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.
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.
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 decrease 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!
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?