Millennial Burnout – and How to Avoid It

Millennial Burnout – and How to Avoid It

In January 2019, Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen wrote an article entitled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” and in doing so, popularized the concept of “millennial burnout.”  Like many of my friends, the piece hit a little too close to home for me.  As I read, like Petersen, I found that I, too, had developed an anxiety around the tedious and everyday.  We have been trained as a generation to believe our worth is directly tied to our productivity.  What purpose, then, do we have when we are not producing?  Millennials have been trained to be perfect cogs in a capitalist machine, to the point where we feel strong discomfort when we exert energy that doesn’t directly lead to profit.

 

The problems with this kind of socialization should be immediately obvious, but it’s not just that millennials don’t know how to relax.  Everyday tasks have turned into monumental obstacles because they don’t relate to our ability to turn a profit.  Calling the doctor’s office to set up an appointment?  Filing taxes?  Doing laundry?  Some of these chores and errands may only take a few minutes, but that’s all time that could be spent instead making money.  “Rise and grind” isn’t just a motivating quote anymore; it’s become the millennial mission statement.  Wake up.  Work.  Sleep.  Repeat.

 

It’s not a tenable lifestyle, and young adults are paying the price.  All work and no play make Johnny an empty husk of who he used to be.  The modern definition of “self-care” as mani-pedis and a tub of Ben & Jerry’s only exists because actually taking care of ourselves--looking after our health, our hygiene, our moods--no longer seems possible in our minds.  But this isn’t a problem we can just slap a Band-Aid on; it’s going to take more than a bath bomb to stop this burnout tidal wave.

 

Let’s not lose all hope, however.  Like many of the seemingly insurmountable problems facing today’s society, we can turn millennial burnout around.  We have the technology.  But we’re going to need to accept some hard truths to move past it:

·       Millennial burnout is real, and it’s affecting millions of people in their 20s and 30s.

·       Individual strategies for coping with the burnout may not work for all affected by it.

·       To see real, long-term change, we need to make major adjustments at the systemic level.

As for that last point . . . well, Rome wasn’t built in a day.  It’s going to take some time for the rising generation to inherit control of governments and businesses and commit to affecting change.  In the meantime, we have some suggestions on how to keep your fire going.

 

What is Millennial Burnout?

 

The first step to solving a problem is to name it.  Burnout can be used in a variety of contexts, but the most common is in regards to employment.  Millennial burnout is no exception to this rule.

 

Job burnout is described as a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors from work, as expressed through exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.[1]  So what makes millennials so special?  Well, we’re the fastest growing working population.  By 2020, millennials will account for 46% of the American workforce.[2]  And we’re older than some people think.  Despite the use of “millennials” as a synonym for “youth” in discussions about generational divides, and a somewhat nebulous set of boundaries of who, exactly, falls into the millennial age bracket, most researchers acknowledge that millennials are, today, between 22-37 years old.[3]  We’re not children anymore, but without the same economic opportunities awarded to our parents, we’re entering the workforce with less compensation and more debt.  Thus, the millennial grind.

 

New adults are facing an economy unlike any ever seen before.  We exist under very specific circumstances, and we require very specific solutions.

 

Disconnect

 

            It takes work to avoid burnout.  As mentioned above, its leading cause is the inability to ever leave work fully at the office.  Your employer will want you to work as much as possible, and you will feel uncomfortable when not doing so.  It’s up to you to set boundaries and enforce them.

 

            The first step is to work only during work hours.  That means turning your phone off and walking away when it’s time to go home.  Research shows that those with greater work ambitions are more likely to continue working during their off hours, but it also shows that they experience greater tension between themselves and their significant others when it comes to work-to-life conflict.[4]  Your job is important, but ask yourself: is it worth taking time away from your loved ones?

 

            Disconnecting is even more difficult for millennials with online presence.  I’m not saying you have to give up Facebook and Twitter, but I am saying that if you do have social media accounts, you should strongly consider making duplicates on each platform: one for work, and one for your personal life.  Just like with email addresses, the more you can do to physically separate your work life from your personal life, the easier it will be for you to follow through, mentally.

 

Ask the Hard Questions

 

            In today’s day and age, there is a greater onus on employers to ensure the health and wellbeing of their employees than ever before.  In the wake of the #MeToo movement and other civil rights battles, companies are now under greater scrutiny, and the general public will no longer let slide abuses of power that would have been acceptable only a decade ago.

 

            With a shrinking job market and a rising gig economy as a means to survival, millennials are frequently so grateful to have a full-time job that they don’t dare create any confrontations with their employers.  But business owners have an obligation to protect their staff’s wellbeing, and you have the right to inquire as to what measures are being taken to fulfill that obligation.  What initiatives have been taken to raise and sustain morale?  To create a work-life balance? To account for workforce emotional labor in addition to their mental and/or physical work?

 

            As intimidating as it may be to go to your HR representative and ask these questions, remind yourself that they are all perfectly reasonable and professional inquiries; any employer worth their salt should be fully prepared and happy to answer them.  If anyone does give you grief, remind them that caring about the health and wellbeing of their employees benefits business owners most of all.  According to a 2002 study, “worker depression may have its greatest impact on productivity losses, including increased absenteeism and short-term disability, higher turnover, and suboptimal performance at work.”[5]

 

            Happy workers are productive workers.  A workplace that promotes and protects the health and wellbeing of its employees creates an environment where everybody wins.

 

Ask for Help (and Help Others Do the Same)

 

            You may feel like you need to handle your stress on your own and I’m here to tell you: you don’t.  If you need it, ask for help.  Humans are communal animals; it’s in our DNA to support one another.[6]           Millennials have spent so much time being talked down to by older generations, that we have a drive to prove our own independence—but we can be independent, and still get support from others.

 

Asking for help can be challenging for anyone, so if you have the capacity to do so, learning to see the signs of burnout may help prevent it from developing in colleagues who don’t have to confidence to reach out.  The science shows that we all know what burnout looks like in our coworkers, in retrospect; employees who worked with colleagues who burned out noted afterward that they had noticed those employees falling apart at work, isolating themselves, setting and then failing to reach unrealistic goals, emotionally distancing themselves, and a tending towards self-sacrifice.[7] 

 

You may be the last line of defense between a coworker you like and them totally breaking down.  Even more importantly, becoming more cognizant of the signs of burnout will teach others how to do the same.

 

Delegate

 

            Part of the millennial-specific part of burnout is this desire for status, recognition, and commendation.  We want to control every step of a project because we want full credit for it when it succeeds.

           

            Unfortunately, under those circumstances, it rarely does.

 

            Burnout is about more than just workload; it’s about responsibility as well.  It’s far easier to take on more tasks as a member of a team if someone else is still ultimately culpable for a project’s success. A good manager leads a team, allowing individual members to focus on the project tasks that are best suited to their skills.  Trying to take all of that on by yourself is insane.

 

            If you have trouble ceding control, you need to learn to let go.  Not only will this help you focus your energies on your own urgent matters, but research shows it will also help those you work with develop their own decision-making and problem-solving skills.[8]

 

Keeping the Flame Alive

 

            Burnout affects people of all ages, but millennials feel it worse than our predecessors because we have been socialized to dedicate our entire lives to capital--and nothing else.  But money isn’t everything, nor is the pursuit thereof.  Your first obligation should not be to your boss, but to yourself: take care of your basic needs first, and if you have the energy and capacity to dedicate to productivity after that, by all means, full steam ahead.  Just remember: an effective engine burns low and long.

 


[1] Leiter, Michael P., and Christina Maslach. “Job Burnout.” Wiley Encyclopedia of Management, 2015, pp. 1–2., doi:10.1002/9781118785317.weom110006.

[2] Sao, Ruchi. “What Do Millennials Desire For? A Study of Expectations From Workplace.” Helix, vol. 8, no. 6, 2018, pp. 4157–4160., doi:10.29042/2018-4157-4160.

[3] “New Guidelines Redefine Birth Years for Millennials, Gen-X, and 'Post-Millennials'.” Mental Floss, 2 Mar. 2018, mentalfloss.com/article/533632/new-guidelines-redefine-birth-years-millennials-gen-x-and-post-millennials

[4] Wright, Kevin B., et al. “Work-Related Communication Technology Use Outside of Regular Work Hours and Work Life Conflict.” Management Communication Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 4, 2014, pp. 507–530., doi:10.1177/0893318914533332.

[5] Lusk, Sally L. “The Business Case for Mental Health Services.” AAOHN Journal, vol. 50, no. 9, 2002, pp. 394–396., doi:10.1177/216507990205000905.

[6] Morgan, Nick. “We Humans Are Social Beings - And Why That Matters For Speakers and Leaders.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 2 Sept. 2015, www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorgan/2015/09/01/we-humans-are-social-beings-and-why-that-matters-for-speakers-and-leaders/#fc2fa1c6abda.

[7] Ericson-Lidman, Eva, and Gunilla Strandberg. “Burnout: Co-Workers? Perceptions of Signs Preceding Workmates? Burnout.” Journal of Advanced Nursing, vol. 60, no. 2, 2007, pp. 199–208., doi:10.1111/j.1365-2648.2007.04399.x.

[8] “Managing Stress/Avoiding Burnout.” PsycEXTRA Dataset, 2006, doi:10.1037/e597972007-001.

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