Burnout: a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, detachment and feelings of ineffectiveness.
Many wonder if “burnout” is actually real or just a phrase we throw around to indicate we’re a little stressed out. But according to Forbes business writer, Larrisa Faw, millennial burnout syndrome has actually been termed a real phenomenon since 2011. Burnout due to lack of work-life balance, however, is a common phenomenon across all generations.
A recent Ernst & Young Global Study on Work-life Challenges Across Generations shows that one-third of full-time workers say that managing work-life has become more difficult in the last five years. The American Psychological Association’s recent annual Stress in America Survey showed that millennials are the most stressed out generation in the US.
For many, stress includes work, supporting families, pursuing a degree, volunteer activities and – if you're lucky – a social life. Such stress is also compounded by financial factors, since many are graduating with tons of debt.
Detecting Early Signs of Burnout
In addition to effects on your emotional wellbeing, burnout can lead to a number of physical complications. That’s why it’s important to detect the signs of burnout in its early stages. Early burnout is normally exhibited through the following behaviors:
- High levels of stress or anxiety: Feeling frequently on edge, with adrenaline constantly coursing through your body.
- Lack of engagement: Lack of motivation at work and difficulty focusing or exhibiting a short attention span.
- Increased cynicism: Feelings of resentment or disconnection. You may notice yourself being more cynical. You feel cranky or find yourself snapping at people more easily. You also start disconnecting with others who matter most - like your supervisors or even loved ones.
- Never enough time: It feels like anyone could “suffer” from this. But you know you’re on the edge of burnout when you feel you’re constantly in a hurry. You constantly feel inadequate because there's never enough time in the day for all the things you want to accomplish.
Many would say that this is just “life” and that burnout is simply an excuse for our own shortcomings. But if not managed early on, burnout can lead to more serious consequences – like depression or other physical and emotional complications. Just ask Arianna Huffington, whose 18-hour work day and lack of sleep eventually led to her collapse. She woke up in a pool of her own blood with a broken cheek. Yikes!
It’s clear that burnout is something to be taken seriously. Detecting the early warning signs is one key way to combat this stress overload. But what are ways to prevent burnout entirely in this hectic world that demands so much of us?
- Know your threshold. In an era that praises "busyness" and multi-tasking, we all have a tendency to overcommit. But this means we often spread ourselves too thin. Determine a threshold where you have to get a certain amount of “me time” such as exercising or meditating for 150 minutes a week. Or at least give yourself one hour a day to do something completely relaxing, like reading or watching your favorite TV show.
- Understand how you cope with stress. Challenges and melancholy are inevitable parts of life. Everyone gets stressed out once in a while, but it’s how we manage that stress that makes all the difference. When you’re upset or feeling down, find the coping skills that match your personality. Make sure it’s something healthy like hanging out with friends rather than binging on alcohol. Make a list and think about what relieves you most when you’re stressed.
- Sleep as if your life depends on it. The absolute truth is your life does depend on sleep. It’s often one of the first critical needs we dismiss so easily when we need to do a little extra work or pull an all-nighter. We’re a society that prides itself on how little sleep we get, but the short-term and long-term consequences can be devastating. That's why it's critical to re-prioritize sleep. At a certain point, just ask yourself: “how effective and productive am I going to be if I’m running on four hours of sleep?” It takes a lot of self-discipline, but learning to prioritize sleep is critical to performance as well as overall health.
- Unplug heaters, plug in coolers. This unique tip has nothing to do with appliances. Make a list of all the people with whom you regularly interact. Next, list environments you inhabit, like your office, car or rooms in your home. Finally, list your usual activities like office meetings, laundry or hanging out with friends. Now imagine each item separately while noticing how your body reacts. Tension, jaw-clenching or internal butterflies (not the good kind) are signs you’re plugged into a heater. Muscle relaxation, spontaneous smiles and sighs of relief show you’re chilling. You may not be able to eliminate all the “heaters” in your life but you can strive to make more time for the “coolers,” especially when you’re stressed.
Acknowledging burnout is the first step to preventing it. Ultimately, it’s up to us as individuals to prioritize and make time when we’re feeling ourselves on the edge of burnout. Cultural changes may take a long time, but it’s important to resist the fad of busier=better. In the end, you’ll find that you’re a much better version of yourself when you’re not constantly on the edge of a meltdown.
For more reading about millennials in public service, check out this weekly GovLoop series, First 5: Advice from millennial to millennial
This article was originally posted in March, 2016.