We wanted to address a new article by Anne Helen Petersen featured on Buzzfeed. This article has received a flurry of media attention. You have probably seen it floating around on the internet. However, we believe this article has missed some really important research. Scientists have been studying burnout, who gets burnt out, and how to solve this problem for decades. As you know, we are passionate about sharing good workplace wellness research to help members of all generations lead happier and healthier lives. Plus, we are also researchers who have spent time studying this topic. So, we feel particularly inclined to respond to the main points that she raises. Read more for our take on the main points of her viral article!

First of all, what is burnout?

As we have discussed before, burnout is a response to stress. Burnout includes emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of feelings of accomplishment. Research on burnout has existed since the early 1980s and has been heavily studied ever since. In other words, burnout isn’t new or relevant only to Millennials. Employees have been burnt out for years (which isn’t a good thing – but it isn’t untrue). Additionally, researchers have been studying ways to address the impacts of burnout for that long as well.

Petersen cites that Millennials are currently working in an environment under which “Millennials needed to optimize [them]selves to be the very best workers possible.” However, this is true of all employees – we are all working within the same political and economic conditions.

Finally, she also mentions that there is a massive cognitive burden that comes along with financial instability. That’s true – financial stability is related to wellbeing – but this is true for all generations. While it is the case that Millennials shoulder more school debt than prior generations, employees working in low wage jobs have always suffered from being unable to make ends meet, regardless of age. Further, research which has examined the impact of financial security versus autonomy in over 60 countries shows that autonomy is more important than money for predicting burnout. Thus, the idea that burnout is a Millennial condition or something new, or something that can’t be understood and alleviated, is simply untrue.

Burnout is a real thing – but it happens to everyone!

Is “errand paralysis” real?

The main way in which Petersen categorizes her burnout is as “errand paralysis”. This was described as burnout that appears only when attempting to complete life tasks that aren’t urgent or necessary for career success. However, the research on burnout shows that it is a strain which results from stress in an overarching way. So, it wouldn’t be contained only to one aspect of one’s life, such as errands. Sure, when you’re burnt out, the least important things on your list might get pushed off. But, the bigger problem is that your burnout is likely affecting your work performance – in all aspects of your work – whether you know it or not.

Further, counter to what Petersen and the psychoanalyst she quotes (Josh Cohen) say, we actually don’t know the prevalence of burnout prior to the 1980s. We do know that it has been around since researchers have defined and measured it. However, just like all other measures of employee metrics of wellbeing, burnout varies across people, industries, and job types. In other words, the premise that burnout has been increasing over time is not necessarily false, but it also isn’t true.

Finally, Petersen is right that it remains true that women continue to be held responsible for spending more time on household tasks compared to their equally employed male counterparts. However, women and men report similar levels of burnout, when you look across different components. Women report more emotional exhaustion, while men report greater depersonalization. But, their burnout levels are the same overall. So, inequality in housework is certainly an issue that we need to continue to solve at a societal level. But, the story regarding gender and burnout appears to be more complex.

So, are Millennials different when it comes to burnout?


The short answer is no. Or, at the very least, we need a lot more research on this topic to be completed before we can make any assertions about it. In fact, the very idea of generational differences has been hotly contested by scientists. We don’t have a lot of evidence to suggest that generational differences aren’t just due to age effects, since we don’t have studies that followed people over time to see if they stay the same across the many phases of their lives.

In other words, while many individuals in older generations may look back at their lives with rose colored glasses (which is a normal human phenomenon), we don’t actually know if they were similar to Millennials today when they were young. We all like to think we have remained static over time. But, research has not yet determined if that’s the case. If it’s not, the idea of generational differences simply boils down to differences in stages of life.

People may think that Millennials are the only ones who experience burnout – but it’s more complicated than that!

How can you address burnout?

While burnout is awful, there are things you can do at the individual level to address it. While self-care is a big industry, it doesn’t cost a lot of money to take care of yourself. We agree that it can be overwhelming to try to achieve all of your wellness goals. Should you go to yoga, cook healthy meals, do a HIIT workout, practice mindfulness or go to bed early? The options are overwhelming. However, all of these things are helpful in their own way. Find a combination that works for you and you’ll likely see burnout decrease.

Research supports the idea that burnout can be decreased by things like disconnecting and time off, gratitude, yoga, sleep, and mindfulness. If you’re interested in trying new, research-based practices to increase your wellness, you can take a look at our workplace wellness reset for ideas.

Petersen mentions that leaders are asking Millennials to disconnect, but Millennials are ignoring their requests (which we don’t have evidence for either). This is also a solvable problem. If that’s the case, listen to the data that is coming from others and try to take steps to decrease your burnout and disconnect from work. Burnout is only impossible to tackle if you do nothing about it. Just acknowledging it is not enough. That’s true for all generations!

Conclusions

Don’t feel discouraged – whether you’re a Millennial or not. While legislation, advocacy, and good business practices can address burnout, you can also make an impact. Find the strategies that work for you (and leverage the content and resources we share!). Help others around you to build positive team culture. Good luck out there – and hooray for science! Do you have any strategies that work well for you? How did you feel after reading the Buzzfeed article?

13 Comments

  1. This article tried to make some good points but seems mainly an attempt to ride a viral hit for a few coat-tail-clicks. Which is a fine and smart content strategy. Lacks citations and the main points meander off into “the story is .. complex” and “while not false it isn’t necessarily true” without drawing any conclusions. Love the canned attempt at reader engagement at the end “do you have anything to add” article rating: 2/5

    1. Hi Cynical Cyam! Thanks for engaging with our content. We appreciate cynics 🙂 – cynicism fuels the research process! Just to clarify – the hyperlinks in the article actually take you to high quality research articles (mostly meta-analyses) which support the points we made. If you read through those, you’ll get even more info that supports our main points. Unfortunately, one of the things that makes it difficult to communicate scientific evidence to the public is that it IS complicated. There are a lot of intervening variables that impact direct correlations between any X and Y you might choose. That’s why anecdotal stories are not helpful – they are full of variables that are testable – and often have been tested – but the generalizable studies often result in different findings than an N of 1 would suggest. And we would never say that something is false if it hasn’t been tested, just that we don’t know if it’s true (so, saying it is true would be false, but so would saying it is untrue). Sometimes that can make for a more nuanced read but it’s a much more accurate way of stating what we do know than trying to make assertions that aren’t backed up by data. While our motivation is to write these pieces to get scientific info out to general audiences (we are full time scientists who do this as a side project because we are passionate about it), we would be more than happy to discuss the data analyzed in the studies or point you to further reading if you’re interested in learning more!

    2. So your critique is that the author A) wrote about a popular topic, B) didn’t present conclusions where none existed, and C) offered their readers a chance too engage them, which you took advantage of.

  2. minor typo: “If you’re interested in trying new, research-based practices to decrease your wellness, you can take a look at our workplace wellness reset for ideas.” Increase wellness, decrease stress, right?

    1. Thanks Christian! Great catch :). We have updated the post. We appreciate you flagging that up for us and hope you liked the content of the article!

  3. I thought this was a good read. What I took from it was that burnout is a real thing but Millenial Burnout is more of a label at this point than a phenomenon.

    I guess my question is, why is there a perceived burnout? I’m sure the extremely high levels of student loan debt contribute, but is there something else going on?

    1. That’s a great question! While we don’t know if burnout has actually increased over time, I do agree that people are talking about it a lot. I think that’s why there’s this big perception of burnout being more prevalent. It reminds me of the issue of diagnoses. Think about autism for example. When autism became diagnosable and frequently discussed, the number of diagnoses increased exponentially. That isn’t to say autism didn’t exist beforehand. It just wasn’t talked about or diagnosed. I think the same is true for burnout. Wellness has become a popular topic and there’s a lot of places we can discuss wellness (with access to the internet, social media, etc.) So I think there may just be more of an awareness around burnout than there had been in the past. Another theory (again theory – this isn’t based in data), is the increase of women in the workplace. More women are working than ever before and I think as we continue to become a force at work, we discuss issues that maybe men were less likely to discuss openly. As we get a more diverse workforce, the varying perspectives can bring issues and ideas to light that may not have been discussed previously.

      Hope this answers your question! Again, we don’t have data supporting these theories (that I’m aware of) and don’t know if burnout incidence has actually changed. But, hopefully, these theories help you think about the burnout problem!

      Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

  4. Hi. Late to the party here. 🙁 I liked your article. The Buzzfeed article necessitated a response (and I know there have been others). Reading the original article, a side of me wanted to scream, “That’s not what burnout is!”

    Unfortunately, while most of us familiar with the research *tend* to agree that burnout is a psychological syndrome characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of efficacy — resulting from prolonged exposure to job stress, I often question who gets to be the final arbiter of what burnout is. I think part of the problem was with how Maslach originally framed the term. Sure, Freudenberger had already used it to describe certain drug addicts, but then Maslach interviewed Human Service employees and as she heard them describe their situation, she asked, “Is it this?” and “Is it that?” and when she finally asked, “Is it burnout?” the subjects exclaimed, “That’s it!”

    I’m not sure that’s a great way to name a syndrome. Other researchers define it differently — in Sweden and Netherlands it’s considered a medical condition (something Maslach refutes); the JD-R Model of Burnout focuses only on 2 dimensions (exhaustion and disengagement from work); the Copenhagen Burnout inventory addresses three domains (personal burnout, work burnout, client burnout). In fact, I think Petersen’s “errand paralysis” may, indeed, show up as burnout on the Copenhagen Inventory.

    The syndrome Maslach described was linked to the term “burnout” because it’s a familiar term that resonated with subjects. Consequently, I think people who use the term to subjetively describe themselves may “own” it more than researchers or wellbeing/psych practitioners.

    I’m not sure about this. But whenever I hear people use the term burnout to mean… just about anything (like Petersen did)… I try to catch myself before judging, “Oh, THAT’S not really burnout.” It’s like sadness. If someone says they’re sad, I believe them. I don’t ask them to complete a diagnostic form — it is what they say it is. That’s different from more clinically validated terms, like, say, bipolar disorder. If burnout was called, “Work-Related Tri-Phasic Dysfunction,” we wouldn’t have this problem.

    One quibble with your article. In your “How Can You Address Burnout,” I was surprised, especially as you seem to be subscribing to a relatively classic, Maslach-istic definition of burnout, that you chose not to note that individual change is generally considered secondary. Maslach, and most others who have followed, argued strongly that burnout primarily requires changes to the workplace psychosocial environment.

    As for generational strata, like “millenials”… yeah, that’s a load of b.s. 🙂

    Sorry for the rambling comment. I appreciate your article and look forward to exploring more of your blog and site.

    1. Hi Bob! Thanks for your comment and for taking time to read the article! We really appreciate it. While there have been several definitions of burnout used throughout time in the literature, as you note, the way that we conceptualize burnout is in alignment with what has shown the strongest statistical reliability and predictability, both with regard to the content of the experience of burnout and its correlates. So, while there may be a lot of negative experiences and emotions that individuals have in the workplace (which certainly have value if they are being recognized and felt by individuals), in a technical sense, they may not constitute “burnout” via the scientific definition. While this may be a technical detail, it does help us to compare studies to one another (“are they examining burnout or some other negative experience?”) by limiting the content domain only to items that have been tested and retested to ensure that they are measuring distinct facets of one higher-order construct, which is related to correlates that make theoretical sense based on the operational definition of burnout. In other words, there are common definitions of burnout and a statistically validated way to measure the concept, but there are certainly many other ways in which individuals might name their negative work outcomes that still have individual meaning and are likely predictive of individual negative outcomes. Hopefully this makes sense – we are happy to continue the dialogue if you’d like!! Thanks again for your input!!

      1. That does make sense. Thanks.

        I think you have a lot more confidence than I, at this point, in “common definitions of burnout and a statistically validated way to measure the concept.” You likely heard about the articles in JAMA last fall. One, a meta-analysis, found that variability in how (physician) burnout is defined and measured rendered it impossible to conclude anything about it. The researchers encountered “at least 142 unique definitions for meeting overall burnout or burnout subscale criteria…, at least 58 unique ways of labeling individuals as experiencing burnout” based on the range of definitions, and “at least 47 unique implementations” of the Maslach Burnout Inventory. (I can’t link to JAMA, but if you didn’t see the articles, there’s a good summary at https://www.aafp.org/news/focus-on-physician-well-being/20181008burnoutresearch.html)

        To your point, all the more reason to adopt standardization. But as it stands now, I think burnout research is quite a bit messier than we’ve understood it to be.

        Thank you for the dialog (I listened to your podcast episode on this topic, after posting my initial comment, and loved it. You have a new subscriber!). I appreciate Workr Beeing’s generosity with info and your open spirit about it, and I look forward to continuing to learn from you.

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