The need to find meaning in work leads to greater emotional investment
I went into therapy a week before Christmas, and it took just one session for me to understand what had been building up for ages. I ticked all the burnout boxes,” says 28-year-old Event Coordinator Maria. “This time last year, I’d never even heard of the ‘Millennial Burnout’. Burnout was something that happened to middle-aged corporate men. I’d covered it up, but eventually I screwed up so badly that my boss asked me to take a month off, insisting that I get help. I’ve lost a lot of ground and compromised my professional reputation, but I was lucky. I could have also lost my job.’
A 2014 survey by job-placement service Monster Worldwide found that Millennials are experiencing burnout in the highest numbers—86% as opposed to 76% of their more seasoned colleagues. Other studies reflect the same findings. Most worrying, ‘Millennial burnout’ affects more than the workplace: according to a Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology article, Generational Differences in Young Adults’ Life Goals, Concern Of Others and Civic Orientation, Gen Y’s high levels of burnout are matched by elevated anxiety, depression and mental-health issues. Millennial women are the hardest-hit. “A Millennial Female Burnout Syndrome is emerging,” says Erica Dhawan, strategic consultant and CEO of Cotential. “It’s women
Millennials are constantly engaged and in a way, always ‘working’
Who are ‘burning out by 30’”, writes business journalist Larissa Faw in Forbes magazine.
Why? “Millennials are known for several things: wanting to work for meaning instead of money, environmental consciousness and—last, but not least—perfectionism,” says Robert Biswas-Diener, Co-author of The Upside Of Your Dark Side. According to MTV’s No Collar Worker’s study, this need to find meaning in work leads to longer hours and much greater emotional investment—which take their toll. But perfectionism is the kicker. “The downside to perfectionism is that it’s associated with bodily complaints, increased depression and increased burnout,” says Biswas-Diener. Psychologist Jane Dannerup of jmdpsych.com says that women are often disproportionately affected by the perceived need to be perfect. “Since birth, today’s 20-something women have been bombarded with misleading messages about what’s attainable—from body shape and beauty to work success and relationships,” she says. “They tend to push themselves very hard, often beyond sustainable levels, and become disillusioned when they have only exhaustion and self-depletion to show for it.” On top of this, there’s the economic downturn and lack of job placements, which means Millennials face huge competition and have to work—then harder still to prove themselves and advance. In a workforce tainted by out-moded gender bias, women feel this pressure most keenly. But surely there must be more to the surge in Millennial burnout than perfectionism? Something that’s unique to Gen Y? Long before Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf and Pretty Little Liars’ Spencer Hastings, there were F.R.I.E.N.D.S’ Monica Geller and Desperate Housewives’ Bree Van
De Kamp. Yes, there is more—and it’s what happens when you throw tech 24/7 connectivity into the mix. Where previous generations enjoyed real downtime during which they could check in with themselves in absolute privacy and recharge their batteries without performance pressure, Millennials are constantly engaged, permanently ‘on’ and, in a way, always ‘working’. It’s this, says Dannerup, that has most tipped the scales. “When you’re constantly contactable, you don’t have the opportunity to switch off properly”, she says. “It’s easier to become jaded because, without time for free-association reflection, we aren’t in a head space in which we can identify new desires and ambitions to re-energise ourselves and fuel our passions.”
In terms of how our mind functions, the line between work and leisure has become extremely blurry. There’s not that much difference in the mode between selling your new idea to your colleagues and maintaining your hard-earned Twitter rep while live-Tweeting ‘Our Perfect Wedding’. What’s more, Millennials are increasingly expected to leverage their online presence to the benefit of their employers, with the inevitable result that being connected 24/7 comes scarily close to working 24/7. Viewed in this light, it’s not Millennial burnout that’s remarkable; it’s that the majority of Millennials manage, at least for now, to mask its tell-tale symptoms. But, as Maria knows, if left unchecked, these red flags accumulate until they can no longer remain under the radar. Eventually, burnout’s symptoms become as glaring as a mink coat at an animal-rights demonstration; its obvious effects spill over from the workplace into personal relationships, self-image and even physical health. “‘Tantrum’ is the only word to describe my behaviour on the day my boss insisted I take forced leave,” says Maria. “A client cancelled a gig at the last minute and I totally lost it. I slammed down the phone, screamed a stream of f*cks at the top of my lungs, and didn’t come back for two days. I didn’t care what might happen. I’d stopped caring yonks ago....and not just about work.” “That’s how burnout begins. Little by little, you care less and less,” she says. “You stop feeling invested, slowly until I didn’t even really care about my friendships, my health—my entire life felt like a senseless chore,” she pauses a moment, checks her phone, smiles at some notification or message and says, “I’m lucky. I was so burnt out that I threw my name away. But I kept my job—and I still have friends.”
Sidestep the burnout
How to deal with year-end, high-stress situations:
TALK TO YOUR BOSS
The office is running on a skeleton staff, you’re doing three jobs for the same pay and are always behind on deadlines. “Have a meeting with your boss where you ask for more support, failing which you will quit. And mean it,” says Cape Town clinical psychologist Lydia Batchelor.
EAT AND DRINK
“Make a gap to eat lunch,” says Heidelberg registered dietitian Johanelle Greyling. “Just make sure you eat light food that gives you energy, such as a sandwich on multi-grain bread with a protein filling. Don’t forget to drink water throughout the day. Even a two percent drop in hydration can reduce your energy levels by 20%, according to studies.”
TAKE A BREAK
Step away from your desk and get out of the office! Researchers at California State-University say that even a 10-minute walk during your day instantly boosts your mood and increases energy levels for up to two hours.
Don’t be afraid to appear controlling. Spell everything out to your support team. “Watch your team every step of the way and don’t wait for them to complete the entire project before you check how things are going—get them to feed back to you,’ says Batchelor. “Ensure you have additional time built into your schedule to go through what they give you and to fix errors that may have slipped in”.
SET REALISTIC GOALS
You dream big and work hard, yet another year has almost passed and you’re no closer to being your own boss. Hello, despondency. ‘Reduce your expectations,” says Durban life coach Khosi Shezi.
“Set small goals for yourself and you will view your reality in a more positive light. You might not be the self-employed powerhouse you’d like to be, but you’re gaining experience that’s taking you closer to that long-term dream.”
You’re offered a once-in-a-lifetime work opportunity, but your current schedule is packed. “It’s time to be super-creative in your prioritising and planning”, says Batchelor. “Not all of your tasks need the same level of effort and attention to deal, so stop sweating the small stuff! See what needs you now and what can wait until after that interview.
So much is going on that an hour off Twitter or Instagram leaves you feeling completely out of touch. “Gear down”, says psychologist Jane Dannerup, “Make a conscious choice to spend some time unplugged every day (even if it is for a short period), and you’ll find yourself more in touch with your inner self—and more attuned to what you really want to be doing.”