Burnout. From Denial to Understanding

Upon listening to the longer form of the popular Buzzfeed article How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation on Audible, I wanted to add onto what I think is a crucial step towards finding a solution. For background, this book was a 2 hour Audible exclusive where the author interviewed ~5 out of the 7 million readers who live in different parts of the country, are from different backgrounds, work in different industries but have all experienced their own version of burnout.

Burnout has many sources, but a lot of them, come from the changing societal dynamics of our Millennial generation, which also explains why it’s become more pervasive than ever.

It’s about social media pervasiveness, and the need to continuously build and maintain a profile that adds so much superfluous tasks to our everyday lives. It’s due to the mounting student debt some of us have, way above that of graduates in generations before us.

Everything is more demanding and less stable. It’s truly the flip side of the coin to the “gig economy”– where one can work whenever, almost wherever, but not stably. As Uber’s victory in the contractor vs. salaried employee case has shown, also with fewer benefits, organization and room for personal development.

My personal experience with burnout is of the more traditional sort. Albeit, I am somewhat affected by another overarching theme the author comments on–the lack of focus and having to do too much on a regular basis (errand paralysis). I work 80+ hour weeks and barely have time to take 2 – 3 weeks off fully. In fact, I’ve never had a vacation longer than 2 weeks in the 5 years since I started my career in finance (investment banking and private equity).

I have been in denial of my own burnout. There were definitely moments over the last few years when I just wanted everything to stop. The e-mails to stop blaring, the calls to stop, and the instant need to respond and crunch numbers, fly to faraway places for 3 days at a time–to come to a halt. I wanted peace. I turned to meditation. Nothing was even that interesting anymore and everything (no matter how small the task) felt like a nuisance.

A classic case of burnout here, you think? Well, I didn’t think so. I and many of my colleagues and friends who complained of the same frustrations thought of just two resolutions (fixes to this shockingly common problem): 

1) TAKE VACATION (usually a few days off spent flying around in Europe so you can get a nice Instagram shot looking like you are finally getting to “play hard” and not just “work hard”); or

2) FIND A NEW JOB. The advice I hear, “something or someone must suck at where you are at now. Maybe you are just bored. A new place will jolt your energy!”

Why the denial of burnout? I think it’s because we find “accepting it” to be an act of failure–the fact that we can’t keep up with the hard work, or the mounting amount of stress. When others among us seem to be able to, this just shows us how even more of a failure we are! I remember telling myself that burnout is just for people who grew up in European societies where people worked to live and were used to balanced 9 to 5 lives, or that since I was making decent money, I really can’t complain.

How to begin to accept? Author of the Buzzfeed article, Anne Peterson recognized that “The problem with holistic, all-consuming burnout is that there’s no solution to it. You don’t fix burnout by going on vacation. You don’t fix it through “life hacks,” like inbox zero, or by using a meditation app for five minutes in the morning, or doing Sunday meal prep for the entire family, or starting a bullet journal. ” And yes, I have tried all of the above. I know I’m just not an inbox zero person in that I will read everything but I don’t have the patience to sort through them all and meal prep I can only do a few weeks in a row at a time before I start giving myself food poisoning from the lack of attentiveness. None of those things have helped me–in fact they probably added more “MUST-DO TASKS” to my already overloaded list, which to my detriment, actually left me with more errand paralysis.

The understanding” Part. It’s truly part of the solution. Instead of being gung-ho and unrealistic about timelines, how much work can be compressed into them and making “magic time” in each and every project as one consultant told me when I commissioned a 4-day deal turnaround workstream, we should make it part of the everyday vocabulary to recognize when these things could lead to burnout. To catch ourselves from 10+ item priority lists and trim them down to 1-2 must do’s and maybe 1-2 optional tasks. To recognize that the world won’t end if we don’t get to some on the list today. To accept and communicate when we have competing priorities that will make completion and our satisfaction challenging. Better yet, make our satisfaction a KPI in the project deliverables. Increasingly I have helped my group and firm make the team’s enjoyment in the staffing/project, a priority, a constraint, an important factor of consideration.

Not only do we individually need to part with our shame when we hear of or associate ourselves and/or colleagues and friends with the word “burnout,” but also society as a whole needs to accept that this phenomenon is indeed commonplace, and especially amongst studious, not lazy, members of corporate America.

Written by Anna Wang

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