The Emotional Toll of Working in UX
There are times when our work impacts us deeply — sometimes in ways we neither acknowledge nor understand.
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:
- You like helping people and are fascinated with human behavior.
- You’re curious about how people interact with each other, their experiences, and the ecosystems they live in.
- You enjoy solving problems and learning new things.
- Many UX professionals are paid well, enjoy their work, and find it meaningful. Let’s be honest; who doesn’t want that?
However, if you are a UX professional, you may have either experienced or know of UX professionals who have experienced the following:
- You’ve found yourself being given a directive to “be human-centered” only to have your stakeholders show complete disregard for the human aspect of the research or design.
- You’ve felt overwhelmed, surprised, troubled, or disturbed by something a participant or stakeholder decided to share.
- You’ve either begun a battle with depression, or your battles with depression have become more difficult since you’ve been on a project or in this career.
- You’ve noticed a decline in your relational health with friends, family, or colleagues since you’ve been on a project or in this career.
- In the midst of a project you find yourself having difficulty with concentration, physical/mental/emotional fatigue, emotional eating, intrusive thoughts or images, or apathy.
- You’ve found yourself feeling sad or grieved after a project ends, sometimes struggling to move on to the next one.
- You’ve felt drained after a research session and can’t exactly put your finger on why.
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.
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 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.”
- Anger and irritability
- Physical and mental fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Isolating yourself
- Excessive use of alcohol or drugs
Aside from these symptoms, how can compassion fatigue play out for the UX professional? Here’s a couple of real examples:
- Anger and irritability: You lose patience with a participant in a study and say something potentially shaming or condescending, and you keep abruptly cutting them off to “keep them on track.”
- Difficulty concentrating: You’re having difficulty focusing and finding supporting quotes in your interview transcripts. So you loosely make up some quotes to support one of your key insights, leading to a design decision that overlooks the impact your product has on the speed of gentrification in several major cities.
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:
- Anger and irritability
- Intrusive thoughts or images
- Withdrawal/isolation from colleagues
- Low motivation
- Decline in relational health
Let’s look at a couple of real examples of how this can play out for the UX professional:
- Withdrawal from colleagues: Your colleague is working on an emotionally intense project and asks for your help. You make up a list of reasons why you can’t help and avoid conversations about the project for the next few weeks.
- Intrusive thoughts or images: A troubling story a participant shared with you keeps popping into your head. As you continue your study, you craft questions that would circumvent similar stories from other participants, ultimately leading to a product recommendation getting approval for production.
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.
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?