associated with making art allows for easier recovery from negative stimuli (i.e., journal rejections). Oil painting has been found to evoke unique emotional and physiological responses, potentially because it is so fluid and tactile. The physical act of colouring has been shown to lower heart rate and respiration while loosening muscles, stimulating the brain, and boosting concentration and productivity.

When you are making art, you are making a series of decisions and working towards a final product. You are imagining a future and creating it. Creating something that did not exist before. If for example you are working on a Sisyphean task (i.e., a PhD) with no payout for days upon weeks upon months upon years, your brain needs to know it can accomplish something! It helps maintain productivity and importantly informs it of optimism.

One of my creative outlets is making masks, costumes, and piñatas out of papier-mâché. I love papier-mâché because it is almost free – I use household products (flour, water, and salt) and cardboard and newspaper gleaned from my apartment building’s bins. It’s truly hands on – it requires no tools or accoutrements. As someone who spends a lot of time with my hands and eyes locked in the same posture at a computer, I really appreciate the direct engagement and the mess. For me, making papier-mâché homages brings an intimate connection that reinforces my work. Attempting to mould a replica helps me appreciate the details of my study species and then revisit my research with more curiosity.

I spent many months in pursuit of Sclerocactus wetlandicus, a rare species of cactus endemic to the Uinta Basin of Utah. I made this piñata for my crew member’s birthday.

Creativity is important for remaining healthy and engaged with the world, a key aspect of mitigating burnout. Creative activities allow you to make connections between unrelated things. And simultaneously, making new connections and viewing things from another perspective can be important asset for research. I appreciate this message from Gladding and Newsome:

“Art serves as both a catalyst and conduit for understanding oneself in a larger world context. It does so through stirring up feelings and opening up possibilities… so the world becomes ever new and the view of what can be, if worked on, becomes what is.”

So, if you aren’t already, I encourage you to make room in your life for what you find freeing and creative. It’s not just a guilty pleasure. It’s good for you as a whole person and has the potential to improve your relationship with your work.

Bluebottle jellyfish wedding pata to celebrate my impending move to Australia

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