#YOUthTalk  |  Working in the New Normal

Why Burnout is Hitting Young People Hard

BY SHANE TAN

10 February 2021  |   8 min read

According to a recent survey, the average worker is experiencing career burnout at the early age of 32. Indeed, burnout seems to be hitting younger working adults particularly hard: 84% of millennials in the US surveyed said they had experienced burnout in their current job. The rise in this overwork phenomenon has reached such an apex that the World Health Organization has now recognised it as an “occupational phenomenon.”

Workers in Singapore are not exempt to this occupational phenomenon — 37 per cent of workers in Singapore reported increased rates of burnout over the past six months, according to Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index report. In fact, the study of eight countries, including Australia, Japan, and India found Singapore to be the top country in Asia with workers facing increased burnout.

What is burnout?

The WHO has defined burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” and it is characterised by: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance or feelings of negativism or cynicism from one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy.”

Why do we see an increase in burnout?

Anne Helen Petersen, the author of the viral Buzzfeed article and subsequent book, “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation”, attributed the generational phenomenon to a mindset of hyper-productivity for work, which starts in childhood from “intensive parenting,” to the way we interact with digital technologies today.

Intensive Parenting and Kiasuism

This “intensive parenting” mindset starts with how millennials were raised. As young children, millennials were parented to be optimised and trained for the workplace. What they were allowed or not allowed to do — play on “dangerous” playground structures, go out without cellphones — were based on risk management strategies, something that used to be a business practice.  As they got older, their schedules became fully optimised with tutoring and extra-curricular activities. Parents of higher socioeconomic classes are especially anxious about their kids “falling behind,” and put a lot of resources into making sure their children’s time is optimised and maximised.

These intensive parenting strategies are familiar to many in Singapore’s “kiasu” parenting culture. Researchers have described “kiasu” parents as hyper-competitive in their children’s education, fearful that their children will lose out to others and hence, feel like they have to use an array of ways for their kids to stay ahead.

This environment creates a great deal of stress and anxiety for children. An found that Singaporean students have significantly higher anxiety levels than other OECD countries.

In modern society, there are many more possibilities in life for young people today than their grandparents’ generation. While more choices can be empowering, it can also be anxiety-inducing. There is a lot of pressure to make the right choices—from one’s school to a career path—, and research has even shown that more choices can make one less satisfied with their decision. It takes increased time and effort to consider a multitude of choices, and there can be regret and anxiety thinking about what-could-have-been or what you’re missing out.

Many parents project this idea of infinite possibilities onto their children by telling their children they can do anything they put their mind to it. This message can be motivational, but it could also make someone feel like they’re falling short of familial expectations of what they should achieve.

A Generation Marked by Financial Crises

It is difficult to live up to these expectations when the career trajectory of many old millennials is marked by two financial crises: The dot-com bubble, and the 2008 financial crisis. Graduates of the 2008 financial crisis are still feeling the effects on their career. Graduating into a recession leads to large earning losses of up to 9 per cent of annual earnings. Workers who begin their career start with lower salaries and might get stuck on a downward economic trajectory. This doesn’t bode well for Generation Z, who is graduating into a recession predicted to be worse than the one in 2008.

The idea of job security that previous generations had before is long gone. Economists largely agree that people today are more likely to hold more jobs over their lifetime than their great-grandparents did. As such, there is an overwhelming sense of economic precarity in our current “gig economy,” which makes burnout so much more prevalent by trying to keep up.

COVID-19 and Digital Technology

In addition, digital connectivity has allowed us to fill every moment of downtime with a chance to work — the smartphones and apps in our pocket have made it easy to send off that quick email or work assignment. Our “always-on” work culture can cause anxiety, as people feel responsible for answering work emails outside of working hours. As we’ve faced widespread layoffs and an impending economic downturn, employees may feel extra pressure to demonstrate how hardworking they are.

According to Petersen, there are two main ways our relationship to technology has intensified the problem of burnout: “One is that our phones and our wifi-equipped laptops enable work to spread into virtually every corner of our lives. We’re always connected, always reachable. It’s so much harder to maintain any sort of boundary.”

“The other thing is that social media — Facebook and Instagram in particular — and this idea of packaging your life and leisure in a way that makes it part of your personality, whether you think about it or not, has made a lot of us turn ourselves into a brand. And maintaining that brand is exhausting,” she said.

COVID-19 has only exacerbated the rates of burnout. Over the course of the pandemic, the lack of separation between work and life, along with feelings of isolation or disconnection from co-workers were identified as top workplace stressors in Singapore. In our “work-from-home” new normal, many people have become familiar with a commute from our bed to a desk just meters away.

While getting to work in pyjamas might sound nice, experts say that lack of separation between work and personal life is actually contributing to the increase in burnout. Singaporean workers who increased burnout levels in Microsoft’s report cited the lack of separation between work duties and personal obligations as negatively impacting their wellbeing.  

Pre-pandemic, commuting to the office helped us maintain work-life boundaries by allowing us to transition from a “work mode” to a “relaxation” or “off-duty mode.” But now, the time we previously spent commuting to the office has only lengthened our workday. People all over the world are in significantly more meetings, taking more ad hoc calls and managing more incoming chats than they did before the pandemic, according to data from Microsoft’s study.

The Mental Health Impact of Burnout

The chronic stress of burnout can result in negative physical and mental health effects such as: Poor memory and concentration, depression, anxiety, irritability, headaches, insomnia, gastrointestinal infections.

Preventing Burnout

Mental burnout is just as serious as a physical illness. Our mental health and physical health are connected, and if left unchecked, burnout can cause a long-term impact on your physical body and mental health.

See a doctor or mental health professional, and take a mental health day off from work. As mentioned in parliament in 2020, workers in Singapore can take sick leave for both physical and mental health conditions.

Try to give your employer as much notice as possible. Giving them notice will establish a good relationship and rapport with them and encourage them to be open to future requests.

You could also make preventing burnout a chance for you to connect with your colleagues and to display your leadership skills in your company. If your company doesn’t have a mental health programme, committee or support group, tap on Health Promotion Board (HPB) for resources, workshops and workplace wellness programmes. You can also consider having regular meetings to discuss issues and articles about mental health, which will be a good team-bonding exercise.

Taking the time to regularly check-in on your mental health and assess how you’re coping with work will save you more time, stress, anxiety, and the chance of burning out in the long-term.

Are you feeling burnt out? Learn how to prevent burnout here.

The contributor is a Singaporean writer and journalist based in New York. Shane’s work has appeared in Esquire Singapore, Salon.com, Surface magazine, Yahoo! News, and Marie France Asia. Find Shane on Twitter at @itsShaneTan.