Young and Tired – Are Young Workers Just as Much at Risk of Burnout as Their Managers?

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Burnout in young workers

We are all aware of the risk of burnout and the often devastating consequences of allowing it to go unrecognised. C-Suite teams around the world have measures in place to prevent burnout in the boardroom, but is this just a problem for older employees, and should we be doing more for our younger workers?

The young and the burned out?

Burnout is a serious problem, a health issue, and, from every perspective, emotionally through to the economic impact on a business, it is destructive and often disastrous. It is probably fair to say that a stressed executive manager working over long hours while under constant pressure to perform is probably the image that comes to mind for most people when they think about someone who would suffer from burnout, which is unsurprising and completely understandable. This is probably the most media-friendly and commonplace example of someone who has reached the stage where things have gone over the line. That may well be a long way from the full story, though.

The millennials that currently make up more than 50% of the UK workforce, are more aware of the issue of burnout than any previous generation and have been part of the process of the developing awareness and acceptance of the importance of mental wellness in the workplace. The new generation now entering the world of work and representing 20% of the workforce have not had the same experience. Neither do they have the same values or aspirations as the older generations. They tend to be more financially and security-driven because, unlike millennials, they grew up in an era of financial instability. Combine that with the generalised trait of being entrepreneurial and career-focused, and there seems to be a potential for the increased stress that contributes to the burnout process.

Why are younger workers potentially prone to burnout?

Because burnout is commonly partly the result of a high-pressure work environment, we automatically associate it with high-level occupations with accompanying stress. However, this is well, perhaps not a fallacy, but certainly looking through a distorted lens. Correlation is not necessarily cause, and just because there are so many cases of burnout at higher levels, it does not mean that the factors causing it are only associated with those roles.

It's important to take a moment here to remember that burnout is not caused by specific jobs, it is just that some jobs are more prone to the catalysts that cause the problem. People suffer from burnout in response to many factors, but major ones include:

  • A lack of control over their lives – including in the workplace
  • The reward for work is insufficient – this is not necessarily only financial
  • A lack of alignment with, or inability to relate, to the values of the business
  • Feeling unsupported at work
  • Isolation from co-workers

And, of course, the usual suspects of overwork, long hours, and feelings of inadequacy in the role.

Now, let's think about those few contributing factors in relation to younger people in the workplace.

  • It is the nature of being in the, for want of a better word, ‘junior' positions to often have less control over the working day. This may well be part of the learning process and the job role, but nonetheless, it is there.
  • Financially speaking, young workers are not likely to be high earners – again, understandable, but these are unsettled times of rising costs, and many Gen Z workers are years away from earning enough to live independent lives.
  • As a generation that is acutely aware of the need for ethical supply chains, environmental issues, and social injustice, if they are working for a business where they are unaware of a commitment to these values, the worker may feel fundamentally unfulfilled.
  • A younger worker can be isolated by age and often, a very different moral and ethical outlook. One of their biggest strengths is their ability to be effortlessly inclusive, but this can be a vulnerability if it is stifled by the workplace.

Feeling unsupported is the clue to change

If you reframe the cause of burnout from being job specific to a more cause-orientated view, you suddenly see that young people are actually not only prone to the problem but could well be more at risk than their older co-workers.

One of the main causes of stress and burnout is feeling unsupported and undervalued in the workplace. This may point to a solution for many of the others. Young people in the workplace need support to avoid the dangers of burnout. Simple measures can offer that support. The same methods that would be in place for more experienced workers just need a tweak to make them suitable for younger ones.

Measures could include:

  • Inclusive development sessions where training and career paths are mapped to specific goals from the very start of employment
  • Small benefits and rewards for achievement. These could be financial or in the form of other benefits
  • Recognition of work and praise. Everyone likes to feel appreciated, and this is doubly important to young people in a new job
  • Mentoring and small group meetings to build relationships with others in the workplace
  • Self-care and group care programmes
  • Foster a protective culture in the workplace. Inclusiveness training and mental wellness awareness programs are becoming quite common ways of ensuring the workforce becomes a self-protecting community
  • Open communication between more senior managers and young workers about workplace issues such as workloads
  • Encourage a work-life balance ethic. Gen Z workers are highly flexible. The pandemic may well have been a contributing factor to their ability to work independently (if there is regular feedback) and out of the traditional workplace. This can erode boundaries between work and home life, though, so reinforcement of working practices is needed

Every workplace is different, and, of course, you cannot expect individuals to conform to generational expectations, so these are just some areas to consider.

Whether the next generation of workers will be more prone to burnout will take some time to fully assess, but a quick search of related subjects shows there is a lot of concern that this may well be the case. Isolated, stressed young workers will either move on, silently resign and underperform or worse still, become burned out, cynical and even toxic, long-term employees.

Recognising and dealing with young worker burnout, on the other hand, could well be a building block for a better future workforce.

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