Buzzfeed News released a piece detailing the state of working millennials. We recently wrote about employee burnout and how organizations can work to prevent it, yet this article touches on some interesting facts about the largest and youngest subset of working professionals. The article was written by 38-year-old millennial Anne Helen Petersen, author and former media studies professor.
Americans are working longer hours than any time in the last century. Thirty-six percent of millennials say their stress has increased in the past year, and more than half have lain awake at night from stress in the last month. In a recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time U.S. employees, 28% of millennials claimed feeling frequent or constant burnout at work, compared with 21% of workers in older generations. An additional 45% of millennial workers say they sometimes feel burned out at work, suggesting that about seven in 10 millennials are experiencing some level of burnout on the job.
Exhaustion is characterized by reaching a state of extreme mental or physical fatigue. Burnout is reaching a point of exhaustion and continuing to push past it for days, weeks, or sometimes years. Burnout can also be described as a “state of vital exhaustion” and includes emotional exhaustion or fatigue, depersonalization, isolation, and dissatisfaction with one's level of personal accomplishment.
American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used the term burnout in the 1970s to describe the gradual emotional depletion, loss of motivation, and reduced commitment to work. The term was separately and simultaneously studied and developed by academic researcher and social psychologist Christina Maslach, who found that workers “often felt emotionally exhausted, that they developed negative perceptions and feelings about their clients, and that they experienced crises in professional competence as a result of this emotional turmoil.”
Most millennials in the workforce are working toward life stage and financial goals set by their predecessors’ generations which cannot be realistically met due to large-scale economic changes.
Student loan debt has reached a record-breaking $1.5 trillion, and the average student loan debt for the graduating class of 2017 was around $39,000.
In her viral piece, Petersen goes on to compare the economic circumstances of millennials to that of older generations, pointing out that the “greatest generation” or “GI Joe generation” were saddled with the Great Depression and the GI Bill, boomers had the golden age of capitalism, and Gen-X faced deregulation and trickle-down economics, while millennials are equipped with venture capital, but also endured the 2008 financial crisis, the decline of the middle class, the rise of the 1%, and the “steady decay of unions and stable, full-time employment.”
“Our capacity to burn out and keep working is our greatest value.”
Young professionals have accrued mountains of student debt alongside an economic spike in cost of living. An analysis of living and education costs by Student Loan Hero found that, when adjusted for inflation, millennials are not only shelling out more to obtain four-year degrees, but also facing a 400% increase in rent on average, with a 2017 average of $1,358. By comparison, Gen-Xers paid just $850 (in today’s dollars) in rent per month at the same life stage, and the Silent Generation paid under $500.
According to research by Go Daddy, as many as half of millennials have a secondary source of income, or "side hustle." From driving for ride sharing services to selling goods online, young professionals are not only working the full-time jobs they were primed for and living paycheck to paycheck, but are also having to supplement their time and income with after-hours work to make ends meet.
“In a marked shift from the generations before, millennials needed to optimize ourselves to be the very best workers possible.”
But it’s not the second job or side hustle that has millennials burned out. In fact, studies show that boredom (which is proven to be correlated with stress) and can be a significant trigger for burnout. As Huffington Post contributor Caroline Beaton writes, "We see burnout as the result of doing too much and boredom as the result of doing too little. In fact, neither state is related to quantity of activities so much as what we’re doing."
Millennials are essentially working hard, as they were raised to, only to learn that the financial stability and success promised for doing so hasn’t followed. Instead, they are stuck in a loop of productivity, monotony, and debt which breeds boredom, stress, and ultimately, burnout.
This redundant, repetitive working state leaves many employees in a simultaneously stagnant and stressed state–which sounds a lot like disengaged.
This is not the first time the American workforce has endured the negative effects of boredom and burnout. The term can be historically associated with industrial, manual, or physical manufacturing jobs, yet as the knowledge sector rose to prominence, the ‘medium of monotony’ simply changed from machinery to technology.
Employees who are very often or always burned out are 63% more likely to take a sick day, 23% more likely to visit the emergency room and more than twice as likely to strongly agree that the demands of their job interfere with their family life.
Our always-on digital culture affects the entire workforce: Endlessly striving to reach inbox zero, facing an infinite loop of meetings with little time left for focused thinking, and excessive collaboration contribute to can trigger burnout.
The phrase too many irons in the fire couldn’t be more appropriate: does your organization suffer from “excessive collaboration” syndrome? Identify unnecessary “nodes” in the organization. HBR defines these as intersections in the organizational matrix where decision makers sit. Too many irons in the fire can slow productivity and action by acting as organizational speed bumps. Find the excess and streamline the chain of command.
Design positions geared toward autonomy. Employees are 43% less likely to experience high levels of burnout when they have a choice in deciding what tasks to do, when to do them and how much time to spend on them. Provide opportunities to work remotely. Employees often work well under flexibility.
Create spaces for meeting and collaboration which allows employees to comfortably and easily connect. Have a windowless, fluorescent conference room? Bring in lamps and mobile whiteboards to take the room from sterile, artificial, and unappealing to warm, invigorating, and inspiring. Employees who have a space that helps them connect with coworkers are 26% less likely to feel burnout on a frequent basis, according to Gallup.
It’s also critical to take a look at seating–over time, remaining seated for the entirety of a workday can put employees at risk for not only developing significant spine issues, but studies also prove a link between prolonged sitting and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and even some forms of cancer in adults (even for those who exercise regularly). Invest in ergonomic seating for employees whose jobs require prolonged sitting.
While autonomy is critical in setting employees up for productivity, it’s also important to set clear performance expectations for not only the position itself, but also goals unique to the individual. From Gallup: Employees who strongly agree their performance metrics are within their control are 55% less likely to experience burnout on a frequent basis.
According to Statista, 23% of companies offered burnout prevention programs as of February 2017. Simply talking to employees and frequently thanking them for their work, no matter how big or small the task, can tether them to their purpose and boost morale enough to curb burnout. Similarly, a customized employee recognition program tailored to individual and departmental needs can engage employees and connect them to the mission.