Are millennials more likely to suffer from burnout?
Millennials want to thrive and be successful at work, but at what cost?
“I was stupidly stressed, I couldn’t eat normally. I was so stressed I could only drink water. My hair fell out, I couldn’t even have a conversation,” recalls Lyndsey Johnson, 33 and CEO of a marketing agency. Lyndsey is a millennial that, like over half of workers in the UK, experienced severe burnout from their job. She managed to recover, but many others haven’t had the same luck.
Burnout. That state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. When you’re burned out, every day is a bad day. You feel emotionally drained, overwhelmed, empty and unable to perform efficiently and cope with the demands of work and life.
Burnout is generally caused by a long-lasting period of high-intensity stress, such as working under pressure and for very long hours during a long period of time. “It is something that has been building up for months or even years. And it is often triggered through work,” says Kirsten Godfrey, an occupational psychologist from the British Psychological Society. “If not treated, it can trigger further health complications.”
Research has shown that burnout affects all generations in the workplace, but a viral Buzzfeed article written by reporter Anne Helen Peterson declared that millennials are “the burnout generation”. She describes millennials as the generation whose upbringing, the economic environment they grew up in and social media has caused them to be so burned out that they struggle to do the most simple or mundane tasks, while still holding down dynamic and successful careers.
Many millennials, described as those born between 1981 and 2000, have resonated with this article, including Lyndsey:
“When I went through burnout, I was so focused on my career and my business that simple little things such as going shopping for groceries weren’t on my radar. I thought it was pointless, I had other more important things to do to keep my career successful.”
Sally Baker, a senior therapist who treats millennials on the daily, explains how they have grown up in an environment that makes it almost impossible for them to achieve the dreams they were raised to strive for.
Millennials, often described as ‘the snowflake generation’ have been critically stereotyped by other age groups over the years. They have been called lazy, selfish and entitled, crybabies and obsessed with themselves and taking ‘selfies.’ However, research has shown that millennials are experiencing higher levels of work-related stress, anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide than generations past.
Despite this, psychologist Roxane Gervais does not agree with the claims Anne Helen Peterson made in her popular article. “I think that what she said about millennials being more prone to suffer from burnout is her personal perception. She based that article on the challenges she was experiencing, but it is not based on any structured research. She can’t generalise an entire group of people without having evidence to back that up.” In fact, although it’s often said that millennials are different from older generations, there’s little evidence to support it. Most studies attempting to demonstrate differences between millennials and other generations just show dissimilarities between young people and older people.
Roxane also disagrees on the assumption that millennials are more likely to suffer from mental illnesses. “I think part of the reason why it seems to be more prominent now is because more people are raising the issue. People are more willing to step forward and admit they suffer from a mental health condition,” she explains.
On the other hand, Kirsten Godfrey says that millennials are the most perfectionist generation to date, which can translate to a higher risk of burning out. A recent study by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill confirms Kirsten’s statement. “People who tend to burn out are high achievers, ambitious people who want to be the best at everything,” she says. Even though ambition can be a great way to achieve success and progress, it can also carry many risks to the wellbeing of the individual, as it can cause feelings of worthlessness, mania and anxiety.
“People want to have everything. They want to have a great job, go to the gym all the time, meet their friends, see their family, get loads of sleep… but that is just not realistic. You need to narrow down what you want to achieve every day or every week. You can’t do everything,” she explains.
Suki K. Bassi, who runs a wellbeing business to help employees thrive and stay away from burnout, argues that another reason for the rise of burnout among millennials is that they have entered the world of work at a time where, because of the rise of technology, “they are always available and ‘always on’”, making it harder to draw the line between work and life. Soma Ghosh, a careers adviser and counsellor, argues that this is a problem wider than just with millennials. “I think it’s a problem of the current work culture we have,” she says.
On the other end of the spectrum, Kim Aviv, a 27-year-old CEO, claims she has never suffered from burnout. For her, burnout is “a state of mind” and “a mental weakness”. She is a firm believer that “in today's world, where individuals have boundless opportunities when it comes to their careers, one’s “life” and “work" shouldn’t be separate concepts. We spend half of our life at work, if not more. Inherently, success at work also means success in life, because work is part of life.”