Millennials, you may not have realized. Sometimes, when the work you are doing is so stress-inducing that it isn’t fun anymore, or even enjoyable anymore, burnout seems like a good thing. It’s counter-intuitive. But the definition of burnout varies. There is little difference in how burnout is defined among Millennials, boomers, women and men.
To better understand this, we gathered data from study participant interviews done through interviews conducted by my organization, the workplace transformation research organization, Percolate. We focused on who had experienced burnout, how they happened, and why.
From these interviews, we have reached four broad conclusions. First, there is a difference between what matters and what doesn’t matter in terms of burnout. You don’t need high rewards to be successful. You can be productive and effective without spending hours debating pay cuts, excluding feedback from colleagues or drowning in the daily grind. Ultimately, the same quality-of-life questions can be answered as well by men and women, by millennials and boomers, and by people with children or without.
In other words, sometimes burnout can be healthy in the context of your life.
Second, you don’t need to be in a CEO position or elevated above the ground to experience burnout. People with significant responsibility in their jobs were almost as likely to experience burnout as people at lower levels in the company.
Third, change can contribute to burnout. If you feel that the shift in your job is short-term, or that you are being brought in in response to something that did not happen in your current job, you may experience a burning of the senses.
Finally, burnout can escalate. While the first two circumstances are common among most of our people, those with high levels of internal and external stress may develop more toxic feelings.
Still, even under normal circumstances, burnout is likely to afflict millennials, boomers, women and men. The real question is: How will these individuals experience the onset of burnout?
Women, of course, were already experiencing burnout at an earlier age than men. The impact of this difference often feels due to structural differences in culture and gender expectations, but older women often report that their burnout is not in response to specific issues. Instead, their experiences illustrate the role patterns of behavior have on burnout. For example, older women report feeling that they do not take a bad day as seriously as they should because they are less likely to make an effort to talk about it with a colleague.
This may be the difference between engaging in the daily grind and having it consume you. Many executives, for example, have believed that knowledge workers adapt more readily than non-knowledge workers when their company is experiencing financial struggles. But the experiences of these executives indicate the extent to which employee expectations may be more important in establishing burnout.
This is related to the third phenomenon we discovered in our research. People who burn out appear to have low expectations of how their day should go. This leaves them more likely to feel that no situation is too challenging, and that no negative outcomes are worrisome. Those with high expectations are likely to experience burnout in connection with higher performance. So rather than seeing a problem, they can present a challenge.
In our experience, the people who are most likely to experience burnout are the ones who expect more of life than the world makes available. Many of these expectations are unrealistic; but being too reasonable may make you a less difficult employee.
For those with real expectations — of themselves and of others — a lack of burnout is a privilege. But because many people fail to recognize that burnout is a possibility, in all of our employees, this privilege can become a trap.
In our research, this is exactly what we see with millennial workers. A large number of them experience burnout without realizing that they are doing so. And even when burnout is recognized and discussed, and treated seriously, our results suggest that younger workers do not always feel included in or supported by their organizations.