Burnout Doesn’t Have to Be “The Way Things Are”

Buzzfeed’s viral story about millennials touched a nerve. Here’s why I’m more optimistic about solutions.

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Mevans/ Getty Images
Mevans/ Getty Images

“It isn’t an affliction experienced by relatively few,” wrote Anne Helen Petersen on BuzzFeed, it’s “the contemporary condition.” She was talking about burnout and explaining the conditions that have led millennials to become “the burnout generation.” It’s a powerful piece, and it’s no surprise that it touched a nerve, and not just among millennials. She’s right: burnout is our contemporary condition. In the words of Belgian philosopher Pascal Chabot, “burnout is civilization’s disease.”

Petersen meticulously lays out how we got here. She opens by describing something she calls “errand paralysis,” the phenomenon of “high-effort, low-reward” tasks that get endlessly put off and cause mounting anxiety as they mount up on our to-do lists. She describes how burnout and our relentless urge to optimize ourselves for efficiency “takes things that should be enjoyable and flattens them into a list of tasks.” She writes about how this is all amplified by technology and our phones, which “tether” us to our work and make us “always accessible,” and about the stress created by “watching others live their seemingly cool, passionate, worthwhile lives online” via social media.

And throughout, she writes a spirited defense of millennials, who, far from being the lazy, entitled, spoiled generation of the conventional media narrative, are working around the clock for less pay, often while saddled with crushing school-loan debt. “All of this optimization — as children, in college, online — culminates in the dominant millennial condition, regardless of class or race or location: burnout,” she writes. “It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.”

This is why I founded Thrive Global just over two years ago — to end the stress and burnout epidemic, which Petersen describes so incisively. But my experience over the last two years running Thrive has made me more optimistic about the solutions. I agree with Petersen that “individual action isn’t enough,” and “personal choices alone won’t keep the planet from dying, or get Facebook to quit violating our privacy.” And of course governments have a big part to play with policies like paid family leave, increased minimum wage, universal healthcare, and affordable daycare.

But in just the past year, we’ve seen incredible progress in the business world, largely because more and more companies are realizing that burned out employees are less productive, less creative, lead to higher direct and indirect healthcare costs and are more likely to leave (in fact, burned out employees are 31 percent more likely to change jobs). Yes, millennials are burned out, and in uniquely challenging ways, but, increasingly, everybody else is, too. And, as Petersen shows so well, it’s not sustainable. To achieve that paradigm shift, we’ll need to change the way we live and work, and businesses will have to be part of that effort.

And of course individual action will remain paramount. Where individuals can start is by redefining the rules for ourselves. The system Peterson is writing about has been designed for failure because of how it’s defined success – almost exclusively around money and status, the latter being signaled by constant busyness. This isn’t sustainable, or fulfilling. Peterson writes about the pressure millennials feel to find jobs that fulfill their parents’ expectations, that impress their friends, and that they can be passionate about. This is an impossible trifecta to accomplish and a sure-fire recipe for burnout. As is the idea, internalized by millennials, that these early jobs will “not only determine their career trajectory, but also their intrinsic value for the rest of their lives.”

We can define success for ourselves. It starts with what we value and what we believe. Do we believe that success in terms of money and power is all that matters? Do we believe that we have to be always on to succeed? Do we believe we are defined by our jobs, that our worth is just the sum total of the bullet points on our resume? While we also need large scale and structural changes to the way we work, on an individual level we need to redefine success for ourselves in a way that allows us to be successful at life, whether or not we’re successful at work in the way it’s conventionally defined. To borrow from Rumi, we need to rig the game in our favor.

And Peterson is already doing this in her own way, as she shows in her lovely conclusion about how what we need to do is be more honest with ourselves about what we are and are not doing and why. “This isn’t a task to complete,” she writes, “or a line on a to-do list, or even a New Year’s resolution. It’s a way of thinking about life, and what joy and meaning we can derive not just from optimizing it, but living it. Which is another way of saying: It’s life’s actual work.” That’s a great starting point not just for all of us individually, but collectively as well. We’re more than our resumes. Life is about meaning, not optimization. That’s how the paradigm begins to shift.

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