Burnout refers to an overall feeling of exhaustion, frustration, and stress. With respect to work, burnout typically occurs when someone feels frustrated and a lack of control over one’s job, which can lead to a feeling of helplessness. Symptoms of burnout include feeling sad and hopeless, lacking the energy to do work, and depressive symptoms. Signs of burnout can appear slowly over time or can show up overnight. It is often difficult to identify whether someone is suffering from depression or burnout.
Millennial burnout is a phrase that has recently entered the lexicon as a result of Anne Helen Peterson’s 2019 Buzzfeed article “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” (Full Disclosure: I am a member of the millennial generation) In this article, Peterson writes about how others characterize the millennial generation (or millennials) as a generation of lazy, entitled, and self-centered people. Peterson goes on to say that this may be a result of burnout in a work environment that is becoming increasingly pervasive. Smartphones and email make it impossible to escape work and meanwhile, individuals of the millennial generation still need to accomplish all of their personal goals and needs. According to Peterson, millennial jobs are not “nine-to-five” but “twenty-four/seven”, which leaves no room for the individual.
It is important to note that burnout (or millennial burnout) is not a psychiatric diagnosis; however, it is gaining significant attention in the research world. Iacovides et al. (2003) showed that although burnout and depression share many symptoms, they are different afflictions. Burnout refers to a depressive syndrome that can be caused by a lack of satisfaction from one’s work. More recently, however, Bianchi et al. (2015) found that the research does not support a distinction between depression and burnout. This suggests that burnout is just a form of depression related to work. Currently, research continues to look into the concept of burnout and whether or not it is distinct from depression.
One phenomenon Peterson refers to as a contributing factor in millennial burnout is the concept that millennials have so many decisions to make in today’s world. The internet allows for many different possibilities and options, which can be both a positive and a negative. Peterson references an individual who could not perform the simple task of registering to vote. This person very well could have been dealing with what is called analysis paralysis, which describes the feeling that one cannot take action as a result of having too many options. With the amount of information available to us as decision makers, it can often be difficult to determine the appropriate course of action.
The number of decisions we make in one day can be overwhelming – from what to eat, what to wear, how to get to work, and so on. In today’s world, we face significantly more decisions as a result of the internet and smartphones. The excess of decisions that we need to make on a daily basis can lead to decision fatigue or a feeling of depletion that can result from too many choices. Research (Vohs, et al., 2015) shows that having too many decisions can cause individuals to struggle to control their own emotions, physical stamina, and overall ability to make more decisions. Often, people with decision fatigue can also have decreased resilience and will instead give up. It seems clear that decision fatigue is directly related to the concept of burnout.
How To Deal With Burnout
No matter what generation you are from, you may experience burnout. It is not a purely millennial issue. So, you may be asking the question, “What can I do about it?” Here are a few tips on how to manage your work and possibly prevent burnout:
- You have probably tried to make a to-do list before and found that it was too overwhelming. That is probably because you are not making a list correctly. A to-do list item should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-related). A good rule of thumb for an item on a to-do list is, if you cannot estimate how long an item would take you, it is important to break that item down into smaller components.
- Once you have to-do list items that are SMART, make sure to estimate how long each item will take you to complete. Once you have done that, you can easily plug each item into your calendar based on your time estimation.
- Breaks are an important and often overlooked part of being productive. People think of breaks as time off from doing work; however, it is the opposite. Just because you take a break does not mean that your brain shuts off. Breaks can give your brain some time to process difficult problems and catch up with all the work you are doing.
- Breaks should be frequent but time-limited. If you plan to take a two-minute break, make sure to set an alarm for 2 minutes, so you know when to get back to work. It is easy to get lost in a never-ending break.
- Make sure to take longer breaks as well as shorter breaks throughout the workday. This will help you recharge your brain and help you become more productive throughout the day.
- Often people take sleep for granted. Similar to breaks, people think sleep is a time to shut your brain off. In fact, it is quite the opposite, as sleep is the time when your brain processes and stores memories from the day. Sleep is also restorative with regards to physical energy. If you are not sleeping well, it can impact your ability to work and think.
- After a long day of work, it is so important to have some time to unwind and relax from the day. Unfortunately, more often than not people will continue to do work once they get home and late into the night. This can be one of the biggest contributors to burnout because you are “burning the candle on both ends.” It creates a sense that your job overtakes your life and that can feel helpless and overwhelmed. It is essential to make sure you have a healthy work-life balance (See my article about work-life balance).
- One good way to create these boundaries is to set a time every day when you would like to be done with any work (calls, texts, emails, etc.). When that time comes, try to do something that can be relaxing.
Burnout is a work-related phenomenon that refers to a feeling of hopelessness and lack of control regarding one’s work situation. Burnout is becoming increasingly prevalent, to a point where the phrase “millennial burnout” has grown in popularity. Millennials deal with a significant amount of decisions and choices that can lead to fatigue, frustration, and even decision paralysis. By creating effective to-do lists, taking breaks, improving sleep and setting boundaries, seemingly uncontrollable and impossible work tasks can become more manageable. If you are experiencing burnout, it is a good idea to reach out to a mental health professional to help you implement these skills and more.
Disclaimer: The information on this website is intended to be used for informational purposes only. This blog should not be used for therapy purposes and does not constitute or establish a doctor/patient relationship. This website offers information and links to helpful resources, however, is not intended to be considered treatment.
- Burnout–depression overlap: A review. Clinical psychology review
- The relationship between job stress, burnout and clinical depression. Journal of affective disorders
- How millennials became the burnout generation. BuzzFeed News
- Making choices impairs subsequent self-control: a limited-resource account of decision making, self-regulation, and active initiative.
Benjamin Hamburger, Psy.D.
Licensed clinical psychologist in New York and California.
Provides individual, group and couples psychotherapy for children (and their parents), adolescents, and adults.
Specializes in working with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety and ADHD.