with Anthony L. Rostain, MD, and Irvin Schonfeld, PhD, MPH

It’s hard to ignore the term, “millennial burnout” but there’s growing evidence behind why this cross-section of the population, born between 1981 and 1996, has been dubbed “the anxious generation.” According to research, nearly half of millennials have left a job for mental health reasons. And major depression diagnoses are rising at a faster rate for millennials and teens compared to any other age group.

A Culture Of Uncertainty

So how did millennials become the burnout generation? While many have hypothesized as to why millennials are more stressed than the rest of us (a gig economy, rising insurance costs, social media), Anthony L. Rostain, MD, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and co-author of The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years (St. Martin’s Press), believes the way in which this generation grew up has affected their ability to cope with stressors later in life.

“This generation feels especially vulnerable, unsafe, and fearful because they’ve been raised in a culture of fear and were taught to feel anxiety about the future,” Dr. Rostain says. The century started off with events that rocked everyone to the core—9/11, school shootings, the recession of 2008, ongoing wars in the Middle East, and the climate crisis. “The messaging has been that things are really bad—and a lot of that gets internalized,” he adds. “Because of the state of the world, parents started parenting with a greater need for control and protection, so kids felt more vulnerable.”

And this vulnerability is trickling into everyday life. “Millennials are not socially and emotionally prepared for the demands of a world they’re entering and they’re not autonomous enough to develop skills for coping on their own. They’re overwhelmed all the time, and when something bad happens, they don’t have resiliency,” Dr. Rostain says.

Information Overload

While no one’s arguing this set is infinitely more technologically savvy, their increasing access to information, through the internet and social media, can lead to difficulty setting limits on exposure, Dr. Rostain says. “From a maturity standpoint they don’t quite know how to filter or prioritize information coming in, so they’re left with uncertainty,” he says.

Technology puts us in touch with emotionally triggering information, whether it’s news or what our friendship circle is doing with or without us. “This can isolate us from being in the moment with one another and we pay more attention to events happening away from us,” Dr. Rostain says. There’s less space for introspection. How am I doing right now? What do I want to do today? How do I adjust my day to the way I’m feeling?

Then there’s the comparative element. “From the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed we are reminded left, right, and center of what everyone is doing and achieving in every 24-hour window,” says Rosie Millen, a UK-based burnout coach who helps clients transform their energy by making changes to their diet, lifestyle, and mindset. “We live in a world of negative notifications which remind each millennial what an ideal world could and should look like. Even though social media is such a distortion of reality, a lot of people take it at face value,” she says.

When Patients Show Signs of Burnout

Having trouble making decisions and being distracted are lesser-known hallmarks of burnout. Many millennials simply don’t know how to make choices because there are too many of them, and they have trouble staying focused with so many distractions. They don’t know how to get things done because they almost never had a chance to learn how to get things done, Dr. Rostain says. This can lead to a feeling of helplessness. “Little by little as reality sets in, they feel trapped—and then don’t like school, or their job, or their relationship. That’s when learned helplessness sets in and they can’t mount a sufficient reaction to their own distress.”

All of this can lead to signs of burnout, which can include:

  • a lack of interest or motivation to carry out usual activities
  • feelings of indifference and problems with follow-through
  • being unable to meet the demands of work
  • a feeling of exhaustion
  • keeping people at a distance

(More on burnout symptoms in our provider burnout report.)

“The most common burnout measure is the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI),” says Irvin Schonfeld, PhD, MPH, a professor of psychology at the Colin L. Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at The City College of the City University of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. However, Dr. Schonfeld argues there is no real diagnosis for burnout. “The scale measures on a continuum, such as temperature, there’s no diagnostic criterium for burnout,” he says.

Dr. Schonfeld also believes there is a high correlation between depression and burnout, particularly emotional exhaustion or exhaustion and depressive symptoms. “What people are calling burnout is really reflective of a continuum of distress, dysphoria, and depressive symptoms,” he says. “The symptoms clinicians use to diagnose depression include exhaustion and sleep problems.”

How To Help Patients Recover From Burnout

The good news is, millennials (and Gen Z’ers) have less stigma around mental health disorders and are more open to getting help, according to Dr. Rostain. Research from Penn State University shows that the number of college students seeking help for mental health grew from 2011 to 2016 – five times the rate of new students starting college. “The biggest danger is that when people are panicked or anxious or depressed, they don’t go for the help they need,” Dr. Rostain says. Even when taking a vacation (which is quite problematic in today’s pandemic), as Dr. Shonfeld notes, “the half-life of beneficial effects only last about two weeks.” But there are some effective strategies to help patients reset.

  • Getting a good night’s sleep. A common go-to for improving overall health, many tout the profound effects sleep has on reducing stress.
  • Prioritize. Most people feel overwhelmed because their plate is already full – and yet they keep on adding to it, Millen says. “If you take a look at your to-do list and only do the things that are actually a priority, then you are less likely to feel frazzled. Writing a ‘stop doing’ list is equally effective and surprisingly refreshing.”
  • Practice meditation. “The best thing mediation does is reduce anxiety,” Millen says. “It really helps to center you and focus your mind to a more relaxed, positive state.” Apps like Headspace or Calm, or devices such as Muse, a headband that syncs to your phone through Bluetooth, can be helpful guides.
  • Disconnect. Advise patients to stay away from the screen, especially before bed. “Your brain needs sleep, exercise, space away from your devices to function properly and refresh itself,” Dr. Rostain says. “Too much screen time is overstimulating and directed through the eyes. We’re meant to be in the world, moving through it, acting in it, connecting to it, touching it. More time on screen means less time in your own body and brain.”
  • Chat with a friend. “A problem shared is a problem halved,” Millen says. “This is often overlooked. Just talking to someone about your worries massively reduces the intensity. It’s so powerful.” Surrounding yourself with people who make you feel good can make you happier, energized, and uplifted.

Burnout can feel never-ending when in it, but it is solvable. The first step is recognizing what’s going on.

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Psycom.net

Last Updated: Sep 9, 2021