The nature of work has changed a lot over the last couple of decades. As a result, modern workplaces have constantly adapted to new technologies, expanded globally, and had frequent restructuring.
One of the unfortunate consequences of all these changes and uncertainty is burnout. Employees often work long hours to get ahead, however, they are losing touch with their inner compass in the process.
But what is burnout, what are the causes, and how to prevent burnout from happening?
How the childhood changed over the years
When the media and elders talk about millennials, they often refer to them as lazy, sensitive, and whiny. But what if they are burned out, and this collective dissatisfaction is a reasonable reaction that comes from an unfair world.
If you think back to your childhood, what kind of atmosphere do you remember? The answer says a lot about when you are born.
As an example, do you remember an environment where you were free to roam around and could entertain yourself? Or does an adult have to keep an eye on you and watch yourself for any signs of trouble?
For millennials that are born between 1981 and 1996, their childhood was often more supervised and restricted. While this fact seems insignificant, it can tell a lot about the trouble millennials have today.
A reason why their childhood was so tightly controlled was money. The rising income inequality of the last decades 20 century had a strong effect on parenting styles.
In a financially uncertain world, many parents were anxious about their children’s future careers and began transforming childhood in a new way. No longer a carefree period of fun, play, and basic education. The childhood years suddenly were a serious preparation for adult life.
So instead of kicking a ball around in a garden, millennial children enrolled in high-stakes group sports. Instead of exploring the arts on their own, kids go from piano practice to dance class. The focus shifted from enjoyment to accomplishment. The fun came after the personal improvement.
It wasn’t just a question of high expectations and fully packed schedules. The freedom that children were given also changed their daily lives. The reason. Fear?
In the early 1980s, the mainstream media reported a lot more about child abduction, and parents reacted with alarm. Even so, there was no actual increase in crimes against children. The attention of child abduction led to the age of “stranger danger.” It convinces parents that they have to keep their kids on a very short leash.
When this generation of micromanaged children reaches adulthood, you get millennials. They often have a signal-minded focus on productivity and self which came from the hectic and ambitious childhood schedules. Their struggle with adulting comes from the parenting that forces their self-reliance as kids.
Is college the right choice?
After they grew up and left school for many millennials, the natural next step seems to be college, as it appeared the best option. Why wouldn’t they do it? Since childhood, teachers, parents, and guidance counselors have said that college education is key to professional success.
A middle-class student’s degree promises security, and for the poorer, it could prove as a springboard to wealth. It seemed a safe bet for millennials.
But college education wasn’t all that it seemed to be.
More and more students are going to college. However, a degree just didn’t mean what it used to be. In the past bachelor’s degree could make a difference from other competitors but not anymore. Now the employers pay more attention to where the applicant has studied. The people who didn’t go to elite college often found themself left out.
To make their resumes stand out, many pursue graduate degrees. While for some, the strategies worked, many millennials with master’s degrees and PhDs still struggled to find work. Additionally, the loan out to finance graduate students added to their already alarming debt.
Several well-paying jobs don’t require a master’s degree, like electrician and pipefitter or even the ones that build their own online business.
The myth of the life-changing degree didn’t make the millennial attitude towards work better. There hasn’t changed much from their childhood chasing prizes, skills, and accomplishments. Millennials had absorbed the idea that only hard work leads to success.
When they graduated and struggled, the millennials saw only one solution. But was it the school system? Need there be a change? No. Millennials just started to work harder.
The Problem with Dream jobs
Throughout history, most had uninteresting jobs. While they might have taken pride in their work, it is still a reliable way of obtaining life necessities. In many work fields, it was more likely a son did it because his father did it.
So if you asked your ancestor if their work was their passion, they probably would be completely confused.
Many of us have believed that work is the life focus fulfilling all our ambition and giving us a sense of purpose. Another view of work might seem uninspiring however it is one we can learn from.
One of the problems of dream jobs is that a lot of people want them. Many aspire to become actors, influencers, and dancers. Less and lesser fantasize about becoming factory workers or divers.
There is stiff competition for very desirable jobs. So when you are not happy with your working conditions, there are always some who want to take your place. Benefits can be cut, and freelancers’ rates drop year after year. Dream job applications will keep rolling in.
The employer knows this, and passionate workers have proved a blessing for many businesses. Why? Because if employees are self-motivated, they don’t need extra motivation to work like decent wages, say or seasonal benefits. So thinking is instead of improving the working conditions, the employees should look for more enthusiasm.
Even job listing betray this attitude calling for “coding ninjas” or “customer service rockstars.” When you come across these, it generally means the cooler the job title, the crappier the work will be.
Millennials are slowly starting to realize this. Instead of pursuing their passion at all costs, they are doing something wiser like earlier generations. They look for secure and well-paid work that pays the bills.
How job security was destroyed
In the workplace of the 1970s, the so-called “Kelly Girls” were hired. They were housewives that wanted to earn some pocket money. These temporary workers had almost the same advantages as regular employees with none of the downsides. But as the ad claimed at the time, you didn’t need to pay Kelly Girls when they were sick or take a holiday, and you don’t have to offer any benefits.
Besides the hourly wage, the obligations towards Kelly Girls were virtually nothing. Sounds familiar? If so, it is no wonder the life of a Kelly Girl foreshadowed the working conditions of our modern work economy.
In the 1980s and 90s, the role of freelancer, contract, and gig employees became even more significant. When politicians removed union protection, companies began to change their business models by discarding entire departments and outsourcing their work to freelancers and temporary hires.
Bit by bit, the job security of many workers was destroyed, and a new class became the norm alongside the traditional worker, “the precariat who are often similar to Kelly Girls only get their basic pay.
It is a situation where many people find themselves, whether it is Uber drive or freelance creatives. But things were once different.
In the mid-twentieth century, companies directly employed the vast majority of people who they could rely on. It means these employees got benefits, sick pay and job security, and even the chance for higher positions. This ensured financial security was universal, not reserved for an elite few.
But for the precariat, those basic provisions seem luxuries. Until lawmakers force companies to recognize their workers, they rely on job security, and peace of mind will continue to be hard to find for millennials and other generations.
Why the hours we work increased
You might know the people who live in the office, the ones who are there before everyone and stay longer after everybody is already gone home. It seems like there are more of them than ever.
In the last decade, the number of hours we work has increased little by little to the point where it gets concerning. It is not just hard work; it is a culture of overwork affecting millennials and many other people.
The play perks that many firms offer are somewhat sad. The ping pong tables, different snacks, and free lunches aren’t necessarily signs of a relaxed atmosphere. It more than often means the line that divides work from play and free time becomes hopelessly invisible. They make the office no longer somewhere to work. Instead, it is becoming somewhere to live.
One of the first places where such culture of the live-in office took place were banks. Many perks that investment banks offered their employer encouraged them to spend extremely long days at the office.
For example, in one workplace, any banker who worked past 7 pm could order takeout at the company’s expense. And the one that stayed just two more hours could call a cab home paid by the firm.
At this stage, a banker might have worked 13-14 hours a day. But instead of being exhausted, it seemed natural because of the different perks they get in the evening. It felt convenient to work an extremely lengthy shift. In fact, it was a point of pride.
For bankers putting in a 70-hour week can actually make financial sense because the bank earning is tied to the profits they create. So long hours can lead to massive bonuses.
Unfortunately for most workers, they spend long days at work because they feel like they have no choice. The workload just demands it.
Why Social Media and the News are bad for us
After the long hours that people work, you might think they spend their precious time off in a relaxing manner as possible.
Imagine you have just finished a 13-hour shift, and you made it through your errands are finally done. Tomorrow you will start all over again. What would you do if you had one single hour to spend doing whatever you like?
Some would read a book, listen to music, or watch a series. But many spend their time on social media. The promise of social media keeping people connected might sound convincing a decade ago, but too much has changed for that. Only a few of us believe it.
For example, Instagram started with cute pictures of friends, pets, and landscapes and was fun and even wholesome. But bit by bit, Instagram became a place to show experiences and compare your lifestyle anxiously to those of others. The endless price of smiles and perfect lives is obviously too good to be true.
Nevertheless, when looking at these images, it is hard to avoid concluding that your own life suffers by comparison.
While Social media is not the only problem, even more, exhausting can be the news: climate change, violence against people, political riots, etc. Even before social media, there was plenty in the news that was upsetting. But with immediate Twitter updates, this depressing content reaches us with urgency and haste.
You might feel you must know what is happening in the world because what you can’t fix, you can at least try to learn about. But the truth is when you listen to the bad news day after day, it doesn’t do you any favors. In fact, it is wearing us out.
From long work hours on the job to high college debt, millennials and future generations already have enough on their tables. The added stress from the world’s bad news is something we can surely reduce.
Millennials aren’t incompetent or entitled. Rather they are unfortunate victims of misguided parenting, bad advice, foolish policies, and the economy. Then there is also the overwork, the gig economy, and technological exhaustion to deal with. It is no wonder that millennials get burnout more often.
What is a burnout?
Dr. Jacinta Jimenez was in Stanford grad school and was a typical straight-A student. She initialized the message that hard work was a secret to success. But one day, she got a call from her mother saying her brother was hospitalized.
Jimenez played a big role in his care along with balancing her writing, lab work, and other responsibilities. Instead of adjusting her schedule or asking for support, she thought she could get through by hustling harder, working smarter, and eliminating social activities.
Soon she became completely exhausted. She lost all pleasure in her work and struggled in the morning to get up. She started experiencing burnout.
All of us come under pressure at some point in our caress, but we are often don’t know how to deal with it. Like Jimenez, most people believe that being successful means having “grit” and being able to go through bad times.
Burnout shows that grit isn’t enough to survive and thrive in the modern workplace. In 2019 burnout was officially classified, as a major global health challenge by World Health Organization. The work stress has created cycles of employee turnover and absenteeism. It is also a contributing factor in 120.000 death every year in the United States.
Anyone that enters the modern workplace should acknowledge that burnout is one of the greatest risks that they will face. With this knowledge, employees can be proactive to build resilience and avoid burnout before it starts.
When Jimenez learned from her own difficult experience and from hundreds of clients, she developed core strategies that allow workers to stay in and deal with their won personal plus and virtuality no matter the situation they are in.
By making reachable goals, reducing negative thinking, and taking time to rest and connect, you can also learn to develop your own resilience to create sustainable growth instead of chronic stress.
What happens when you try too much too quickly
When we think of people who archived extraordinary things like Beyonce, Elon Musk, or J.K Rowling, we might assume there is something inherently special about them. They must be born with huge amounts of talents.
While these personalities are extremely talented, it shows only a small piece of the bigger picture. If you look closely, you can see it took them years to archive the result they did.
Rowlings first Harry Potter book took seven years to write, and it was rejected by 12 publishers. Musk was expelled as CEO from both his own company, Zip2, and later on from Paypal and had to overcome many other failures like the SpaceX missions with many failed rocket launches. Beyonce’s first girl group wasn’t a hit didn’t become successful.
The success for all of them was hard and took them years to achieve. What they all had in common they weren’t stopped by failure. They all learned from their mistakes in exploring new directions and persisted in the face of rejection.
Many of us believe success should be instant. And if we want to archive bigger results, we need to take bigger risks and throw ourselves into new projects. But when you try to do too much too quickly, it isn’t sustainable.
Imagine you want to improve your public speaking skill. You volunteer to give a major presentation to your entire company. But despite all your preparation, you didn’t do a good job, and you failed. You felt hopeless and wanted to give up because you took a big risk but failed to improve.
The problem is when you through yourself into the deep without taking the time to clarify your goals. Develop your skillset goals just outside of your comfort zone with still enough tension. If the stretch is too big, you will get discouraged, and too small, you might get bored.
Back to the example, it would be better to take the time to explore exactly what you find challenging about public speaking. Then you could set a goal to give a presentation to a small team. After you practice it several times and reflect on what worked and whatnot, you could move up to the big presentation.
How to reduce negative thoughts
Have you ever spent one of your free weekends worrying about something that is going on at work? Or did you find out that you couldn’t really be mentally present at a meeting because you replayed something your boss told you?
As a response to stress, our minds get into overdrive and often become filled with negative thoughts. These are thoughts that make you lose focus and enjoyment in your work. Or even the perception of reality. You lose the ability to see situations clearly or make good decisions.
For humans, it is difficult to deal with uncertainty. When we are faced with a lack of information, we tend to use our own interpretations. Unfortunately, we often assume the worst.
Take Rebecca; she spent a lot of time preparing an important presentation she was very excited about. She sent it to her mentor, but he never replied back. Rebecca was confident that he hated the presentation because he never replied. The more anxious she got, the more her mind filled with negative thoughts. Rebecca was stuck in a negative thought spiral.
We all become stuck in these spirals. But if you learn simple mindfulness techniques, you can deal with them differently.
1. The next time a worrying thought comes into your mind, try to become curious about it instead of being instantly concerned. Ask yourself what thought you are having right now and what evidence backs them up. For example, is there proof that your mentor hated your presentation?
2. Adopt an actively understanding viewpoint toward yourself. Many of us are our worst critics. We think being critical helps us succeed, but perfectionists tend to make people less innovative and productive. So instead of responding with negative self-criticism. Try to be understanding and compassionate about your stressful thoughts. Think about what you would tell a person close to you in the same situation.
3. Examine the information you have gathered by becoming aware of your thoughts. What did you learn about your thoughts, and what fuels them? What action can you take? In Rebecca’s case, she could send a follow-up message and ask directly what he really thinks instead of assuming the worst.
While you can’t control your stress thought you can learn strategies on how to respond to them.
How to spend your free time
What have Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey in common? Apart from being one of the most ambitious people on the planet, they also prioritize time for leisure. Oprah Winfrey talks about how important it is for her to spend time in her beautiful garden, where she harvests her own crops and takes her dog for a walk. Bill Gates regularly uses the time to read books, walk on the beach and gather his thoughts.
Working harder and longer doesn’t automatically mean better quality work. In fact, most of the productivity decreases with longer work hours. After all, we are humans, not machines. So spending 70 hours a week working wear ourselves out. Everybody needs to take the time to pause and nurture themselves.
While you might cannot escape in a large garden or at the beachside, you can still build moments of calm into your lives.
A very important way is to disconnect from technology. Most people suffer from information overload. We are bombarded with negative news all the time, and we are constantly responding to messages.
Setting a time of the day when you are offline is valuable for your mental health. Monitor your digital habits over the week and decide what habits add to your life and which only distract you or stress you out. Slowly reduce these times that distract you.
Cultivate spending time in nature. How often were you outside in the past days? When you are in nature for even 20 minutes a day, it can be enormously beneficial for maintaining a sense of calm—free time for outdoors in your schedule. You can sit in the garden at lunch instead of at your desk. Or walk to the grocery store instead of driving your car.
Another strategy for building calm is solitude. Many of us actively resit of being alone. It can make us feel lonely. But solitude is essentially for recharging your batteries and giving yourself space to think. You don’t need to go on silent retreats. Rather build solitude into your daily life by letting yourself get lost in your thought during your daily leisure. You can also try journaling for ten minutes before getting up in the morning.
Why it is important to ask for help
Colin was a partner at a law firm that everyone depended on. But then his significant other got cancer. While colin was responsible for the enormous task of taking care, he also had other responsibilities. He was exhausted and stressed. The problem was he had no idea how to reach out for support.
Like many other business leaders, Colin thought that showing vulnerability and reaching out was a sign of weakness. But it takes courage to ask for help. When Colin finally decided to reach out to his team, they responded with kindness and brought home-cooked food for his family every day. The employer’s morale increased, and the team got closer because everyone was invested in helping.
Colin not only got the help and emotional support he needed he also set a powerful example that no one on his team need to struggle alone.
As humans, we are wired for social connections. A 2019 study by the leadership development compy Betterup showed that employees who felt a sense of belonging to their work increased production by 56%. Also, the number of sick days they had decreased by 75%.
How can you learn to seek support and connection at your work? One of the best ways is to show empathy for your colleagues and practice being there for them—Check in with co-workers who might have a bad day and offer them support.
Helping people doesn’t mean indiscriminately saying yes. In fact, having a healthy boundary is key to building a strong relationship. Consider what you need to thrive and what you can realistically give.
One effective way to feel connected is by making sure your network is as diverse as possible. The people who interact with colleagues and friends different from them are more cognitively flexible and are more resilient in the face of change. They also have better ideas because they see a variety of perspectives.
Consider who is in your network. Who are close friends with? Who do you chat with when you go for a walk in the neighborhood? Practice switching your social habits and develop connections with people different from you.
How to identify your values, skills, and meaningful pursuit
Imagine you swim in a fast-flowing river and paddling desperately against currents that carry you in multiple directions. It is what life feels like for many of us these days.
Modern life is so busy and demanding that we easily get tied to conflicting demands unless we prioritize what matters to us the most. Identifying your core mission instead of being pushed around will help you find your own course and stick to it.
What do you stand for, and what gets you up in the morning? These questions may seem heavy, but they are some of the most important questions you could ever ask yourself. It helps you see what makes your work and live meaningfully.
When a mother works as a housekeeper at a motel and strips beds and clears up after guests, it may not seem like meaningful work to a lot of people. But for the mother, it was because she knew her “personal why.” The mother’s mission in life was to help her children get an education. So each day she got a paycheck, she was fulfilling her core mission. Knowing that gave her immense satisfaction from her work.
What brings meaning to your life? To find an answer, you need to explore what your core values are. Values are traits like empathy, integrity, or areas of life that you cherish, like family, friends, or service. Choose five values that are most important to you. These are your guiding lights.
Next, identify your unique skills by asking someone close to what you are good at. Or what your colleagues always ask for you. Choose three top skills like design, storytelling, or public speaking.
Lastly, find a meaningful pursuit of the impact you make or wish to make in your life. Ask yourself why you chose this work and how it relates to society as a whole and why your work matters.
When you go through each step, you can combine your values, skills, and meaningful pursuits to create a personal mission statement. Put this statement somewhere where you see it every day. Each you have to make a decision look at it. It will help guide you through turbulent waters.
How to track your energy and emotions
Are you coming home exhausted even though you don’t work long hours? Then it is possible that some of your activities drain your energy.
While you might keep track of time on how long you spend on certain activities. But you most likely don’t track how much energy they cost. Energy is one of the precious resources. It fuels our days and gives us vitality. When part of our lives drains our energy, we need to know about it.
To do this, you need to conduct an energy audit by tracking your energy level over a whole week and keeping a daily diary. In which situation do you feel full of life and healthy, and which leaves you exhausted?
The dairy could point to environmental factors that don’t work for you. For instance, some people are highly sensitive to light and noise. But others find it stressful to have social interactions all day.
It can also reveal that certain people leave you feeling exhausted. E.g., energy stealers that weaken your ideas and motivation or just require a huge amount of patience and attention.
When you track your energy, you can find ways to balance your day. For example, when you meet up with an energy stealer, you can schedule a vitalizing walk afterward. If a loud office drains your vitality, you can try to move to a quieter desk or invest in noise-canceling headphones.
While it is essential to monitor your energy levels, you should tune into your emotions throughout the day. Emotions are messages of subconsciousness. They tell you when something is not working for you, or something is crossing your personal boundary. But on the other hand, they also let you know when you are living by your value because you can’t fake joyful enthusiasm.
To develop emotional literacy and to interpret the message of your feeling, you need to expand your emotional vocabulary. This means to intensify as specific as possible how you are feeling. So when you feel down, don’t stop there and dig deeper. Are you frustrated or sad or maybe tired? These emotions all have different charges, messages, and solutions.
When you track your energy and understand your emotions better, it will help you move better through the day and you become personally stronger.
It is also a good idea to create a “to-don’t list where you write down the thing that makes you feel frustrated and drains your time and energy.
How the right work environment reduces burnouts
Imagine you are already overworked, and you are routinely forced to work on weekends and deal with constant stress. When you start feeling burned out, you approach your boss, but he refuses to adjust your workload and blames you for not being resilient enough. So he sends you to a mindfulness seminar.
But all these mindfulness seminars won’t help you to avoid burnout if the work conditions are unbearable. It isn’t enough to use only a self-care Band-Aid for a toxic work environment. Leaders also need to create systematic change.
So how can leaders create a healthy dynamic environment? It is essential that employees feel they have control of their workload and how they carry out tasks.
To do this, you need to communicate clear expectations and ensure that employees exactly know what they need to be successful at their job. The demands need to be reasonable, and the employe should have all the training and resources they need to work. Don’t micromanage them. Show that you trust that they get their work done in their own way.
Provide honest feedback and opportunities for employers to develop new skills and take on new challenges. You, as a leader, are responsible for an equitable workplace. Nothing kills the motivation faster than a dishonest or unfair work environment. Bias discrimination or bullying will destroy the sense of community and contribute to stress and isolation
You need to proactively tackle bias in your hiring practices and workplace policies. Prioritize honesty and transparency, make salaries public and show the promotion criteria. Your company culture should match the values of your mission statement.
Such workplaces create a sense of psychological safety, and employees that feel empowered to take risks are more likely to bring new innovative ideas and values to the company. An equal workplace is also a more profitable one.
How to prevent a burnout
Burnout can be avoidable if you take steps to develop personal resilience. It is about making space for vulnerability, understanding your thoughts and emotions, and learning to ask for help. Also, it’s about building a positive community at work and finding connections with people
Company leaders play a big part in preventing employee burnout. They need to create healthy work environments where employees feel a sense of belonging and psychological safety.