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An Entire Industry Is Cropping Up to Deal With Millennial Burnout

Across the country, more and more people are succumbing to emotional collapse at work. But how did we get here, and what are we going to do about it?

It was a typical Monday morning at a mid-sized cloud services company in Denver, save for a weeping 29-year-old project manager crouched in the emergency stairwell. Kieran Tie felt like “absolute trash” that day. He could no longer bring himelf to sit through pointless management meetings and pretend to give a fuck about on-demand enterprise data storage. In the preceding months, he’d found it increasingly difficult to complete the simplest of tasks. Plagued with insomnia and regularly forgetting meals, he’d developed a remarkably short temper and stormed out of meetings when he disagreed with higher-ups, something he’d never done before in a professional setting. 

“I felt like a failure because I didn’t know what to do,” Tie tells me. The predicament confounded him because, on its face, he had a great job at a growing company with talented colleagues. The hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.) like the compensation (low six-figures, plus bonus) were “very fair,” and he could ride his bike to the office, 10 minutes from his house. And yet, as he weepily rocked in the fetal position in a stairwell underneath a fire extinguisher for the better part of an hour, it was clear something needed to change. “Amy Hoy has a fantastic post on how your ‘fuck this’ moment changes everything,” Tie says. “Turns out I needed a particularly big ‘fuck this’ moment — burning out at work — to start making real changes in my life.”

Kieran Tie in 2017

Recording artist JD WildFlower’s “fuck this” moment arrived alongside a lucrative record deal. An “ethereal dance music” vocalist, percussionist and fire dancer in her 30s, WildFlower relentlessly gigged in small clubs throughout Minneapolis with 25 performers, handling all the logistics herself. “I started stressing about minute details, and it took forever to get simple stuff done,” she explains. Physically, she was once able to recuperate from a performance in a day. Now it was taking weeks.

In hindsight, she blames her burnout on a “toxic success mindset” as her well-being became compromised by a laser-like focus on success. Although WildFlower thinks therapists have been largely ineffective in treating burnout, she credits one for helping her identify the roots of hers: When she was 14, a high school recording arts teacher closed his office door and delicately explained that none of the boys wanted her in their bands because “girls can’t rock.” 

“I vowed at that moment to prove them wrong,” she says. “From then on, competitive energy and success-hunting superseded my mental health.” The decline culminated with her walking away from a million dollar record contract, which would’ve granted the label ownership of every piece of music she’d ever written, which is highly unusual. “Once I made that decision, I crashed for a couple weeks, but the overwhelming stress and fatigue persisted for months. I was like, ‘There’s something going on with me besides just stress.’”

Across the country, more and more people are succumbing to emotional collapse at work. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) included the colloquial term for the apathetic malaise Tie and WildFlower experienced — “burnout” — in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases, listed as an “occupational phenomenon” with three symptoms: 

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job or feeling negative toward one’s career
  3. Reduced professional productivity

Psychologists applauded the WHO’s designation because it validated the exhaustion of a substantial percentage of the American workforce, which feared looking weak by taking off time for mental health. Tie, for example, compensated the only way he knew how: by working harder. Months later, a once motivated, highly productive employee was doubting every decision he made at work while withdrawing from tasks and retreating to his phone. The lethargy extended to his personal life, where basic undertakings like scheduling a haircut, doing the dishes and bathing his children became chores he begrudged. 

Thomas Curran, assistant professor of psychological and behavioral science at the London School of Economics, blames burnout on the disappearing safety net in market-based societies. “The consequences of failure are really severe,” he says. “If you screw up and don’t have support from family, you can end up in poverty because there isn’t societal cushioning when you fall into a ditch.” As such, a substantial chunk of a generation that came of age during the Great Recession is neurotically going about their days avoiding metaphoric ditches. “We’re seeing a lot of mental health problems stemming from neurosis generated by the withholding of social support,” Curran continues. “The most innovative creative nations — the ones that push the boundaries in terms of development and tech — aren’t the U.S. or the U.K. They’re actually in the more Scandinavian countries, places like Sweden, where you see a lot of innovation for the simple reason that risk is encouraged. You can fail because there’s a safety net to pick you up.”

Not surprisingly, then, 94 percent of American workers say they’re stressed at work, and three-quarters believe they’re more stressed than their parents (and their parents). Anne Helen Petersen was among the first to identify the trend as a distinctly millennial phenomenon in a January 2019 piece for BuzzFeed. “The more work we do, the more efficient we’ve proven ourselves to be, and the worse our jobs become: lower pay, worse benefits, less job security,” she wrote, which could explain why 80 percent of millennials don’t expect to get any Social Security benefits when they retire and four out of five say they’re in the midst of a quarter-life crisis

Petersen points to her own experience breaking into academia as an example. “It used to be, if you published one peer-reviewed article you’re almost assured a job. Now, you need a book under contract. Adjunct professors are paid less, don’t get benefits and are asked to do the job of three people.” Like Tie, Petersen says she regularly experienced “errand paralysis,” with straightforward tasks like getting knives sharpened, booking time with the dermatologist and registering her dog for a new license feeling impossible. She labels the lethargy “millennial burnout,” or people between the ages of 23 and 40 who suffer from a combination of low-level anxiety, fatigue and dread caused by a feeling that they should always be working.

Among the eldest millennials at 38, Petersen concedes that previous generations have struggled with their own existential crises — the Great Depression, World Wars, looming nuclear annihilation, to name a few — but believes such unifying threats would actually make things easier for millennials. “The fact that there’s nothing to rally around is connected to our feeling of burnout,” she tells me. “There’s no catharsis because you don’t know when it’s going to end. It’s harder to put a name to what’s making us feel so shitty all the time. Unstable labor markets? Global climate change? Fascism? Or some other threat to our livelihoods we’ve yet to identify?”

Loads of articles have been written about millennial burnout, most of which point to the latest recession, student debt, the gig economy and America’s failure to provide adequate health care, child care and paid time off as primary culprits. Granted, people have always struggled with melancholy, overwork and being pissed off about labor conditions. The difference today, says Oakland-based performance and wellbeing coach Brad Stulberg, is an addiction to ego and relevance thanks to technology. “There’s now a need to constantly build and maintain a personal brand, which is connected to your self-worth,” he tells me, pointing to Instagram likes, Twitter/LinkedIn followers and job titles as the most common metrics for measuring one’s personal brand. “It feels dreadful to be on your computer late at night and on weekends, but even more dreadful if you aren’t. That’s when burnout hits.” 

Even 1980s workaholics Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman eventually punched out, slipping off their suspenders to proselytize the virtuosity of Phil Collins with high-price hookers. Now, a perceived need to constantly cultivate a personal brand means you’re never not on the job. What’s more, Stulberg says, the dichotomy between work and personal time has been largely stripped away. “We were told all of these technologies would be great because they offered freedom to work from anywhere, but it’s actually taken away freedom because there’s a drive to work all the time because you can.” Workplace “efficiency apps,” most notably Slack, offer ample opportunity for “performing” work, or “LARPing your job,” as Petersen calls it. “It’s hard to describe why the ‘bourgeois mindwork’ of internet media jobs can feel so exhausting,” she says. “But it comes down to that contradiction — Slack is clearly a waste of time, but you feel like you need to be on it all the time to prove you’re working.”

But where did “burnout” begin, at least nominally? In the early 1970s, Herbert Freudenberger had a successful psychology practice on New York’s Upper East Side. A serious, driven man, he’d survived the Holocaust and moved to the U.S. as a young child. He was raised to always help people, which is why he also opened a clinic on the Bowery, New York’s Skid Row, to help struggling drug addicts.

“He would see them holding cigarettes and watch the cigarettes burn out,” his daughter, Lisa, told NPR in 2016. “After 12 hours on the Upper East Side, he’d go down to the Bowery and work until 2 a.m. He became increasingly more stressed and wasn’t pleasant to live with.” When Lisa was 5, her mom booked a family vacation to California. The day they were set to leave, Freudenberger couldn’t get out of bed and realized something was wrong. It wasn’t exhaustion, and it wasn’t depression — this was something new. He began self-analysis by speaking into a tape recorder for an hour.

“I don’t know how to have fun. I don’t know how to be readily joyful,” he said on the tape. His mind went to the drug addicts down on the Bowery with their blank looks and cigarettes burning out. This led to a book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement, which became an instant hit. Stressed out social workers, doctors and housewives alike sent letters saying they felt like this, too. He explained the condition further on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Phil Donahue Show and All Things Considered, noting burnout to be “a response to stress, frustration and a demand an individual makes upon themself of a requirement for perfectionism or drive.” Many still credit Freudenberger for coining the term “burnout.”

But that’s nonsense says psychologist Christina Maslach, a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, known for her decades of research on occupational burnout. In 1981, she co-authored the Maslach Burnout Inventory, considered the “gold standard” for measuring burnout, which encompassed three scales: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and personal accomplishment. It remains the most widely used research measure in the burnout field. “No one invented burnout,” Maslach, the daughter of a NASA engineer, corrects me over the phone. Case in point: Her dad used the term to describe rocket boosters and ball-bearings burning out. Moreover, she adds, “Graham Greene wrote a novel called A Burnt-Out Case in the early 1960s. Nobody invented the term. It came from people who said, ‘This captures my experience.’”

While doing research for the Burnout Inventory, she’d ask stressed-out workers to try to put a name to what they were feeling. Detached concern? Nope. Dehumanization? Nope. “How about burnout?” Maslach asked. “Yes, that’s it!” a woman responded. 

In the early days of Silicon Valley, job ads were posted by “burnout shops” who specified they weren’t just looking for “type A” personalities, but “type A+++.” “It was a sprint,” Maslach says. “For a number of years, they owned you and expected you to be working day and night, 24/7, until you had nothing left to give. Afterward, you’d be burned out, but wealthy. That was the trade-off. Today, burnout shops have become a business model.” 

When Maslach began writing articles about burnout in the 1970s, she was flooded with mail proclaiming some variation of, Oh my God, I thought I was the only one!, each bearing a shared ignorance of the problem they were experiencing. Forty years later, Maslach is happy to see attention finally being paid to the subject of her life’s work. She’s especially pleased with the WHO’s designation of burnout as a workplace malfunction. “Conventional wisdom is that burnout is primarily a problem of the individual,” she notes. “That is, people burn out because of flaws in their characters, behavior or productivity. According to this perspective, people are the problem, and the solution is to change them or get rid of them.” 

But her research argued most emphatically otherwise. After extensive study, she determined burnout not to be a problem of the individual, but of the social environment in which they worked. “It’s the structures, systems and practices developed formally and informally that create conditions for either a great workplace or one that beats the hell out of you,” she explains. 

This notion is catching on. In June 2018, Business Insider surveyed self-reported rates of burnout within major tech companies and revealed 30 to 70 percent of employees were burned out. And so, burnout specialists are now focusing on the companies themselves. 

Via Business Insider

* * * * *

Scaling steps to a third-floor yurt perched above Santa Monica’s Main Street, I meet Jessica Corbin, a 41-year-old performance coach and founder and CEO of REVITA5, an employee-performance platform that helps organizations prevent burnout. “It’s hard to say with certainty how pervasive this is in the average workplace,” Corbin says, noting reported stress has increased 20 percent in the last 20 years, directly correlating with the onset of the iPhone.

Technology and connectedness have outpaced our nervous system’s ability to handle them, and REVITA5 is hoping to make us — and more importantly, our employers — aware when workplace stressors affect our energetic health. “We help you get into what I call ‘energetic integrity’ by understanding how recovered you are from the prior day’s stress,” she explains, strapping an iPhone-sized contraption around my forearm. “Truth is, your heart knows. There’s a subtle frequency that your heart emits that tells you where you sit within your energetic bandwidth.” Corbin believes this should be our new health-and-performance standard. 

An app connected to the device prompts me to take a series of deep breaths for 60 seconds while it calculates my heart rate variability (HRV), the variation in the time interval between consecutive heartbeats in milliseconds. HRV is central to everything REVITA5 does. “Heart rate variability takes all the dimensions of an individual— physical, mental, emotional, spiritual — and distills it down to a single data point,” Corbin explains. 

When REVITA5 begins working with a new client (they currently have eight, including Activision Blizzard, Autodesk and Smarty Pants Vitamins), all employees receive one of these trackers to determine their HRV every morning. My HRV was 80, which combined with tomorrow’s measurement would serve as a baseline. “The whole platform gets more intelligent with every use,” Corbin explains. “I’ve seen people increase their HRV after two to three consistent weeks by making minimal lifestyle changes.” The green line below is the rolling average, while the white line is the daily HRV reading. When the baseline rises, it’s proof that you’ve increased your capacity to handle challenge and demand (i.e., energetic resilience). 

Upon finishing the measurement, the employee is given one of three results based on their energetic capital: 

  1. Push Day: You’re fully recovered. Feel free to go to a spin class and have an extra glass of tequila because you’ve got the resources to do so.
  2. Maintain Day: Your system is somewhat recovered, but not primed for big efforts. Do some moderate exercise and get to bed at a normal hour. 
  3. Recover Day: Your system isn’t recovered from the prior day stress, and you need more self-care. Get to bed earlier, take a mellow yoga class and be conscious of your limited energetic capital.

REVITA5 then aggregates the data (maintaining everyone’s privacy) and reports it to company leadership. “We tell them if a team is primed for peak performance and would benefit from being leaned on and given a push goal,” Corbin explains. “Conversely, we can also show them which teams are susceptible to burnout. We can say, ‘The marketing team really isn’t rebounding from the load they’re carrying; so it’s in your best interest to get in front of this before absenteeism, sick days or attrition sets in.’” 

Companies would do well to listen. Stress-related costs — absenteeism, sick days, attrition, etc. — are nearly $300 billion a year according to meQuilibrium, a digital coaching system for managing stress. “Burnout is affecting millennials more than prior generations because of how technology is imprinted on their developing nervous systems,” Corbin says. “If you get your first iPhone at 10, you suddenly have this astounding connectivity but no idea how to self-regulate. That’s why mindfulness is so important now.” 

Neuroscientist Judson Brewer studies the neural mechanisms of burnout and mindfulness, especially as they relate to doctors, 400 of whom kill themselves every year. Empathy fatigue is a common culprit of burnout among medical professionals, Brewer explains, because physicians who put themselves in suffering patients’ shoes suffer as well. (As of 2019, the physician burnout rate in the U.S. is 44 percent, which climbs to 63 percent for nurses.) “If they work 60 hours a week, they’re suffering 60 hours a week,” he says. “Burnout is highly correlated with anxiety, so if we can treat the root cause — doctors getting anxious — their burnout scores go down as well.” To this end, he developed a step-by-step, app-based mindfulness tool, Unwinding Anxiety, and recently submitted a paper reporting a 50-percent reduction in burnout among physicians. 

“I became tense, defensive and hostile,” explains Kristin, an L.A.-based trauma nurse who burned out after 20 years on the front line of car accidents, gunshot wounds and stabbings. “Nurses are constantly bombarded with tragedy without any outlet for personal feelings due to hospitals now being corporations with a bottom line to meet.” What’s more, because they’re predominantly women and by nature expected to be caring and nurturing, Kristin was expected to serve as doctor, mother and hotel concierge, regularly asked to fill cups with ice, turn pillows over and let patients borrow her iPhone charger. “All of these needs take you away from the primary job of saving somebody’s life,” she adds. 

* * * * *

But are we actually experiencing higher rates of burnout than ever before? Or are we just paying more attention to workplace stress and now have something to call it? 

Both, says Bay Area licensed psychotherapist Anna Lindberg Cedar, who calls herself a “burnout prevention hacker.” “We’re definitely seeing a growing epidemic in America,” Cedar tells me, pointing to compounding variables like increasing suicide rates in every state and the reality that millennials make more career changes than any previous generation. “The tricky thing about burnout is that it’s not a diagnosis, so it does not have incident rates to help us track it with that kind of specificity. Burnout is a process that overlaps with many of the mental health conditions that one out of five Americans have.”

Cedar facilitates dialogue at Burnout Prevention Hack-A-Thons, which she holds at workplaces nationwide. She’d grown tired of repeatedly hearing the same complaints from clients — long hours, toxic work environments, unreasonable bosses — without being able to speak directly to the source of the problem, so she created a space to do so. “There’s a particular kind of change that happens when one does self-care in relation to others,” she says. The goal of the hack-a-thons, which she likens to “going to the gym for your mental health,” is to gather workers in the same room to discuss burnout and identify environmental contributors to workplace stress. 

Cedar recommends using the Dialectical Behavior Therapy framework to approach burnout prevention using a four solution analysis:

  1. Change the situation or solve the problem. Quit, thereby leaving harmful situations either temporarily or permanently, or attempt to solve the problem by mobilizing available resources, ideas and willingness to change.
  2. Change your feelings about the situation. Change your attitude and take care of yourself using relaxation strategies. Ask for better PTO policies so you actually have time for self-care.
  3. Radically accept the situation as it is. Sometimes change is outside of your control, like when management makes a call that you can’t do anything about it. This calls for radical acceptance. Que será, será.
  4. Stay miserable. What would staying miserable look like for you? Complaining all the time without any solutions? Identify the difference between self-care versus self-harm, then decide which is healthier for you. 

Half of the hack-a-thon is designed to teach research-backed self-care strategies, mood hacks and motivation boosters to reduce burnout on the job. The second part is a cultural conversation amongst the workforce to identify what may be contributing to burnout. “We talk about how important self-care is, all together, so employees have a chance to see their bosses smile and nod when everyone agrees, ‘Yes, we should leave work at a decent hour.’ It’s a cultural experience, seeing everyone make that commitment to improve environmental contributors to stress.” 

Cedar says the WHO’s open-ended definition of burnout allows people to talk more freely than stigmatized diagnoses of anxiety or depression. For some reason, we as a culture have decided that burnout is something we can discuss, hopefully along with conversations about the larger systems of capitalism that have contributed to it. As writer Nona Willis-Aronowitz reminds us, there’s a largely forgotten swath of poor millennials who struggle with a different kind of burnout related to the heartbreak they feel when institutions repeatedly fail them. One in five millennials are poor, she writes. Almost 50 percent are either unemployed or overqualified for their jobs, and two-thirds have long-term debt. It stands to reason many of these people are burned out. 

People like Rebecca, a soft-spoken 27-year-old coal-miner’s daughter in Eastern Kentucky — profiled in Jennifer M. Silva’s Coming Up Short: Working Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty — who dropped out of college and ended up working two jobs to make ends meet. One day, while unloading the dishwasher, she blacked out and fell in her kitchen, requiring dozens of stitches. Doctors thought it could be dehydration before asking if she was getting enough sleep. Hardly — Rebecca was “going at both ends,” working full-time shifts at both a diner and a wine bar. She didn’t carry medical insurance either, figuring she’d wait until she was 30. All told, the fall cost her more than $6,000, which she put on her credit card — at 24 percent interest.

“Rebecca’s story illustrates the extreme vulnerability of the post-industrial working class to the lack of social protections from the market and the corresponding rise of ideology that constructs the self as solely responsible for one’s fate,” Silva writes, echoing Curran. “Creating a good life for oneself requires escaping the market through institutional protections including tenure, subsidies for housing or education, wage regulation, labor laws or health insurance.” 

Her story also illustrates how complaining about burnout is a privilege for those lucky enough to have access to such language. If you’re working double or triple shifts while raising a child, you likely don’t have time to wonder if you’re burned out. “There really isn’t a voice for what working-class millennials are going through,” Stulberg notes.

Some, like journalist Emily Guendelsberger, are trying to change that. She worked three different low-wage jobs — at a call center, at a McDonald’s and at an Amazon fulfillment center — which she recounts in a 2019 book, On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane. “People fortunate enough to have good jobs, making policy or writing op-eds seem to have no idea how crippled a life of no escape from the weeds is,” she writes in the introduction. “When was the last time you asked permission to go to the bathroom? Would you panic over running two minutes late? Is it normal to be constantly monitored at work? To have everything you do timed by the second? When did you last wear a uniform, or had food thrown at you? When’s the last time you sold something to pay a bill? Do you have to wait to be searched for stolen goods after you leave work? Have you ever considered DIY dental surgery? Have you gone to work sick, because you can’t afford to take unpaid time off? Have you had to provide a doctor’s note to prove you deserve that unpaid time off? Have you recently overdrawn your checking account or had all your credit cards declined or put exactly 10 bucks of gas in your car? Nearly everyone with influence in this country, regardless of political affiliation, is incredibly insulated from how miserable and humiliating the daily experience of work has gotten over the past decade or two.”

In particular, Guendelsberger offers a window into the doleful existence of Amazon “pickers” and “packers.” Picking means walking up to 20 miles a day finding items people have ordered and sending them off on a conveyor belt to be packed. Packing involves standing in place for 10 hours, grabbing those items off the conveyor belt and sealing them into shipping boxes. When lines of dead-eyed, ibuprofen-seeking zombies started converging outside the infirmary before and after every shift, the warehouse installed free painkiller vending machines. “No more traffic jams, and workers get free drugs a short walk away,” Guendelsberger writes. “Win, win.”

Two weeks into her tenure as an Amazon picker, a string of Guendelsberger’s two-second voice memos perfectly capture the singular hell American low-wage workers face. “Fuck your product whose existence I resent,” she angrily whispers. “Fuck your sexy candy corn costume. Fuck your enormous bag of ping-pong balls. Fuck your Guardian Angel Communication Journal. Fuck your feces-themed board game. Fuck your eco-friendly jeans. Fuck your Beautiful Celtic Dragonfly Zodiac Wall Clock by Brigid Ashwood. Fuck your shapewear. Fuck Dorita. Fuck your Michael Kors bag. Fuck Minecraft. Fuck your Alexander Del Rossa Women’s Superplush Microfiber Fleece Bathrobe…

These stressors are compounded for people of color, for whom exclusion, discrimination and bias impose an emotional tax that prevents employees from being able to thrive at work. As such, burnout is an entirely different narrative for Asian, Black, Latinx and multiracial employees, one that encompasses basic survival needs. “Being burned out has been the steady state of black people in this country for hundreds of years,” writes poet Tiana Clark in “This Is What Black Burnout Feels Like,” her response to Petersen’s BuzzFeed article. 

Tie learned what cloud services project manager burnout looks like while researching sabbaticals online. “If you Google, ‘Do I need a sabbatical?,’ then you probably need a sabbatical,” he says in retrospect. The now 33-year-old began his career as a software developer and enjoyed the creativity and autonomy of that work, which allowed for side projects and freelancing. He was eventually promoted, though, to become the manager of his team. Suddenly, his day-to-day responsibilities morphed into enabling other people — programmers, designers, engineers — to be creative while he coordinated the show behind the scenes. “I realized over time that the path of management, eventually becoming a director or VP, wasn’t something I wanted,” he says. By then, though, he couldn’t step back into an individual contributor position; the only way to keep his job was to continue down the same path. 

As “Burnout Specialist” Ben Fanning explains, Tie’s promotion exemplifies how burnout can be a pitfall of success. “It’s not realistic to assume the work that got you to a successful level is going to be the same work that’s going to take you to the next level,” he tells me. “That’s when it’s important to identify a greater evolved place on the job where you can apply your skill sets in different ways. Sometimes it involves moving to a different team, function in your organization or even making a leap to a different company or starting your own business.”

Hidden amongst Tie’s “do I need a sabbatical?” search results was a passage from Maslach’s 1997 book, The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It. “Burnout is the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do,” it read. Tie leaned in and scrolled down. “It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit and will — an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, putting people into a downward spiral from which it’s hard to recover.” 

I mention to Tie that Maslach told me that the most common symptom of burnout is when the values of the company don’t align with the values of the employee, which leads to negative, hostile, take-this job-and shove-it reactions. (Nine out of ten millennials would take a pay cut to work at a company whose mission and values align with their own.) “I definitely felt a values conflict,” Tie responds, explaining that over time, management made it clear that the projects his team was working on weren’t a priority. It was a “total, maddening, lack of control” that reflected on him personally and he’d get highly defensive of his ideas. “Most of all, I felt ashamed of feeling weak because I should’ve been able to work things out on my own. After all, my generation was taught to be perfectionists.” 

Perfectionism has a very strong correlation with burnout, explains Curran, whose primary area of expertise is exactly that — how perfectionism develops, and how it impacts on mental health. “For millennial perfectionists, their internal dialogue becomes having to prove to the world that they’re not broken, weak or necessitate other people’s validation to feel good about themselves, which can be debilitatingly exhausting,” he explains. 

So, where will the current burnout epidemic take us? 

A decade from now, Curran predicts we will be in a very bad place. “Things are getting tougher,” he says, pointing to an unstable economy, a precarious workforce and an increasingly insecure labor market with diminishing regulation. Basically, companies can do what they want and will work us as hard as they want, so burnout will increase, particularly as a new generation with highly perfectionistic tendencies enters the workforce. “I do see a counter culture beginning to emerge among young people who have identified the problem,” Curran adds, offering a glimmer of hope. Unfortunately, those anti-burnout crusaders don’t yet comprise a voting block to affect change. “So in the next five to ten years, we will see burnout increase and a lot more mental health problems begin to emerge as a consequence.”

In the end, Tie used all of his PTO to take three weeks off, during which time he decided to quit his job. Not having a clue what he wanted to do next released a “storm of emotions,” he says, and he suddenly realized it wasn’t just about extracting himself from a toxic work environment, he needed to make an even bigger pivot and change his entire career. Three years later, he’s now a freelance consultant, working on his own terms. Despite making substantially less money, he’s never been happier — and healthier.

The biggest help, it turns out, was talking with friends, colleagues and loved ones about his struggles. “Don’t be ashamed of feeling weak or incapable,” he says. “Lean on others as best you can, and you’ll eventually start feeling back to normal. I overcame burnout and I know you can, too.”