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Pressure, expectations and stress: Why millennials are constantly on the brink of burnout


American writer-journalist Anne Helen Petersen describes millennials as the “burnout generation”. In her famous book, titled ‘Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation’, she explores how burnout is rapidly becoming a creeping part of modern culture, shaped by deep-rooted political, historical and economic forces. While Petersen describes the plight of most millennials in America, the situation is no different in other parts of the world, including in India. Millennials and post-millennials, those born after 1981 are constantly exhausted, with burnout becoming a defining feature of their lives.

“I frequently experience burnout due to the nature of my job,” said a 26-year-old IT professional from Mumbai. Agreed another millennial, who is working as a functional consultant in Bengaluru. Before we delve deeper into the factors leading to burnout and the way out, it’s important to differentiate burnout from other mental health disorders.

What is burnout?

Often confused with depression, burnout, in reality, is a condition which results on account of extreme stress that an individual goes through, Dr Kamna Chhibber, HOD, Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram said.

“Due to extended stress, burnout can induce overwhelming sensations of mental and physical tiredness. It can be tough to carry out daily tasks such as employment, caring for others, or juggling various commitments. Depression symptoms, including burnout, might interfere with your daily life,” added Dr Preeti Singh, Senior Consultant, Clinical Psychology, Paras Hospitals, Gurugram.

Burnout could lead to an individual feeling helpless, trapped, defeated, detached, lonely and demotivated (Source: Getty Images/Thinkstock)

Experts explain that burnout can zap the thrill out of one’s career, friendships and family interactions, and reduce the sense of personal accomplishment. “It is different from regular stress in the way that stress is something that would come in our lives and can also be motivating, encouraging you to do well. However, when an individual is experiencing burnout, it is occurring on account of different factors such as – either the roles are unclear, the expectations at work are too much, toxic or difficult relationships at work etc. The balance between work and home is not at its best, in case of burnout. Burnout is more linked to workspace and not about the individual per se,” Dr Chhibber said.

Dr Syed Zafar Sultan Rizvi, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, SLA, Noida International University, added that this could lead to an individual feeling helpless, trapped, defeated, detached, lonely and demotivated.

What are the symptoms?

In a generation where everyone is constantly rushing to accomplish their goals and finish the assigned tasks, stress and anxiety have become common phenomena. However, if you are experiencing difficulty in concentration, fatigue, tiredness, changes in sleep patterns and appetite along with feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness, chances are that you are experiencing burnout.

“Feeling emotionally exhausted, workload, lack of management, poor reward, absence of fairness, community, conflicting values, headaches, biological process complications, muscle tension, high force per unit area, lack of motivation, self-doubt,” Dr Rizvi said, listing some other common symptoms.

Experts attribute this to the constant pressure and burden of expectations that they face. (Source: Getty Images/Thinkstock)

What is leading to burnout among millennials?

While it was the inability to strike a perfect work-life balance leading to burnout for the Mumbai-based IT professional, the 25-year-old professional from Bengaluru said, “For me, burnout happened due to me taking up more work than I could handle and also due to lack of boundaries at workplace, which eventually led to a lot of work pressure. Due to this, I experienced feelings of frustration, a chronic feeling of disengagement and eventually loss of motivation.”

Mental health experts resonate with these thoughts among Millenials and attribute this to the constant pressure and burden of expectations that they face. Dr Chhibber elaborated, “When we look at the current generation, what we need to try and understand is the kind of lifestyle they are living can lead to a lot of pressure. There are a lot of expectations regarding what they want along with the pressure to keep performing well. The competition, which is there within the societies, is also on a very high side. There is always more that needs to be done. Everything is at a very fast pace and this is contributing towards pressure as well because people feel that they need to keep on moving towards something or the other, leaving them with no time for themselves.”

The guilt associated with doing something for themselves is another factor contributing to burnout among millennials. “They struggle to do a lot of things, that they would like to do or would have invested in, because they always feel that if they don’t do a certain activity or a certain task that is expected of them, then people around them would either supersede them or they would not necessarily progress or their trajectory of growth may not be the best at the workspace. This prevents them from being mindful of what they need to do for own selves,” she explained further.

Dr Singh added that millennials are experiencing higher levels of mental and physical weariness than other age groups. “Burnout can be caused by a variety of factors, including longer work hours, stagnating salary, and rising debt.”

Burnout and pandemic

Burnout rates increased dramatically during the pandemic for the following reasons, according to Dr Singh – difficulty distinguishing between work and home and having to live on the other side of the world.

Building a solid support system, according to experts, is crucial to figuring a way out of this situation. (Source: Getty Images/Thinkstock)

“Feeling misanthropic and being emotionally exhausted, being less effective on duty, having a deep sense of hysteria regarding the long run and being less willing to accommodate health tips,” are some ways burnout manifested during the pandemic, Dr Rizvi shared.

The way out

As previously stated, burnout is, more often than not, associated with one’s work and workplace. Thus, it is suggested to “start looking at or reflecting on what is there that you do require to feel more connected to your work. If there are certain things which are not in place, it is important to have those conversations with peers or managers or administration to figure out what could be the best way forward to achieve your goals”, Chhibber said.

According to Dr Singh, “establishing boundaries and learning to say ‘no’ are important things along with practising mindfulness, taking breaks and getting some exercise” to get rid of the feeling of burnout. “Pause. Take a step back and take a break to give much-needed rest to the brain and the body. After this, talking at the workplace and clearly define the boundaries and set up realistic expectations as to how much I can take up work and deliver. Also, saying no to unrealistic deadlines and communicating way ahead. On an everyday basis, taking breaks at regular intervals to ensure my productivity stays at top-notch and I avoid the feeling of burnout,” the 25-year-old professional said, on what helps her cope with burnout.

Building a solid support system, according to experts, is crucial to figuring a way out of this situation. Explaining the same, Dr Chhibber added, “If you can have a space where you can go and share your experiences, it would allow you to be able to recognise – firstly, that you may not be the only person who is having difficulties and secondly, that there could be solutions that your mind is not able to come up with because you tend to develop a tunnel vision when you are trying to look at the same problem again and again. So, talking to someone else can bring a sense of perspective and that can be rather helpful.”

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