A deep dive into how millennials became the burnout generation
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“Life felt like a black hole, and I felt like a blob of nothingness. It was a slog… I dreaded going to work so much that I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. The worst part? Nobody who was close to me knew what I was going through. I was ashamed of who I was. I felt so alone.” This is just one of many relatable, heart-wrenching recounts we heard during our recent design sprint at Flourish, where we conducted 20 hours of interviews with people who have experienced burnout.
After Buzzfeed published the article, How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, burnout became a trending topic. Social media was flooded with people sharing their personal experiences with burnout and the ways it had affected their lives. A trail of follow-on articles about burnout were published in The Economist, Forbes, Medium and The Atlantic.
Burnout is not a new problem, but the changing nature of work and other factors unique to the millennial experience may make us more susceptible than other generations.
A Gallup survey found that 70% of millennials have experienced some form of burnout and 28% are often or always burned out. Blind, a platform that facilitates anonymous conversations about work, shows a similar trend. In a survey asking, “Are you currently suffering from job burnout?” 57% of 11,500 respondents said yes. It seems safe to say that half of us experience burnout in some form.
This data corresponds with my own experiences.
A few years ago, I was living my dream life — traveling the world, working for a prestigious firm, influencing how billions of dollars would be spent to improve livelihoods of African farmers living on less than $1 per day. It was everything I spent my entire life working toward.
This seemingly perfect image of my life had a dark underside. Traveling all over the world meant I was perpetually exhausted, constantly eating out, and never sleeping regularly. My work was so meaningful to me that I allowed the lines between my personal and professional life to erode. I could no longer tell where my work ended and my life began. A recent promotion came with responsibilities I wasn’t prepared for, and I was petrified that everyone would discover I was in over my head.
I was burned out, and I had no idea.
A lifetime as a high achiever taught me that I could work my way out of any problem I encountered, but this time things were different. Work was the problem (or at least I thought it was at the time). Instead, I tried something radically different: I quit. I did less. My mentor, Sundeep Ahuja, set me on a year-long path focused on instilling habits focused on improving myself, my health, and my relationships.
My success with building new habits inspired me to help others do the same. I started Flourish, a company that helps busy professionals build lasting habits through a 1–1 virtual coaching program. Through coaching I’ve come to learn so much about my clients.
Then I had a light bulb moment.
The kicker? The suddenly popular discussion about burnout led me to realize that most of my current clients wanted to re-tool their routines because they too were struggling with burnout.
After this realization, I knew I wanted to dive deep into the subject of burnout. I was most curious about two key questions:
1) What is the experience of burnout really like? The articles discussed this, but I suspected they only scratched the surface when it came to understanding what burnout is really like. I knew from my own experiences that it can be quite serious, even something akin to a depressive episode.
2) What causes burnout, and is there an antidote? Connecting with others through a discussion of shared experience, and bringing awareness to a hidden struggle are both important steps. But I am, at my core, a problem-solver. I wanted to understand what things one can do to climb out of the burnout valley of death or prevent falling into it in the first place.
The problem resonated with the rest of the team at Flourish, so we decided to spend our upcoming design sprint investigating the two questions above. We interviewed individuals who have experienced burnout in the past and others who were currently burned out at the time of the interview.
The result? Some insights and many many more questions.
Like I mentioned, burnout is a complex problem. There’s still much work to be done, and I plan to dive deeper in future blog posts as we learn more. Below are 7 preliminary insights the team at Flourish developed in our first research and design sprint:
What is the experience of burnout really like?
1) People think burnout is akin to driving off a cliff, but the process is far more gradual, so there’s potential to see it coming (but no one does — see insight #2).
Reaching the point of burnout isn’t something that happens overnight; it’s a slow process in which normalization occurs frequently. One person retrospectively explained that she felt like a frog in boiling water: at work, the negative changes occurred slowly and over time, so she was unable to see that her work culture was extremely unhealthy. She became desensitized to a work environment that would’ve been alarming to walk into on her first day. Looking back on the experience she couldn’t believe she endured all that she did.
I envision a path to burnout looking something like this:
Even though there is potential to see burnout coming, awareness is decreasing as burnout is intensifying. So, even the most self-aware individuals might struggle to see what’s going on. I’ll touch on this more in insight 2.
2) Burnout affects your ability to objectively perceive reality. It is common to be in the thick of burnout without even realizing it.
When a person is burned out, their self-awareness decreases. It seems that as we become more exhausted our cognitive capacities become impaired which prevents us from accurately perceiving reality.
Furthermore, we have a tendency to remember only the most intense and the last emotions of an experience, so when we’re burned out, we don’t remember many, if any, of our good experiences. Instead, we subconsciously focus on the worst parts.
More often than not, we either don’t see we’re burned out unless someone in our support system notices and helps us take a step back and see the scenario at face value, or unless it reaches an extreme–for example, one person we interviewed had a stress-induced seizure.
What causes burnout, and is there an antidote?
3) People often think burnout is caused by volume of work, but you can become burned out even if you’re only working from 9–5.
You can become burned out even if you’re working under 40 hours a week. The majority of us have narrowly defined work as ‘the job we are paid to do’. The reality is that work frequently extends beyond the scope of the workplace. We have household tasks, some of us are parents, and there are other tasks like running errands and paying taxes that can begin to take a toll. All these responsibilities begin to accumulate and can feel more like work than your day job.
As one person put it, “I’m redefining my definition of work. When most people think of work they think it’s for money, but I think there are three types of work: work you do to make a living, work to maintain a household, and creative work… home work and job work are typically regarded as being on different playing fields, but I’m trying to shift my focus to view them equally because they both require the same level of energy. Now I’m defining work as anything that requires your focused attention and energy.” To avoid burnout, you need to make time to relax, play, and recharge. There’s even value in doing nothing.
4) The millennial drive to find work that is meaningful or impactful has an insidious dark side that can lead to burnout.
Burnout is a condition that has historically been observed in people who work in “giving” professions (eg: doctors, first responders, teachers). The millennial drive to find work that is impact-oriented and mission-driven makes us more susceptible to this kind of fatigue.
In an interview that went viral, Simon Sinek claims that millennials, more than other generations, search for jobs that are impactful. The LinkedIn Purpose at Work report shows 30% of millennial candidates want a job where they feel their work matters. Often, we also want to feel like we’re having an impact as quickly as possible.
Knowing that your work is impactful is an incredible feeling. It makes work fun and fulfilling, but there’s a dark side to meaningful work, with two main components:
a) Having an impact takes time. We want instant gratification, which makes it incredibly difficult to feel a sense of deep fulfillment in life.
As Simon Sinek points out, we’re often unhappy at work because we don’t feel we’re having the type of impact we’d like. The constant dopamine rushes provided by technology have trained us to crave instant gratification. The reality is that having an impact often takes time. When there is a lack of alignment between our expectations and reality it’s easy to feel unhappy, Tim Urban uses this equation, Happiness = Reality — Expectations, in a different, but relevant context.
Similarly, Adam “Smiley” Poswolsky, an expert in helping millennials find meaningful work, explains (in an interview on how to find meaningful work in the age of job-hopping) that the notion that we can instantaneously find meaning in a job is false, and the idea is perpetuated by marketing teams. Smiley says it takes time to find what’s meaningful to us and doing so occurs through a trial and error process.
When we feel as though we’re not having the type of impact at work we’d like to, our gut tells us it’s more about the job itself than our relationship with work, so we quit and start the process again in a new role.
b) When we do find work we believe is impactful, it’s easy to throw ourselves into it because it’s so aligned with our personal identity and mission that it doesn’t feel like work.
This is dangerous because even though our job might not feel like work at first, it still requires physical and emotional energy. If you deplete these energy levels without replenishing them for long enough, and add in additional factors common in many workplaces — like a strained relationship with a boss, or working on an intense project without a clear deadline — you’ve set the stage for the perfect burnout “storm.”
5) Cultural trends are dissolving the boundaries between work and the rest of our lives. A lack of boundaries is one of the causes of burnout.
Technology makes it easier than ever to connect with others, especially work colleagues. This opens the door for remote workforces, but it can be a double-edged sword.
In theory, remote-work technology means you can get work done on your own terms, leaving you with more personal time and flexibility. In practice, this rarely works. Instead, the “always-on” nature of technology means most people allow their work to creep into their nights and weekends. We respond to emails and Slack messages from our bosses first thing in the morning, right before we go to bed, and even on weekends. Along with each of these messages come surges of stress and dopamine, and a hijacking of our thought processes that make it increasingly difficult to find time where we’re not doing work or thinking about doing work.
As a result, our lives become boundary-less. This blurring of the boundary between work and personal life was a consistent theme in the lives of those we interviewed who have experienced burnout.
One interviewee explained that she is trying to be more intentional about not checking her work email on Sundays, but explained that, “Sometimes the urge is so strong that I can’t help but check and quickly respond to an email… it’s hard to not open an email after you’ve seen the notification.”
Today’s work culture seems to worsen this problem as “catching up on work over the weekend” becomes more and more the norm. Organizational leaders set the example, and individual contributors follow suit as we vie to prove our worth in an increasingly competitive work environment.
Another interviewee talked about his struggle with work on the weekends. He goes into each weekend feeling behind on work, so catching up becomes a priority. But, the reality is that he rarely ends up doing any work. Instead, he spends time feeling guilty about the fact that he’s not working, which means he loses his weekend and doesn’t get any work done.
6) People think vacations are the quick fix, but it almost never helps.
If you feel as though you’re in dire need of a vacation, it might be a good indicator that you’re burned out. The warning sign of needing a vacation is of greater benefit than the vacation itself.
Vacation is an escape from work. It’s a temporary pause where you don’t have to work, but the reality is, when you return to work, your burnout will likely return. You might even be stressed about work while on vacation.
The same individual who reported the struggle of not checking her work emails on the weekend said the same was true while she was on vacation. Because she was constantly thinking about work, she didn’t feel her vacation was relaxing.
Because it can be challenging to change your place of work, most of the changes to prevent burnout require adjustments to your personal life.
7) But, there’s a bright side — after you’ve gone through a cycle of burnout, you often come away with deep personal insight.
Something that is incredibly striking about the burnout experience is the amount of growth an individual undergoes after overcoming burnout. Most people seem to go through a transformation that results from the deep personal insight associated with reaching the depths of the burnout valley of death.
Confronting the feelings of failure often associated with the burnout experience results in a mindset shift. This shows up in three ways:
a) People realize what is important in life and that work doesn’t matter as much as they thought it did.
Realizing that your work doesn’t define who you are and how you’re viewed by those you care about is incredibly freeing. Those we interviewed emerged from burnout with the realization that work is not worth sacrificing your health, relationships, or personal interests. One venture investor said there are “very few things you can do at this point of your life that will f*** up your future… it’s ok not to care… everything doesn’t have to be perfect all the time.” This results in better management of work-related expectations and a greater willingness to say no when it means protecting themselves and the things they value.
b) They accept the possibility of not living up to societal and/or personal expectations.
As millennials, we have had tremendous pressure to “succeed” placed on us from an early age. What’s crazy is that most of the notions of success that underpin this pressure in no way correlate with our happiness, so building our lives around them is dangerous.
After experiencing burnout, most of the people we spoke with discarded adherence to the expectations placed on them by others and reframed their own expectations of themselves to be more consistent with the things they value. One co-founder of a YC-darling that flamed-out described how he had been plagued by the concern of whether his mom would think of him as a failure. This was his first professional setback, but after coming out the other side, he felt more resilient and noted that “in the end, my mom still loved me.”
c) They develop a healthier relationship with work that leads to increased happiness.
The two realizations above make it so much easier to develop a healthy relationship with work — one where your self-worth is not as dependent on your work performance and you maintain a healthier boundary between your work and non-work time. Work (and thoughts about work) don’t so easily spill into nights and weekends because you feel comfortable turning your phone off or waiting until Monday to respond to the email from your boss.
That’s not to say you’re forever immune to burnout after experiencing it once. Often people experience burnout multiple times. But each time it becomes a little easier to see coming and cope with, until you eventually get so good at spotting the warning signs that you can prevent it altogether.
This story originally appeared on Flourish’s blog.