The Burnout Blog


Generation exhausted: how the strive for perfection is hurting millennials

Dec 17, 2016
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Millennials are on the brink of burnout because they can’t switch off from the new always-on work culture.

‘Students, like most people, are concerned about reaching their potential,” says Trish Murphy, a psychotherapist working with Trinity College’s student counselling service. “They have a fear of letting themselves or their families down, and put themselves under huge pressure to achieve.”

For increasing numbers of the young people with whom Murphy works, that concern about achievement is curdling into something toxic and debilitating: burnout. “Many students are perfectionists, in that they are unhappy unless they are achieving excellence, and this can be so exhausting that they burn out before reaching their goals,” she says.

This perfectionism is not confined to academic achievement, but extends to body image, friendship and sports, and the feeling that one must excel in all these areas contributes to burnout.

Earlier this year an essay in Buzzfeed about “how millennials became the burnout generation” went hyper-viral. It was translated into Spanish and Portuguese, and was read more than 6m times.

The author, Anne Helen Petersen, described how always-on work culture, financial precariousness and graduating after the 2008 financial crisis had contributed to her generation’s burnout.

Social media amplifies the problem, both by showcasing others’ success and happiness, and by conjuring a sense that millennials must turn themselves into a “personal brand” to be endlessly developed and perfected.

Petersen received thousands of emails from millennials with whom her essay resonated. It seems to have struck a particular chord in Ireland, more so than in the UK or continental Europe. Those who contacted her included tech workers in Dublin.

“What they said to me is that, because of the tech industry and what it expects, we are somehow reproducing a corner of that American burnout culture in an Irish context,” she says.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the decrease in boundaries between when you’re working and when you’re not, and this idea of personal optimisation, which is prevalent in tech — how can I optimise myself, my body, my meals to be a better worker?”

Jayne Ronayne, chief executive of Irish tech firm Talivest, says the idea that work should be intense and all- consuming is hardwired into the Irish tech scene. After graduating in 2012, she participated in start-up accelerator programmes in Ireland and the UK, a rite of passage in the industry.

“When you first start off, it’s a badge of honour to be working around the clock. These programmes encourage you to get your product out straight away, whatever it takes. I think they need to change massively,” Ronayne says.

Having experienced periods of burnout early in her career, characterised by feeling “totally demotivated” and at risk of ending up in “a black hole of social media and email when you need to switch off altogether”, Ronayne has tried to inculcate a work culture at Talivest that includes leisure.

She and some colleagues have formed a band, and she does not check emails between 10pm and 8.30am. Petersen notes in her essay that many millennials have been brought up with the idea that leisure itself is something to be “optimised”, filled with scheduled playdates, structured activities and holiday internships.

Ronayne believes Irish millennials’ susceptibility to burnout can be at least partly traced back to the national obsession with the Leaving Certificate — parents and teachers encouraging kids to put everything else in their lives on hold for “the biggest exam of your life”.

Siobhán Murray, a psychotherapist and resilience coach, says she receives three or four inquiries a week from burnout sufferers, most commonly in their early thirties, often in households with two working parents.

“The way I describe burnout is a culmination of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion brought on by an emotional situation,” says Murray.

“Originally, in the 1970s, it was a word for something that was happening in the caring professions. Now, I see it happening to people regardless of what industry they’re in. More and more, it’s because of an inability to say no.”

That can mean saying no to opening the laptop to check emails after the children are in bed, or to taking on additional roles at work.

Murray sees patterns of behaviour instilled during unpaid internships, which are common for many millennials.

“There’s a culture of young people desperate to get on the career ladder. They have the promise of a job, and a fear of what will happen if they don’t do this. It becomes ingrained from an early point in their career not to say no,” Murray says.

Steffi Singh, 29, who now works in communications for a tech multinational in Dublin, received coaching from Murray to deal with burnout when she was a teacher. Far from the stereotype of millennials as flaky and entitled, Singh says many have had to work extra hard to establish careers because they graduated during the recession, and precariousness has remained a feature of the jobs market.

“I started my career when the recession hit and it was virtually impossible to get a job. There were so many qualified teachers and nowhere near enough roles,” says Singh.

Many young teachers feel that, to win a permanent post, they must make themselves indispensable by organising extra-curricular activities at school.

“Burnout can happen to anyone at any age in any profession. Everyone works constantly and it’s hard to switch off. It may affect me again at another point in my life perhaps, but this time I’d like to think I’d recognise the signs and not let it get so far,” adds Singh.

Like Ronayne, she operates a 10pm phone curfew. Singh also found exercise beneficial in addressing her burnout.

There is evidence that the long-term prognosis for “generation burnout” is not good. Annie Curtis, an immunologist at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, is leading a research team investigating the link between disruption of the biological clock and chronic disease.

“The clock is really important in inhibiting disregulated immune response. It seems to be anti-inflammatory, so having a good, functional clock keeps your immune system in check,” says Curtis.

Spending up to 90% of our time indoors because we are working all hours and exposing ourselves to blue light at night through use of laptops and phones disrupts the natural anti-inflammatory function of our body clocks. Eating late at night is also a problem, Curtis says, as “eating is the key synchroniser of our biological rhythms”.

She adds: “We should try to spend more time outdoors, keep a more regular schedule and reduce the time that we eat to about 12 hours a day. Small things can make a difference.”


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