In May 2019 the World Health Organisation (WHO) added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases. The term was first used as a psychological diagnosis in 1974 by Herman Freudenberger but there are descriptions of people suffering burnout long before then. “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” says WHO.
It’s also important to remember that burnout is not the same thing as a diagnosable mental illness, like anxiety or depression. However, the chronic stress underlaying burnout can trigger or exacerbate an existing mental health condition.
It is characterised by three elements: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativity or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.
Unlike previous generations, most Millennials have never known a division between work and the rest of their lives thanks to the presence of smartphones. Even though some professions have always demanded punishing hours, such as medicine and the law, the idea that working crazy hours will bring success now applies to a greater range of jobs, in part to the cult of the Silicon Valley founders who preach the benefits of a 100 hour week. But burnout is not just a Millennial issue. A 2018 study into mental health of corporate Australia found that a third of workers from a range of industries were suffering from some form of mental illness. Of those, 36% were suffering from depression, 33% from anxiety and 31% from unsustainable workplace stress.
Professor of Industrial and Organisational Psychology at Deakin University Dr Michael Leiter describes three factors that make job burnout more of a risk for Millennials. Firstly, many have very huge ideals about what they can and should achieve in their careers. Burnout has more to do with values and what’s important to you and core motivations, than it has to do with being tired. Being tired is a part of it, but it’s not the whole story. So, when their idealism is not met, disillusionment can set in, which can lead to burnout.
Secondly, many Millennials expect high levels of respect in the workplace, overall, they are far less tolerant about racism, sexism and workplace bullying than previous generations. Given their high standards, they are more likely to be disturbed when they are not met. Thirdly, Dr Leiter says many Millennials feel a heightened sense of uncertainty about the future of work and the planet. Without a sense that all their hustling is going towards something, hopelessness can set in, which in turn leads to burnout.
A way to spot if someone is at risk of burnout is to ask three questions: Who are you? What do you do? And what are you in to? If all of their answers are about work, this is a bit of a warning sign.
The workplace has definitely become more stressful over the past 20 years or so, but humans are not designed to work 80+hour weeks. Many argue that we have steered off course by seeing rest as incompatible with work, when in fact, deliberate rest is a powerful component in supporting our best work. However, we do need to be strict about what constitutes beneficial rest. Going for a run or a walk, taking short naps, reading and engaging in the art of deep conversations all get the tick of approval. Scrolling through Instagram or Facebook or knocking back a few Aperol spritzes at lunch – not so much. Finally, it’s important to remember that you simply are not going to be the person who makes lasting contributions in your field if you burnout before your time.