The Emotional Toll of Working in UX

There are times when our work impacts us deeply — sometimes in ways we neither acknowledge nor understand.

Vivianne Castillo
Dec 3, 2019 · 8 min read
Illustration: Deb Lee

This story is part of Self-Care is for UX, a series on the personal risks of working in design.

If you are reading this, you most likely fall into one of two categories: You’re either interested in becoming a UX professional or you already are one.

Regardless of which category you fall into, you’ve probably heard or identify with some of the following:

However, if you are a UX professional, you may have either experienced or know of UX professionals who have experienced the following:

When we think about what it means to be a UX professional, we often gravitate toward the upsides, like helping people, potentially high salary, etc., but I want you to pause and ask yourself: What are the personal risks of this profession?

What personal risks were you warned about, if any, about this profession?

What have you heard leaders in our industry say about this?

What mental, physical, spiritual, or emotional tolls were you warned about, from professors, coworkers, mentors, and the like?

Here are three things that no one told you about being a UX professional:

1. The emotionally neutral UX professional is a myth

We’re often told about the importance of mitigating bias, advocating for people’s needs, and helping our stakeholders understand the human aspect of their design and business problems.

Our roles often require us to work closely with the messiness, complexity, and beauty of being human, including the emotions we both witness and experience from the people we are meant to advocate for and serve. And yet, it can be hard to admit that others can evoke an emotional response from us, because after all, aren’t we supposed to stay neutral?

But here’s a radical idea: We’re emotional beings, and we need to learn how to recognize emotions, sit with them, and address them when the problems we’re tasked to solve and the people we’re meant to serve evoke an emotional response in us.

Emotion & Feeling Wheel from The Junto Institute

What happens when your work, participants, or stakeholders make you feel insecure? Exasperated? Shocked? Hurt? Frustrated?

How do you handle those emotions? Unfortunately, for far too many of us, the following rings true:

“Over time, many UX Professionals become desensitized to human emotion and experience an acute overdose of feeling; they learn to keep boundaries firmly in place and turn off their emotions. Even when we maintain such a guarded and cautious stance, there are times when contact with our participants penetrates us deeply — sometimes in ways we neither acknowledge nor understand.” (Adapted from Dr. Jeffrey Kottler’s “On Being a Therapist”)

2. Empathy is your greatest liability

We need not waste any more time on UX Community and on Design Twitter (where meaningful debates happen... said no one, ever) discussing how important empathy is in this career. Make no mistake: Empathy is one of the UX professional’s greatest assets. But it will also be one of your greatest liabilities, as it’s the gateway to phenomena rarely discussed in our industry: compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, and vicarious trauma.

Compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue is common in people for whom extending empathy is a core aspect of what they do. Dr. Charles Figley, a world-renowned trauma expert, describes compassion fatigue as “the profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel and regenerate.”

Symptoms include:

Aside from these symptoms, how can compassion fatigue play out for the UX professional? Here’s a couple of real examples:

Secondary trauma and vicarious trauma

“The difference between secondary trauma and vicarious trauma is that secondary trauma can happen suddenly, in one session, while vicarious trauma is a response to an accumulation of exposure to the pain of others,” says Dr. Charles Figley. Secondary trauma and vicarious trauma are often the most commonly experienced among UX professionals who are in the non-profit realm or who are working closely with marginalized, traumatized, chronically ill (both mental and physical illness), or oppressed individuals.

And while when they happen may differ, the symptoms are the same:

Let’s look at a couple of real examples of how this can play out for the UX professional:

Experiences like compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, and vicarious trauma are often attributed to human service professionals (e.g., social workers, nurses, counselors, etc.), “individuals who uniquely approach the objective of meeting human needs through an interdisciplinary knowledge base, focusing on prevention as well as remediation of problems, and maintaining a commitment to improving the overall quality of life of people” (American Public Human Services Association).

But doesn’t this sound like us? Especially given that our work requires us to engage so closely with the complexity, beauty, and challenges of what it means to be human?

3. Self-care is an ethical imperative

It’s interesting how ethics has become such a buzzword in our industry recently, as if we’re collectively realizing for the first time that things that interact with people... affect... people.

But the conversation of ethics needs to address more than the relationship between UX professionals and the rest of the world. They need to address the relationship the UX professional has with themselves, because self-care is more than ideal, it’s an ethical imperative, a principle or practice required to avoid doing harm unto others.

The American Counseling Association is a membership organization representing licensed professional counselors, counseling students, and other counseling professionals in the United States. Their code of ethics operates under the understanding that “professional values are an important way of living out an ethical commitment.” And here’s where we can learn from the human service professional, especially counselors and therapists: They can’t see their job as possible or feasible without having a self-care regimen.

Their code of ethics has a section called Professional Responsibility. When providing an overview of what they mean by Professional Responsibility, they include this gem:

“Counselors engage in self-care activities to maintain and promote their own emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being to best meet their professional responsibilities.”

While the pursuit of one’s emotional, physical, and mental well-being is more commonly discussed in mainstream news and media, what about spiritual well-being? Better yet, why would a professional organization put that in their code of ethics?

I find Dr. Brene Brown’s view of spirituality incredibly helpful:

“Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.”

For some, this means having faith and connecting with people within your faith community and with God.

For some, this means going on a long walk or a hike in nature.

And for others, it means creating a piece of pottery, reading a book, volunteering, or having a game night with friends.

Your emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being will impact your professional responsibilities, so you must prioritize maintaining and promoting a holistic understanding of your well-being. But you can’t do that until, like human service professionals, you’re able to recognize how much our work impacts people and their lives.

Can you recognize the signs of professional impairment from your own physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual problems?

Do you know how to be vulnerable and humble enough to seek help when you start experiencing them?

This is not easy stuff. For human service professionals, the call for self-care as an ethical imperative is drilled into them while they’re earning their degree by leaders within their industry, and more importantly, they’re professionally held accountable because of their up-close-and-personal roles of being advocates and champions for other people.

It’s time for UX professionals to start doing the same.

Self-care is for UX challenge
Self-care is for UX challenge

Mindful moment: “Research your own experience. Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.” — Bruce Lee

Challenge: Commit 15 minutes to yourself and your well-being this week by completing the two assessments in the PDF below on your professional quality of life and self-care. Then, journal about what stood out to you: Where do you need to grow and what are you doing well, and what would you like to commit to investing your time and energy in moving forward?

Download: Challenge — Self-Care Assessment and Reflection (PDF)


Helping designers thrive.

Thanks to Killian Piraro

Vivianne Castillo

Written by

UX Researcher. Humanity in Tech Advocate-Warrior. Founder of HmntyCntrd ( Choosing courage over comfort.



Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

Vivianne Castillo

Written by

UX Researcher. Humanity in Tech Advocate-Warrior. Founder of HmntyCntrd ( Choosing courage over comfort.



Helping designers thrive. A Medium publication about UX/UI design.

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