Burnout is on the rise among millennial women. It’s a sure sign, says ROISIN AGNEW, that the modern working model is still broken when it comes to fostering female success.
Sitting in a brightly lit canteen that smelled of soup and overcooked vegetables, I considered the pros and cons of a series of new behavioural patterns I had recently developed. The night before, I experienced my third black-out in eight weeks, and it led me to speculate that I’d been “roofied” as it seemed impossible to get so wasted without assistance – incidentally, I woke up safe in my bed the next morning, certain that I’d needed no assistance. I’d been staying at home on weekends to watch The Crown on Netflix – the spiritual highlight of the week and the one thing that gave me joy (where is John Lithgow’s Golden Globe for his Churchill, I ask you). My boyfriend had to frequently sidestep trigger subjects that were likely to set me off (such as “the washing” or “dinner” or “how are you?”). If I had free time, it made me nervous – I’d wonder how I would pay for it later. I barely spoke to anyone all day at work, and wore headphones at my desk throughout to ensure it continued that way. I got into the master’s I’d been hoping for, and a project I’d worked on was a success, but both achievements barely registered. I’d seen my GP more often than I’d seen most of my friends over the past few weeks; and in yoga meditations, I couldn’t picture my happy place anymore – my mind would just switch back to the industrial estate where I was working as a TV researcher.
It wasn’t until I read a listicle on my phone under the fluorescent lights of the canteen that I realised that among the cons of all these symptoms was the fact that I was probably experiencing burnout.
Burnout syndrome is on the rise among millennials, especially young women, and its normalisation is one of the more unappetising aspects of contemporary work environments. Also referred to as job burnout or
“overachiever syndrome”, burnout is hard to diagnose because it so closely resembles what we’ve accepted as a natural way of living. The use of “stressed” as a suitable replacement for “fine” in answer to questions about your wellbeing seems to have given linguistic licence to be openly and permanently sick in public. Symptoms of burnout often include isolation, irritability, loss of interest in social life, depression, cynicism, inability to mentally detach from work, inefficiency in work, and the inability to take pleasure in things. Or so the internet told me as I looked it up on my solitary lunch break in the canteen.
Identifying my stress, anger, and bouts of depression as symptomatic of burnout felt out of character to me – I prided myself on my multitasking – but it was also a huge relief. I didn’t have a high-powered finance role. I ran a small magazine and worked full-time for a global travel publisher and later for an Irish TV network, all the while maintaining a couple of freelance writing jobs, running events, and doing
occasional talks. I still went out. Things seemed great, and yet I wasn’t able to plug into the happiness I should’ve been feeling.
In spite of having a reputation as the “snowflake” generation, Millennials have been shown repeatedly to be hard workers. To many, they represent the first iteration of a new type of worker – self-employed or freelance, double or triple jobbing, “cloud workers”, and to all effects “work martyrs”. The term was used in a study conducted by Project: Time Off last year called “The Work Martyr’s Cautionary Tale”, which showed that American Millennials are less likely to take holidays and more likely to “shame” other (often older) workers who do. Forty- two per cent reported shaming colleagues about taking vacations, whilst 48 per cent admitted they wanted their boss to see them as a “work martyr”. Many Millennials surveyed reported feeling shame about taking holiday time, whilst 30 per cent said that leaving would make them seem “replaceable” and so they opted to not take their vacation time. The study suggests that Millennials are workaholics who are defining standards in the workplace for older generations, and not always beneficially.
The article I’d stumbled across last winter as a freezing fog set in outside was a study conducted by Refinery 29 and Secret, which found that 74 per cent of Millennial women surveyed said they were very stressed about their jobs. The survey seemed to reinforce a trend identified in a McKinsey report from 2012 that showed that 53 per cent of entry-level jobs are held by women, but only 37 per cent are when it comes to middle-management roles. This isn’t due to pregnancy either, as only 11 per cent of women choose to leave the workforce permanently to have children, according to the Harvard Business Review. The HBR study concluded that contrary to “conventional wisdom”, what was preventing women from progressing in their careers were “workplace shortcomings and dissatisfaction”.
In my case specifically – I’ve been working junior-level roles in journalism for over three years – research shows that women in journalism experience significantly higher levels of burnout and job dissatisfaction than men, and that newsroom diversity is suffering because of it. What’s happening to young women that they can’t cope anymore and are burning out? Why aren’t we talking about it more? Why aren’t we including conversations about work stress in our conversations about the gender pay gap? In many ways, it’s because the slogan-feminism of Instagram is somewhat divorced from its original roots in leftist movements and workers’ rights. The Lean In school of feminism that focuses on increasing productivity and mastering a work-life “balance” when it’s near impossible, is passed off as affirmative and encouraging. And of course, in many ways, it is. But the statistics show that by not talking about burnout in young women and not advocating for a “go slow” way of life, we may be actually placing them in a position where they can’t cope and are leaving the workforce entirely. What does the gender pay gap matter if women are opting out? It feels like we’re colluding in a system that is making women unwell.
But the problem isn’t only with women, it’s with the culture of work at large and among Millennials specifically. Douglas Coupland, the author of Generation X, who’s devoted much of his career to looking at young creative people pitted against a corporate environment, goes as far as to suggest that the problem is with the very idea of a nine-to-five job, which he describes as “barbaric”. “I think one day we will look back at nine-to-five employment in a similar way to how we see child labour in the 19th century,” he told The Guardian in a recent interview. Going slow saved me from burnout. I feel young women should be encouraged to view it as not antithetical to ambition, prizing drive and hard work above all else as a society simply renders young women vulnerable. And while we seek to redefine women’s roles and gain greater visibility for them, we should also protect them from becoming victims of their own success.
For the past six weeks, I’ve been living in Lisbon, working on personal projects I’d put on the back-burner for a while – a podcast for my magazine Guts, a web series I’m writing with a friend… I work about 15 hours a week, exercise, read New York Magazine articles from beginning to end in one sitting, and have no real source of regular income. Lisbon is cheap, so it’s manageable. I quit the researcher job and moved without a plan. I followed an impulse that told me that what I was experiencing in work was a form of sickness and that I needed to remove myself from it. Perhaps I have the privilege to make a decision like that, but I think on some level it’s a decision that is available to a lot of us. And it has its challenges. I stay up at night sometimes in a confusion, not sure what the measure of success is now – no plan at the moment, no paycheque to reassure me I’m a cog, and that this is a machine. But slowing down means I have time on my side now, that I can take a breath and realise that everything’s probably going to be alright.
Picture Credit: Benjamin Combs
This article originally appeared in the May issue of IMAGE magazine.