A recent survey of 1500 adult workers in 46 countries published by Drs. Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter in the Harvard Business Review found that Millennial workers had the highest rate of burnout. Is this because Millennials are spoiled complainers?
First, let’s look at the overall results of the study. Remember, that Dr. Maslach and Dr. Susan Jackson originally described the syndrome of burnout in the 1970s, and devised the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) which is still the most widely used indicator of burnout. The MBI measures three facets of burnout: physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism or depersonalization, and a sense of decreased personal efficacy. In 2019, the World Health Organization defined burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
According to Drs. Maslach, Jackson and Leiter, burnout has six main causes: unsustainable workload, perceived lack of control, insufficient reward for effort, lack of a supportive community, perceived lack of fairness, and a mismatch between personal and organizational values and skills. So, back to the Millennials; much of the burnout was due to the fact that due to their age and economic circumstances they had lower seniority at work, less autonomy and greater financial stressors.
57% of all respondents felt that the pandemic had a large effect on their workload. More than half said that the demands of their job had increased and almost 90% said that their work-life balance was getting worse. Much of that may be due to the fact that many people were working remotely. In this “always on” environment, the boundaries between work life and home life have been blurred. More than half the respondents specifically cited the need to act as full-time caregivers and teachers for their children during the pandemic school closures. Again, people with young school-age children tended to be Millennials or Gen-Xers. In this group, about 50% also suffered from lack of connection with their friends and family. This social isolation is particularly difficult among Millennials who are used to being in almost constant contact with their social support group.
I won’t get into my personal rant about how organizations fail to adequately address burnout and its personal and economic consequences in this article. I have frequently written about burnout in healthcare professionals and how healthcare organizations tend to shift the responsibility for preventing and recovering from burnout to the individuals, citing a supposed individual lack of resilience or self-care. The same is true in business, particularly in the tech sector, where overwork is often part of the organizational culture. In business as in healthcare, the challenge of burnout can only be adequately addressed at the organizational level.