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Feeling burned out? This is why working less isn’t enough

Instead of just recharging with a break, try these three strategies to avoid burnout.

Feeling burned out? This is why working less isn’t enough
[Photo: Christian Erfurt/Unsplash]

Last year, journalist Anne Helen Petersen wrote a widely shared piece in Buzzfeed naming millennials the “Burnout Generation”. According to Petersen, we’re overworked, underpaid, and often paralyzed by the systemic dysfunction of our increasingly volatile world. As a result, many of us struggle with even the most basic tasks of “adulting,” like paying bills or registering to vote.

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One year later, things seem worse than ever. Wages have continued to stall, the U.S. is on the brink of war with Iran, and raging wildfires have killed more than a billion animals in Australia. Fifty-seven percent of tech workers are currently experiencing burnout, according to a survey conducted by Blind of 11,500 workers.

So what can we do to stave off or recover from the feelings of burnout in 2020? The most common advice for dealing with burnout boil down to “work less.” We are encouraged to work fewer hours, take a relaxing vacation, stop bringing work home, and to invest in self-care. We talk about “recharging,” as if we’re machines whose batteries have been depleted. This mental model makes sense when most people were employed in labor-intensive agricultural or manufacturing work. But the analogy is flawed when it comes to white-collar workers in tech, business, or professional services.

While the term “burnout” is often used loosely in casual conversation, most formal definitions state that feeling tired is only one of three dimensions. (The other two are negativity and cynicism, and reduced sense of professional efficacy.) Working less is only part of the answer.

As I’ve written in the past, I’m very much against late-night emails and working excessively long hours. But in my view, the two other dimensions of burnout aren’t caused by a deluge of work but rather a dearth of meaning. 

I have seen many entrepreneurs work day and night to build something they believe in, exhausted yet exhilarated. And I have seen those same founders struggle to write a single line of code after hitting a major setback or losing faith in their business. Work in of itself is not the issue; it’s the meaning that the work provides.

Traditionally, people have found meaning in their lives through family or religion. And while more millennials are living at home than ever, largely due to economic reasons, they are marrying later and having kids later (if they have children at all). Meanwhile, three-quarters of baby boomers describe themselves as Christian while only half of millennials do, with 40% identifying as spiritual “nones.”

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This leaves work as the primary source of meaning for many people, which can create a vicious cycle. Feeling burned out leads to poor performance, which leads to a further loss of meaning and more burnout. Here’s three ways to break out of that: 

Reconnect with others

Weak social ties are as harmful to our health as being an alcoholic. Spending time with close friends reminds you that you’re a worthwhile person beyond your work life, and meeting new people can be invigorating.

Consider starting or joining a social ritual. Whether it’s board game night, morning yoga, or a weekly multifamily dinner, like author Nir Eyal organizes, these activities ensure that you’re getting quality social time on a regular basis.

Reframe your goals 

In a world of moonshots and billion-dollar opportunities, it can be natural to aim for massively ambitious goals for your career or company. But when you’re burned out, those goals can feel less carrot and more stick. Harvard professor Teresa Amabile studied the inner lives of creative teams and found that facilitating progress, even in small increments, was the most important aspect to worker motivation.

Are there ways you can remove even minor annoyances for yourself or your team? What is a small, long-standing task that might feel good to check off? Make sure to sprinkle these into your to-do list. Outside of work, learning a new skill, hobby, or language can also provide a real sense of progress.

Remember to be useful

One of the key psychic benefits of work is the feeling of contributing to something greater than yourself. But sometimes, you may not agree with your company’s goals or feel your own role is pointless or redundant, as a third of people do. This is one of the biggest risk factors for PTSD for combat veterans after leaving the military. War journalist Sebastian Junger writes “humans don’t mind duress, in fact they thrive on it. What they mind is not feeling necessary.”

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If moving to another, more meaningful job is not an option at the moment, make yourself useful in other ways. Offer your skills to a nonprofit organization, help out friends or family members going through a difficult time, or support on a political campaign or cause you believe in. Remembering that you can do good and have an impact is important, especially when work is burning you out.

It’s great to see society engage in a larger conversation about the level of social safety net and economic security that governments and businesses should provide for their people. But irrespective of how that conversation goes, the relentless pressure of capitalism and technological change mean that millennials should expect many decades of hard work ahead of us. By reorienting our lives toward meaning, we are more likely to not just endure, but excel, in the years to come.

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About the author

Jason is the cofounder of Midgame, an esports and gaming technology company. He does research and advocacy work on behalf of Asian Americans and serves on the board of the Presidential Innovation Fellows Foundation

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