Burnouts and Busts

Who here remembers having to take the President’s Fitness test in school? You know, that bizarre, poorly explained week in gym class where you had to wait in long lines before seeing how far you could stretch, how high you could jump, and how fast you could run. As a kid I remembered dreading this week, first and foremost because of the dreaded, mile run.

At the conclusion of the long week of boring P.E. classes where I watched my gangling limbs fail to meet the expectations for kids half my size, everyone in my class was herded onto the school baseball field to see how fast you could run “The Mile.” It was always hot without a single cloud for shade, and the precarious route shifted between grass, gravel, and field track intermediately. But when you’re ten, your physical prowess is a direct factor in your popularity, and every year without fail, I would psych myself up just before it was my turn, and when the coach finally yelled go, I would fire off like a rocket at a dead sprint. And every year without fail I would see the coach shaking his head and hear him yelling after me, “Boy, if you keep running like that you are gunna burn out before the first lap!”

And inevitably, I always did. I’d pump my legs as hard as I could and since I was the tallest in my class, I could always manage to get a good head start. But before I’d even finished my first lap my lungs would be on fire, I’d be wheezing like a dying giraffe, and one-by-one, everyone I had left in the dust at the starting line started to pass me.

Burnouts are not typically something most people associate with a millennial generation that hops from job to job every couple of years. If someone spent 20+ years at a job, doing the same task over and over, then yes, we would all understand if that person one day told their boss, “I’m just really feeling burned out.” But how can someone in their twenties or thirties, who has already had three to five jobs, comes to work in their pajamas, and works in a beanbag chair, possibly be burned out?

While loyalty within corporate America is an increasing rarity, we actually still maintain several of the cultural norms that were prevalent in the baby boomer era. It used to be that showing up early, putting in long hours, and staying late, insured a career of 30-40 years that left employees retiring in good shape. But while employees are much more mobile than they used to be and have many more jobs throughout their career, we are still holding onto some of the same workplace stigmas that no longer make any sense.

One of the biggest of these still-lingering stigmas is equating workplace hours with productivity and promotability. “If I’m the first one in the office or the last one to leave, my managers will see how valuable I am to the company and promote me.” And if that sounds familiar, it’s likely because you’ve thought that way yourself even if you didn’t realize it at the time. In many organizations, there are not clear or relevant metrics for managers to measure their employees worth and so they begin to associate value with observed face-time. “Oh, Janice. Well, she’s usually the first one out the door at five o’clock, so I don’t know about her….but Olivia is here till almost seven every day. I think we should make her the new supervisor.”

And while that kind of conversation may or may not be happening in your organization now, they’ve been happening in other organizations for years, so much so that millennials are still equating hours with value. In our last post “Trust Me” we discussed the growing trend of employees working remotely, but just because millennials are out of the physical office, doesn’t mean the pressure is off to work more hours. Far from it! And furthermore, according to Ty Tucker, CEO of REV, a company that designs performance management platforms, that pressure is part of a growing, harmful shift in how millennials work.

“In too many workplaces, millennials aren’t challenged to meet specific, defined goals, so they spend time on busyness that doesn’t improve their standing, but consumes a lot of time.”

In several of our previous posts, we’ve addressed the fast-paced work attitudes of Gen-Y and Gen-Z and how both generations have a strong tendency to take off running their first day on the job. Add in cultural pressure to put in long hours, and it’s easy to see how long energy drink-fueled days and nights can start to take their toll pretty quickly. And even big name companies with cultures of comfort can actually increase this problem by making it far too easy to spend long hours on the job. When competing for promotions in highly-competitive environments, it’s a very real fear to be heading home when your co-workers are still at work. And in order to stay ahead of the race, it’s very easy for millennials to latch onto fancy amenities like showers, dry-cleaning services, beer kegs, on-site groceries, remote working etc. to fuel their desire to increase their total hours.

However, spending two hundred late-night hours to finish a non-essential piece of code or complete a minor project a few days in advance doesn’t really help your standing with managers or the company at-large. In reality, that kind of behavior’s only effect is to drain you. And if this behavior becomes a pattern, you run the risk of winding up like me running The Mile: sprinting for little gain and then huffing and puffing to catch back up as everyone else passes you by.

Burnouts are on the rise. According the American Psychology Association, 39% of millennials say their stress increased last year, 52% report lying awake at night from stress at some point in the past month, and 44% report feeling irritability or anger because of their stress. And while it might be easy to simply attribute feeling burned out as just being “really stressed lately,” in reality, burning out is a fast-track to being considered a hiring bust. Once you reach the point of being burned out, it is incredibly difficult to restart your internal drive, and from there, your value to a company will decrease rapidly.

The answer to combating burnouts is not millennials’ common remedy of shaking it off, sucking it up, and trudging back to our 14 hour grinds. In order to stand-out at work and improve your performance, millennials need to know what is important to an organization. What does your company value, prioritize, reward, stray away from etc?

A career is a hopefully a marathon rather than a sprint, and taking the time to invest in your own development by understanding your company’s and your manager’s values will keep you from falling into time and energy traps. If your company prioritizes and rewards speed over quality, okay, maybe it makes sense to pull all-nighters and keep a sleeping bag at the office. (But do you really want to work in that kind of environment?) However, chances are that your company values more than just time spent on the job, and understanding that will help keep you from burning out and turning into a hiring bust.

Do you have experience with feeling burned out? Have you ever left a job because you hit a wall you couldn’t move beyond? We want to hear about it! Head back to Base Camp and join the conversation!