WHY IS BURNOUT PLAGUING OUR GENERATION?

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

Do you feel like your life is an endless to-do list? Do you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through Instagram because you’re too exhausted to pick up a book? Are you mired in debt, or feel like you work all the time, or feel pressure to take whatever gives you joy and turn it into a monetizable hustle?” This is the tagline for Anne Helen Peterson’s 2021 bestselling book Can't Even, which is effectively a commentary on the conditions of the modern workplace. The book was a follow up to a Buzzfeed article that went viral in 2019, "How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation.” Both pieces of content were such a hit because of how much they resonated with the people who were reading it. The millennial generation (people born between 1981 and 1996) has famously developed a reputation as stressed, debt-ridden, and burnt out.  The tendency to burnout did not stop with millennials, as NPR reported in 2023 that older members of Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) are also constantly feeling stressed by work.   Defined as “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress," and the Harvard Business Review outlines three symptoms of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency.  So why are many of us burning out? Peterson puts it this way: "Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time...things that should’ve felt good (leisure, not working) felt bad because I felt guilty for not working; things that should’ve felt “bad” (working all the time) felt good because I was doing what I thought I should and needed to be doing in order to succeed." You'll find plenty of people with this type of mentality in urban hubs like New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles, and beyond. They're working to the brim, spending every waking moment refreshing their Slack or work email in hopes that putting in just a little bit more will help them climb the corporate ladder. For those that are not in the corporate world, burnout often comes at the cost of our own ambition. We are inspired by influencers who celebrate how they grew massive followings on social media or made a substantial amount of money by hustling harder than everyone else. As a result, Gen Z is the most entrepreneurial generation in history. To be clear, ambition is a beautiful thing. Work is a virtue. Dreams can be invigorating. In fact, entrepreneurship is critical towards finding solutions to major problems and making the world a better place. Our work can even be one of our greatest expressions of love towards other people, depending on what we are doing. Many of us have given – or want to give – our lives to noble causes. The problem is when our ambition becomes unhealthy and negatively affects our relationships, diet, exercise, sleep and mental health. In our view, there are four things that are driving the mentality that leads to burnout. Let’s explore each of them a bit deeper. 

burnout-2

BURNOUT & IDENTITY

You walk into a coffee shop and feel a tap on your shoulder. It's your friend from high school you haven't seen in ten years. They smile upon recognizing you and ask what can be a dreaded question: "So…what do you do for work these days?" It's hard to fault them for asking. We too ask this when chatting with others. This question has become the default icebreaker in our society, and often serves as an instant benchmark for how people view us.  This fixation on work seems to be unique to Americans.  Most Europeans have generous paid time off policies, take vacations, and in the case of the French, have a legal right to ignore work emails to curb work burnout. France also has a typical working week of 35 hours, right in line with the European Union's average of 37 hours per week.  On the flip side, Americans “work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment, disability, and retirement benefits, and retire later, than people in comparably rich societies," says political scientist Samuel P. Huntington.  For younger Americans especially, we suffer from a misplaced identity in that our worth is in what we do. This leads to shame if we think our career or place of work comes across as unimportant to other people. This is a major shift from the 19th century, where identity was defined based on religion, politics, marriage, or family of origin.  For Generation Z, their identity being attached to their schoolwork or career is literally all they know. From a young age, it is their parents who have instilled in them this mentality.  Prof. Kim Hollingdale, of Pepperdine University, told BBC she believes that "Gen Z has “the worst collection of stressors” among workers right now – from a lack of power at work to financial instability, the normalization of hustle culture and an inability to unwind Generation Z has grown up surrounded by social media influencers who glorify this mentality. Elon Musk, a popular figure among younger people, tweeted in 2018 that:  "There are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week." He followed this up with a comment on his own tweet: "But if you love what you do, it (mostly) doesn’t feel like work." Easier said than done, some have pointed out, especially coming from people who've "made it to the top" and don't have to worry about student loan debt or landing a job.  "On one hand, we have out-of-touch billionaires and moguls who’ve never known the reality of working tooth and nail to survive and hardly making ends meet, telling us we’re simply not working hard enough, and on the other, we’re being sold a falsely glamorous lifestyle of overworking, insisting we need to surpass each another or bear the shame of underperforming in life," says writer Brittany Beringer. 

burnout-4

BURNOUT & THE MYTH OF MORE

Many of us can relate to the mentality of “once I get THERE, everything will be good.” Maybe that means getting promoted or going from $100,000 to $200,000 in annual income. Or maybe it has to do with our social media following crossing the 1 million mark.  It’s clear that the insatiable drive for more success influences the onset of burnout. There is actually a term for this mentality - arrival fallacy. Harvard’s Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar explained in a New York Times article: "Arrival fallacy is this illusion that once we make it, once we attain our goal or reach our destination, we will reach lasting happiness.” Since happiness is a future goal that is tied to more, naturally our starting point is discontent. He adds, “These individuals start out unhappy, but they say to themselves, ‘It’s O.K. because when I make it, then I’ll be happy,’” he said. But then they make it, and while they may feel briefly fulfilled, the feeling doesn’t last. “This time, they’re unhappy, but more than that they’re unhappy without hope,” he explained. “Because before they lived under the illusion — well, the false hope — that once they make it, then they’ll be happy.” When this is coupled with what we just talked about with identity, it becomes a dangerous equation.  We end up in a chronic cycle of trying to achieve more to simultaneously maintain our sense of self-worth and get to a future happiness state, but it never does what we think it will do. Derek Thompson, a popular writer for The Atlantic, describes this phenomenon as workism. "The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism." Thompson brings up a good point. Work is no longer solely functional, as our grandparents may have seen it. It's an obsession, and even evokes the same level of devotion often reserved for religion.  Though society has become less spiritual and religious, people still “worship” something, as we discover in a separate blog. And adherents to the new religion of workism show their devotion with a pursuit for more…but not necessarily more things or experiences.  "Today’s rich American men can afford vastly more downtime. But they have used their wealth to buy the strangest of prizes: more work!," Thompson noted.  As we mentioned before, healthy ambition can be a beautiful thing. Society would fall apart if no one worked, and nothing would get done. However, there's a difference between healthy productivity and setting ourselves on a path towards burnout.

burnout-3

BURNOUT & INVINCIBILITY

Japan experienced rapid economic growth following World War II, but the surge came with consequences. Kamei Shuji was a 26-year-old stock broker living in Japan's economic boom of the 1980s. He started on the bottom rung of the ladder, but quickly climbed his way to the top, often working 90 hours a week.  Shuji made work his life, his identity, and his passion. He became a legend in the brokerage world and earned accolades for his hard work. He was addicted to success. Then he died.  Not from a freak accident or an overdose, but death by overwork – or as the Japanese call it, karoshi. Research has shown that stress is linked with heart issues, and one day Shuji's heart just gave out.  That's extreme... I'd never go that far, you might think to yourself.  While we may not be as intense as Kamei Shuji was, we often fall into the same trap. And to a degree, it's not entirely our fault. Our smartphones have given us access to work at all times, meaning we can simultaneously read emails, check up on our stock portfolio, and chat with our business partner on our bluetooth headset.   WeWork, a network of coworking hubs, has reinforced this "hustle" messaging. New York Times journalist Erin Griffith witnessed this firsthand on a trip to a NYC WeWork location.  Upon entering, Griffith immediately noticed messaging that demanded more work. Neon signs flashed "do what you love," and even vegetables promoted working more: "Even the cucumbers in WeWork’s water coolers have an agenda. “Don’t stop when you’re tired,” someone recently carved into the floating vegetables’ flesh. “Stop when you are done.” Kool-Aid drinking metaphors are rarely this literal. Welcome to hustle culture. It is obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor, and — once you notice it — impossible to escape," she said in a 2019 article That relentless positivity can often be mistaken for invincibility.  Part of the messaging stems from millennial individualism. Our culture preaches that "we lead ourselves," and that we're the masters of our own destinies. Therefore, we don't often seek out advice, or pause and ask if the pace we're going at is sustainable or not.  Sir Isaac Newton's third law states that "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." But society has taught us that there's little to no consequences for hustling harder, and that overwork doesn't lead to burnout, it leads to rewards.  And yes, in certain cases there are significant rewards – Shuji became a top executive – but can we still attain success without sacrificing our wellbeing in the process? Anyone who's ever played a casual game of Mario Kart knows that the best power-up is the gold star, as it makes you completely invincible for about 20 seconds. You can plow through other cars, take dangerous turns, and quickly push past the rest of the pack. The star power fades, but we still drive as if we have its invincibility power and quickly face the consequences. Ironically, it's often the people that stay at a steady pace and stay out of danger that end up winning Mario Kart. Those who quickly jump out to 1st or 2nd place often dabble in risky decisions or get targeted by everyone else behind them. If you've never played this game in your life, here's the point: we're taught to go at max speed, when really we should be recognizing that it is a sustainable and steady pace that wins the race. We are human and we have limits.

BURNOUT & THE WORKPLACE

Sometimes those limits are tested by the companies we work for. In recent years the American workplace, particularly tech companies, have a lot in common with a theme park.  Once inside, you have endless food options and things to do, and when you've exhausted the day's activities, you go back to the resort located on the property, rest up, and jump into more activities the next day. You're completely immersed in the experience – why leave if you have everything you need? Employers understand the value of a captive audience as well, often providing on-site housing for employees and offering perks like laundry service or catered meals. The whole goal is to get you to stay at work longer. Back when Adam Neumann was running WeWork, Griffith described the ideal WeWork devotee: "The ideal client, one imagines, is someone so enamored of the WeWork office aesthetic — whip-cracking cucumbers and all — that she sleeps in a WeLive apartment, works out at a Rise by We gym, and sends her children to a WeGrow school," she wrote. Jared, a young advisor at a wealth management firm in Seattle, experienced this firsthand. Bright-eyed and fresh out of college, he was excited to have landed his first "corporate" job, and follow in the footsteps of his dad, a successful bank executive. Though the early days were filled with perks like after-work parties and paid ski trips, Jared began to notice some not-so-subtle work pressure creeping in. He'd prepare to leave at 5:00 p.m. (the hours in his contract said 9 to 5 after all), yet realized he was the only one heading out. He'd ask his colleagues if they wanted to catch the bus with him, but was typically met with the same response: "Sorry, I can't. Gotta grind. Huge project I'm working on." Jared wanted a sense of rhythm in his life, and valued time to eat a healthy dinner and go to bed early so he could be a productive worker in the first place. He'd show up the next day and find that his bleary-eyed coworkers had barely slept, and were constantly angling to get their superiors' attention. This is all too common of a story in the American workplace – especially for millennials. And ironically enough, moving up the corporate ladder often has nothing to do with your work. Finance writer Hannes Grauweihler outlined some painful truths about how he was able to advance in his career, which included bragging to get noticed playing office politics, and stroking his boss' ego. Graunweihler also said that "working hard is the medicine dished up for people who never learned how to say no." It's no wonder that a new phenomenon called "The Great Resignation" has taken place. Per Investopedia, it's defined as "the elevated rate at which U.S. workers have quit their jobs starting in the spring of 2021, amid strong labor demand and low unemployment as vaccinations eased the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic." The MIT Sloan School of Management analyzed factors driving this mass resignation, and the results were telling:

    • A toxic work culture was 10.4% more likely to contribute to employee attrition than factors like pay or COVID safety.
    • "Between April and September 2021, more than 24 million American employees left their jobs, an all-time record."
 In addition to factors like lack of diversity or ethical treatment of workers, part of the toxicity comes from the aforementioned "grind" culture that Jared experienced. A Gallup study found that the top five reasons for job burnout were:
    1. Unfair treatment at work
    2. Unmanageable workload
    3. Lack of role clarity
    4. Lack of communication and support from their manager
    5. Unreasonable time pressure
 Two of the five points have to do with a high volume of work and a high volume of time. People have been reduced to machines and are expected to crank out work with precision and efficiency while running on little to no fuel. That said, not every company is addicted to production, and many of the most innovative companies are finding out the not-so-shocking revelation that putting employer happiness first actually translates to better output. Patagonia has a "Let My People Go Surfing" policy that gives employees the flexibility to "catch a good swell, go bouldering for an afternoon, pursue an education, or get home in time to greet the kids when they come down from the school bus." They also have on-site childcare and a cafeteria with healthy options. It's part of founder Yvon Chouinard's hierarchy-less workplace ideal, in which the office floor is open-concept, and CEOs don't get special privileges like reserved parking spaces. And it's working. Patagonia has an incredibly low employee turnover rate (4%) each year. This mindset might feel foreign to millennials in particular who fear putting in boundaries and limits. Even if companies do offer time off, like Patagonia, we might be hesitant. Do we really have this Friday off? Is this a trick to test our loyalty? "Attempts to discourage working “off the clock” misfire, as millennials read them not as permission to stop working, but a means to further distinguish themselves by being available anyway," Petersen said in the aforementioned Buzzfeed article. Workplace rules are one thing, but how we choose to interact with it is another. Off the clock should mean off the clock. Not checking emails on your Uber ride home, or trading your weekend rest day to get ahead of the pack. Now that we've established what is driving burnout, how do we take control of our own health and resist the urge to constantly produce?

HOW TO DEAL WITH BURNOUT

Because every person has different circumstances, financial situations and family situations, tackling burnout must be highly nuanced to the individual. There is no cookie-cutter solution you can universally implement across society that will work for everyone. However, there are many universal principles and practices that can be beneficial no matter what your situation is. Each of these will go a long way towards a healthier, happier and more sustainable life.

It starts with your identity

For any of this to change, there has to be a fundamental paradigm shift in how we view our identity and self-worth. Like beauty, career is a crappy barometer of self-worth. You are always tied to your performance, and your performance will never feel like it’s enough. This becomes an easy recipe for burnout. As we discuss elsewhere, our identities must be rooted in the unwavering love of God. This might sound strange, especially to those who are not spiritual, but the tendency to put our worth in our work is ultimately about being loved. We want to be recognized, appreciated and loved by other people. We want the applause that comes along with achievement. And thus, we always have to work for that love. But God’s love is unconditional. This is something our soul deeply needs.  Actor Shia LaBeouf recently started following Jesus and commented on this change in self-worth, “I know that I am loved. I know that I have been forgiven. When you really know that in your fiber and on a cellular level.. There’s a strange kind of weird validation on the other end.. My purpose isn’t tied up in my craft anymore.. and when I do show up, my way of working is totally different. It’s free.” This freedom comes from not having to work for our worth. Paradoxically, this actually unlocks more creativity than ever was possible before since the motivating factor is different. Instead of working for our sense of worth and being loved, we are working from a place of worth and being loved.

Recognize the season you are in

The second thing that we need to consider is the nuance of the season or situation that we are in. Some of us have to work two or three jobs to provide for our families. Others have the luxury of controlling how their career path unfolds. This is deeply influential to the conversation about burnout, because some of us don’t have a choice to work long hours. Hating your situation will only make it worse, and to try to implement a schedule that isn’t possible will just create more resentment. This is why there is no universal rhythm of rest we can all practice.

Personalizing rest for you

As we accept the situation we are in, we then need to determine what rest looks like for us. There are multiple levels to this, including daily rhythms of rest and weekly rhythms of rest. On a daily basis, rest obviously includes healthy sleep patterns, but it also means finding pockets of time to step away during the day.  This might mean going for brief walks through a park, or sitting and mindfully eating your lunch. Consider also turning your phone off for a period of time and venturing into nature in your city. If you work long hours, maybe this is in-between shifts or periods of work. This might feel foreign at first, as we've been trained to be attentive to the constant pings and alerts from our phones. Silence might feel uncomfortable at first, but it's incredibly restorative to take our minds off of work and onto what fills our tanks. On a weekly basis, consider the biblical idea of the Sabbath, which is an intentional day of rest on the seventh day of the week.  Carl Jung, the famed Swiss psychiatrist, would often retreat to a castle called Bollingen Tower to untether himself from the distractions of the world and hone his deepest thinking. Jung produced some of his most influential works after spending extended time at the castle.  A Sabbath is far more intentional than just a day off. If we treat it that way, we often just end up sitting on the couch and binging Netflix.  As author Jon Tyson put it in Beautiful Resistance, "Our souls are rarely restored through entertainment. Restoration comes through rest. Relaxation, though good, will not do a deep enough work."  To learn more about the Sabbath, check out Practicing the Way’s resource here. Beyond the weekly and daily rhythms, we also need to consider working in extended periods of time off to recharge.  Some of the greatest minds in history understood the value of doing this. It's important to distinguish that their goal wasn't a forget-the-world, escapist vacation. They saw this rest period as a means of honing their craft and restoring themselves even further.

Work smarter

Some may argue that America is more productive than other countries, but more hours doesn't necessarily lead to more productivity. Many European countries have the ethos of "work smarter, not harder." Yes, a certain amount of hours may be required to get something done, but for knowledge workers after a certain amount of hours, our productivity starts leveling off. In his bestselling book Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about how knowledge workers often live in a chronic state of shallow work, and how this actually limits what we can accomplish. “The common habit of working in a state of semi-distraction is potentially devastating to your performance. It might seem harmless to take a quick glance at your inbox every ten minutes or so [but] that quick check introduces a new target for your attention. Even worse, by seeing messages that you cannot deal with at the moment (which is almost always the case), you’ll be forced to turn back to the primary task with a secondary task left unfinished.”  He advocates for developing rhythms of deep work, where we can access our deepest and most creative thinking. This requires working smarter and doing much more advance planning. But the results can be remarkable, in that you can get much more done in less time. And what we produce is actually far greater than if we were to continue working in a semi-distracted state.  Look no further than Newport himself. Despite being a popular author and professor, he finishes most days by 5:00 p.m. and has plenty of margin for quality time with his wife and two kids. We’d recommend picking up his book here.

Don't let dreams die

The conversation around rest is not meant to dissuade entrepreneurship or pursuing your dreams. For some, their tangible impact and outpouring of love onto the world will be felt through their entrepreneurship. There are things that have been deposited in us and ideas that only we can usher into the world. We all have a unique call on our lives. And we should boldly step into that. To accomplish those dreams, it might mean working long hours. This isn’t inherently bad, if we have proper rhythms of daily and weekly rest.

Resume virtues vs. eulogy virtues

However, we should count the cost for whatever it is that we are pursuing. Not every pursuit is a good one. Doing your own thing for the sake of doing your own thing can be a dead-end.  This might mean wasting precious time and energy doing something that doesn’t matter. Or it might mean that your endeavor did not end up accomplishing what you thought it would. We must consider what the meaning of life is. In our eyes, it’s pretty clear: to love and be loved. Whether it’s empirical, psychological, scientific or spiritual data, so much evidence supports this claim. Which means the true measure of your life is how well you loved and cared for other people. Your friends, your family, your neighbors, your significant other, your colleagues. It’s possible to be a successful CEO while neglecting to love and care for the people around you. As Jesus once put it, “for what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”  In a New York Times article, David Brooks explains there are two types of virtues – resume virtues and eulogy virtues, “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?” Everyone would say eulogy virtues are more important than resume virtues, yet we still prioritize resume virtues above everything else.  In a clip we posted on our Instagram, author Tyler Staton says, “on your deathbed you will not be thinking back to accomplishments, projects, plans, approval from a boss. You will think about relationship[s] and the people you got to spend your days alongside. And you will think with gratitude or with regret about how much you did or didn’t give your whole self to them in love and compassion. Life is about relationship.” Relationships require consistency, presence, and intentionality. If your entire day's energy is being poured into work, you'll have nothing left to give to the most important relationships in your life. As one CEO was quoted saying in a recent HuffPost article: "There’s no bandwidth left to plan the logistics of the next day, much less have an engaging conversation with my wife.” Relationships are way more permanent and fulfilling than a job, yet we often treat our job with the care typically reserved for a romantic interest. We dress our best, and show up extremely focused, agreeable, present, and on time.  Upon arriving at home, however, we collapse into the sofa, barely giving those around us a wave, and resume the cycle of productivity on our phones or laptops. When we're burnt out, sex, intimacy, date nights, and even basic conversations are often thrown out.

Develop a holistic life

This leads us into our last principle, which is that we need to constantly evaluate if we are developing a holistic life. We are big proponents that the mind, body and spirit all work together in cohesion to create a healthy life. And there are obvious red flags we can look at to see if our work habits have caused us to neglect important areas of our life. How are your relationships?  How is your mental health? How is your nutrition and eating habits? How about your fitness and exercise? How are you sleeping? Where is your spirituality at? If any of these things are being neglected, especially for a sustained period of time, then we are venturing off-course. Something needs to be readjusted and we need to evaluate the way our lives are set up. Sometimes there is an easy fix, other times there is not. But we should never sacrifice what’s most important in life for our careers. 

For more on burnout, click here to visit our Rest Hub.

UN-HURRY YOUR LIFE, RIGHT FROM YOUR INBOX

Your work-life balance is unique, so you deserve to be uniquely served. We want to send you email content that hits different and these fields help us do that.

*Your data is covered through our privacy policy.