How it feels to have 'millennial burnout'
Not just another typical ‘snowflake’ issue
I don’t remember the last time I relaxed. Honestly? I don’t know how to. Every time I try to read a book or watch TV, I think about what I have to do next, or my ‘to-do’ list flashes before my eyes. I feel guilty because I know that I could be cleaning my flat, or at the gym, or buying a birthday present for my boyfriend’s mum.
My brain never stops. I’m constantly on hyper-alert about the things I should be doing – but just can’t bring myself to do. I already suffer from anxiety and depression, and this stress has disrupted my sleep and led me to have mild insomnia.
I think I’m one of many in my generation suffering from ‘millennial burnout’. This is not currently a recognised medical condition, and there are no specific stats for it, but in the UK, 74% of us are so stressed we’ve been unable to cope. That same study found that 49% of 18-24-year-olds who have experienced high levels of stress felt that comparing themselves to others was a source of stress, which was higher than in any of the older age groups. This is essentially burnout - a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion.
The idea that millennials are experiencing a specific type of ‘burnout’ was first popularised by BuzzFeed writer Anne Helen Petersen. Her much-shared article on the subject points to the fact that the line between work and life is so blurred for many of us that there is no work-life balance anymore. Plus, we’re online 24/7, so we’re always expected to be available, whether it’s work emails, social messages, or looking for love. It doesn’t even stop on holiday. Her article provoked a wide-ranging response, which she edited down into a follow-up piece.
Anne Helen believes one of the biggest signs you're suffering from this is ‘errand paralysis’, where minor tasks such as going to the bank or returning an online order just feel impossible.
“None of these tasks were that hard,” she wrote. “It’s not as if I were slacking in the rest of my life. But when it came to the mundane, the medium priority, the stuff that wouldn’t make my job easier or my work better, I avoided it. The more I tried to figure out my errand paralysis, the more the actual parameters of burnout began to reveal themselves… It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition.”
This is something I fully relate to.
While I'm doing well in my career, my personal life admin is a mess
My job is a big priority for me, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to work hard. It means I'm always on – replying to emails at all hours, and bringing my work laptop home at night. But while I'm doing well in my career, my personal life admin is a mess. I have endless to-do lists that I never complete. Recently, I even made a list of lists and sectioned it off into the different rooms of my flat, with a weekly list of chores to do by each room.
Then I have a list of appointments I need to make, and a shopping list I know I’ll never buy half the stuff on, like ingredients to make packed lunches for the week in order to save money. I often send myself reminder emails the night before I get into work, so when I’m at my desk, they’re at the top of my inbox.
It’s my way of trying to stay in control of my spiralling life admin, but when I end up not doing the things on my list, I’m left feeling even more overwhelmed. Then I bury my head in the sand so I don’t have to think about everything I’m not doing - and end up less productive than before. It’s a vicious circle.
And it’s about more than about making lists. I tend to break my life up into compartments: work, relationship, friends, and family. I want to give all of them equal attention, but I can’t do that because there just isn't enough time, so then I feel stressed, guilty, and permanently tired.
It’s affecting all areas of my life and I just don’t see an end in sight
I overcommit constantly but always manage to make my deadlines with work. The sacrifices are more in my social life where I’ve ended up having to cancel nights out last minute and let down friends who end up angry and disappointed.
It’s affecting all areas of my life and I just don’t see an end in sight. This is the main symptom of ‘millennial burnout’, according to British psychotherapist Beverley Hills. While the condition isn’t medically recognised, Hills says it is something she has seen in her clients.
“You can feel stress, insomnia, self-doubt, cynicism, and as though you're in a void, like, ‘How can I possibly succeed when there are not enough resources left for me?’ There will be emotional exhaustion, a feeling of dissatisfaction, inadequacy, and also anger, and maybe physical pain that could take the form of Fibromyalgia or constant feelings of ‘unwellness'," she says.
She believes that this burnout can be brought on by “over-expectations from parents, careers, and society”. It’s exacerbated by social media because of the constant pressure to be living your best life, which “leads to a fear of failure and, conversely, a fear of success: 'If I achieve all that, how can I possibly keep it up? I may as well not even try'."
In extreme situations, she says it can even lead to depression or suicidal thoughts, and urges people experiencing millennial burnout to seek medical help like counselling.
For me, one of the hardest parts about millennial burnout is that I don’t feel I’m ‘allowed’ to be this tired. I don’t think I’ve earned it or done enough to warrant having burnout. I always compare myself to my mum, who was a single mother working two or three jobs at a time to raise me and my siblings in Wales. I always think, 'How could my mum work all these jobs, cook for us, clean, have all our school uniforms ironed and never complain?' Then I feel worse for whining.
But, at the same time, things have changed for our generation. We've internalised the idea that we need to be working all the time, and that being average is no longer enough; we have to always be achieving. Plus, our lives are a lot more 'out there' for everyone to see with social media. My mum had no one to prove to on a daily basis that she was keeping us alive, and that we had the latest toy or computer game. She’s really sympathetic to what I’m going through, and obviously worried about me, but sometimes talking to her makes me feel worse because I can’t help comparing myself unfavourably to her.
It’s all about being hyper-healthy, hyper-clued-up, hyper-fashionable - and it’s exhausting
The idea of what a successful career should look like has also changed for my generation. It used to be about earning a decent salary, but now it feels like we need to do that as well as have a cool, exciting job you’re passionate about. It’s the same with being healthy. For my mum, that meant eating three balanced meals and having clean clothes. For us, that means going to the gym at 5am, doing a run post-work to get cardio in, eating kale at every possible opportunity, and cleansing my skin all the time or I’ll get wrinkles. It’s all about being hyper-healthy, hyper-clued-up, hyper-fashionable - and it’s exhausting.
Last year, I felt so bad that I thought I was going to have a breakdown. I’d been feeling burnt out for months, and with my to-do list growing as much as my stress levels, I wasn’t coping well. I could barely get out of bed or motivate myself to do the simplest of tasks. I was constantly stressed, and I didn’t feel like myself at all. I was snapping at my boyfriend, because I had no emotional energy left to give – I was so focused on trying to get through the day. He was worried about me because I wasn’t myself, and I even had physical symptoms: my skin broke out with acne for the first time and became flushed with the skin condition rosacea.
I was constantly sweating, because I was on hyper-alert - waiting for the next thing to worry about. Eventually, I booked an appointment to see my doctor and told him I felt like I was about to break. He said my anxiety and depression symptoms were exacerbated by feeling burnout, and suggested I take some time off for my mental health. I wasn’t surprised by his diagnosis, but the thought of being allowed to stop was such a relief.
I took a few weeks off work where I had absolutely nothing to do. I still had my to-do lists going round in my head, and felt like I needed to make the most of my time off, but I was also so exhausted that I just slept. In the end, the time off helped, but a year later, the burnout still hasn’t gone away. I'm now looking into therapy as my doctor suggested - even though that’s now a new source of stress as I’m struggling to find an affordable one.
I'm also doing a lot of reading up on how to manage stress. My go-to is to flare up in an argument with my boyfriend because I’m so on edge, but I don’t want to be like that, so I’m trying to find other ways of channelling how I’m feeling instead, like doing creative writing.
I’m also trying to see more of my friends and talk to them about what I’m going through, because I know a lot of them feel the same way. Last year, I spent a lot of time staying at home trying to get through my lists, and felt guilty about going for beers with my friends and wasting money. But now I need to remind myself that being with people helps because it makes me feel less alone, and it takes me out of my head.
I know a lot of people think this is another typical ‘millennial snowflake’ issue. But the world changes and generations adapt. I know life was also difficult for our parents and grandparents, with a lot more hard graft, but things are tough now in different ways. If previous generations knew what I went through on a daily basis, they wouldn’t think of millennials as lazy and entitled. We’re just trying to do our best, and often, it's harder than it looks.
As told to Radhika Sanghani
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help and support is available.
Originally published 26 February 2019.