The peculiar bind about work in 2015 is that the more you care, the more you burn out. And millennials care a lot. For us, work is more than a resumé builder or a source of income; it’s an essential facet of our identities. I’m a magazine editor, and when I have dinner with friends—an urban farmer, a graphic designer, a TV writer—we humblebrag about our workloads, as smug as we are exhausted. Once I’m home, I work until bedtime. Then I lie awake, tingling with stress and excitement. I can’t help it. I’m obsessed.
Our 24/7 fixation is a huge change from previous generations who could clock out at five every day, footloose and iPhone-free. More than a quarter of Canadians now describe their work life as “highly stressful” (guilty). Another third say their burnout has impacted their physical health and eating habits (um, super guilty). In 2012, the last year stats were collected on the subject, stress-related absenteeism cost the Canadian economy $3.5 billion. And the issue is so pervasive among my cohort experts have started calling it “millennial burnout syndrome.”
The path to total fatigue, they say, has three phases: exhaustion from excessive demands, which leads to indifference, and then, finally, discouragement and lack of confidence in your ability to do the job. It’s dangerous and chronic, with the zombifying power of a Game of Thrones White Walker. There are plenty of social pressures that contribute to this scourge—the addictive lure of our smartphones, the bare-knuckle youth job market, static paycheques and ballooning workloads. But much of the cause is internal. “Burnout is the combination of a person and a situation. It’s not one or the other,” explains Michael Leiter, an organizational psychologist and professor at Acadia University who studies the subject. He says my generation is drawn to complex, creative, emotionally engaging jobs—we want to be entrepreneurs, consultants, disrupters. “Millennials tend to have an idealistic view of the world. They imagine they’ll do something important, but the real job market is much grottier than that,” Leiter says. Oftentimes, we end up disillusioned.
One of the most jaded millennials I’ve ever met is Chelsea, a 29-year-old family lawyer with a firm in Toronto. (Chelsea isn’t her real name. Like other women I spoke to for this piece, she may be exhausted, but she’s not ready to be fired yet.) Chelsea was drawn to the advocacy side of the law—she wanted to help marginalized communities—but couldn’t get the job she wanted, so she ended up working at a big firm brokering bitter divorces and custody battles. “I’m elbow-deep in human sh-t,” she says, when I phone her on a Sunday in August. She sounds weary and defeated. Her bosses have been emailing her all morning. She wakes up every day at 5 a.m. to catch up on non-billable work. She gets into the office around 8:30 a.m. and stays until 7 p.m.—then usually works from home until 10 p.m. “The day is a combination of racing toward deadlines and dealing with demanding expectations from the firm’s partners,” she says. “It’s a demoralizing and punishing experience. I feel utterly depleted.” And then there’s the aggression from higher-ups. “I’m constantly getting snarky comments from the partners. They make you feel like a moron. You start to think you’re going to get fired. And then you think, so what?” Chelsea admits she plans to stay on for the foreseeable future because she needs the money.
The lack of mentorship she describes is also a part of the problem. Leiter says first-line managers are often terrible at providing positive feedback, leaving young workers floundering in self-doubt. This can be hard on us mollycoddled millennials, accustomed to being praised. When we enter the workplace, its like we’re going cold turkey on affirmation. And, no shocker, its worse for women, who are more likely to personalize negative comments, explains Leiter. All the mental energy we expend on that makes us fizzle out faster. “There’s nothing more exhausting than anxiety,” he says.
Alice is a 29-year-old surgeon from Toronto. When she was in residence, her hours were just as bad as Chelsea’s, at times extending into 30-hour marathons. “I was convinced that whatever went wrong was my fault, particularly with patients. But the guys I worked with always blamed errors on someone else,” Alice says. “I became convinced I was inadequate, so I was setting myself up for failure, and that impacted my work. It was an inescapable loop.” Alice was the only woman in her program, and she felt she needed to volunteer for more responsibility to ensure she was taken seriously.
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When I ask Leiter about the cure for burnout, his remedies are so simple they seem revolutionary: Eat right. Work out. Sleep. “When you’re exhausted, you’re more vulnerable to flus, infections and cardiovascular problems,” he says. He also extols the benefits of besties at the office, people who will commiserate and offer constructive feedback. “A pleasant social environment is one of the most powerful things you can have at work,” he says. “You can work on turning your negative self-talk into positive statements, and colleagues can reinforce that.” Leiter also tells me people with families are less susceptible to burnout—they have more demands, which you’d think would up the exhaustion. But it forces them to spread their attention more evenly, so they’re less prone to becoming monomaniacal about work. And sometimes, he admits, you just have to find another job. “When you start to think, What I used to love about this job is feeling tedious, that’s a sign you need a change.”
Alice is glad she did. When she graduated from her residency last summer, she landed a fellowship in the States. “My hours are much better—just 10 to 12 hours a day,” she says. “I also teach residents and students, so I feel like more of a colleague and less of an underling.” With this new job, she can eat well, sleep and focus.
My own work obsession can tip into burnout. Sometimes my apartment looks like a crack den because I don’t have time to clean. I’ve cried in a closet at the office at least twice. I take on freelance assignments like this one, when I should be relaxing. I count the days until I have a spare weekend. But when that time comes, I feel itchy and empty, anxious that I’m not doing enough, and eager to find a new project. Every time I think I’m free, there I am, back in the bind.