In March 2018, the Pew Research Centre released data that showed how millennials are on track to becoming the most well educated and highly skilled generation the world has ever seen entering the workforce. The older millennials were pioneer users of the Internet and had a direct hand in shaping it into what it is today while younger millennials, those who’re still in their early twenties, are the first true digital natives, comfortable not just with social media and digital technology but also with the rapid pace at which both are growing.
Compared to their parents and grandparents, they are highly educated, highly literate, highly skilled and, thanks to the access the Internet has granted them, among the most well-informed when it comes to the pressing issues of the day.
Yet, all over the world, whether it’s in universities, in the public sector, or the corporate world, people are asking themselves questions that all seem to center around one puzzling conundrum: Why are millennials in the developed world, who have had all these great things going for them and who have all the right credentials on paper, not delivering results?
In a viral essay by Anne Helen Peterson for Buzzfeed, she provides a potential explanation that stirred some controversy. Millennials, she argues, are the “burnout generation”; for millennials, burnout—a condition characterized by both physical and psychological exhaustion caused by work-related stress—is “the millennial condition”.
“It’s our base temperature,” she writes, “It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.”
Peterson makes the case that millennials’ reluctance to do simple, straightforward, daily routine tasks, their seeming helplessness in the face of household chores, their job-hopping habits, and their obsession with escapism in the form of travel and search for ‘new experiences’ make no sense when you consider how educated, capable, hardworking, active and busy they are. That is, unless you factor in the possibility of burnout into the overall equation.
According to Peterson, millennials have become so geared towards self-optimization and so relentless in its pursuit that 1) they pick up habits and quirks geared towards self-optimization that are not necessarily smiled upon in the working world, hence resulting in their poor impression on their older colleagues and 2) when these habits continue to manifest as millennials go on to work, it quickly results in burnout, where these millennials continue to work despite being exhausted by both their jobs and their pursuit “self-optimization”.
The Grim Reality
Peterson paints a grim reality for the millennials of today. Yet is this simply another opinion that has become over-sensationalized? Some critics, such as Shannon Palus on Slate.com, points out that the essay lacks verifiable data and functions better as a personal essay. She, along with other critics, also made the point that millennials are not the only generation to have ever experienced burnout though it has to be pointed out that this was not one of Peterson’s claims. Others, such as Dawn Foster writing for The Guardian, generally agreed with the gist of the article but has made the point that rampant capitalism in some societies plays a much bigger role in causing millennials to be overworked.
However, other news articles and data published recently seem to resonate with the overall claims made by Peterson. According to The Business Insider, young bankers in their 20s and 30s—millennials—in London are experiencing more heart attacks and health problems as a direct result of their long hours and stressful lifestyle, an even bleaker picture than the example given by Peterson of the young corporate high-flyer who one day simply refused to return to work for no apparent reason.
Another article, this time on long working hours in Singapore published by Channel News Asia (which our previous blog post addressed), suggested that young workers—again, millennials—who are either caregivers of their ageing parents or who are trying to start their own families, sometimes even both, often feel the effects of long working hours more keenly than others, with the effects widespread enough for the issue to be a societal one.
Thus, whether burnout affects other generations or not is besides the point; society has changed and its impact on millennials particularly does not seem to be for the better, whether in terms of their physical or mental well-being. If we consider the fact that millennials will soon form the bulk of the global workforce, with some projections estimating that their numbers will constitute up to 50% of the global workforce by 2020, this is some cause for concern.
In fact, the issue of mental health of workers has become a global issue, with the World Economic Forum sounding the alarm, putting mental health on their agenda for 2019 on their website in a post titled: “Why This is The Year We Must Take Action on Mental Health”.
“Poor mental health stops employees from reaching their full potential and forces them to take more sick days, stunting productivity and economic growth. This is also a challenge with society-wide ramifications,” write the authors of the WEF post. “At this year’s Annual Meeting, the World Economic Forum will be running an ambitious mental health programme that we hope will influence the public and private sectors, as well as civil society.”
What Can Employers Do to Help?
Some employers have begun to take steps to mitigate the negative effects of overwork and burnout. HSBC in Hong Kong, for example, has decided to grant all of their workers, including junior employees, additional paid leave per year, starting from January 2019. Tech companies and startups, which are also the employers of choice for many millennials, are famous for the extra incentives they provide to their workers. Yet many of these additional benefits and initiatives, while laudable, often sidestep the root problems of burnout instead of directly addressing them.
Other companies choose to engage and invest their resources in trusted experts such as the ones we have at PEPWorldwide Asia. We’ve worked with many organizations, firms and corporations who are investing in their employees to help them with both their workplace productivity and their overall wellbeing. Millennials constitute a fast-growing subset of the employees we work with and will soon form the backbone of the entire workforce. For some sectors, they are already in the majority.
It is therefore imperative that companies look for long-term solutions that give measurable results not just on productivity levels but on health and overall wellbeing. Our flagship Personal Efficiency Program (PEP) aids overwhelmed executives and managers to identify and excise unproductive and ineffective behavior and habits that do little but contribute to stress and, in some cases, burnout.
In addition, an increasing number of companies have begun to engage us to execute HealthPEP, a solution geared towards cultivating productivity by empowering professionals to safeguard their general health and wellbeing at their workplace. HealthPEP has gained popularity in recent months, particularly among rapidly-expanding companies.
From the feedback we’ve collected from our clients, many of whom operate in fast-paced, competitive sectors such as finance, banking, FMCG, and pharmaceuticals, among others, our solutions work because we tailor each solution not just to the industry or the department but to the individual level, with one-on-one coaching sessions that truly bring out the potential each individual offers. As individual workers become more efficient, they learn to identify the areas they can focus on to truly generate impact and, consequently, becoming more effective at their roles and duties.
The One and Only Solution: Action
The World Economic Forum’s call for action to address mental health on a global scale is aimed at “the public and private sectors, as well as civil society”. Likewise, Peterson, as well as her critics, generally agree that there is no one, specific solution that can rectify the great millennial burnout, citing that change has to come from different stakeholders, whether it be parents, or therapists, the free market, or even millennials themselves.
At PEPWorldwide Asia, we are proud to be able to say that we are putting ourselves forward as part of the solution.
About the Contributor:
Hidhir Razak is a Master of Arts graduate from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he specialised in English and Creative Writing. A reader, writer, and researcher by training, his creative works have appeared in numerous anthologies and collections in Singapore while his articles have appeared on The Middle Ground, Yahoo Singapore, and Poetry.sg. Currently the Corporate Relations Manager of PEPWorldwide Asia, Hidhir is an ardent believer of the power of storytelling and its unique ability to bring people and communities together.
Angeline V. Teo is the President and Chief Consultant of PEPWorldwide (Asia) Pte. Ltd. She is also an International Speaker, certified Master PEP Consultant, Executive Coach and Author. Above all, she is a caring Mother of two, a loving Wife, filial Daughter and avid Spa and Vacation addict!