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This Story About Work Burnout Is Gonna Feel SO Familiar

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Photo: Helen King/ Getty Images.
It’s 8 p.m. on a Thursday. You’ve canceled your happy hour plans and kicked off your shoes. Seamless has just texted to confirm that dinner is on the way. And now you’re alone…in the office.

Your desk lamp is the only beacon of light amid a murky ocean of empty desks. Finally, the meetings are over, and you’re fighting your way to the bottom of an email inbox that’s been making you anxious since the moment you checked your work account from bed this morning. But, hey, at least no one can accuse you of slacking off, right? You tweet: “TFW it took 11 hours, but you finally got control of the office Spotify.” Hopefully some of your coworkers will see it.

If this sounds like your life, well, congratulations — you’re officially a "work martyr." I had nearly reached that point several months ago, when I left a demanding position I’d held for over three years. By that time, I was waking up in the middle of the night, frantic over work-related issues that were entirely out of my control, and planning every week to ensure that I could devote multiple late nights and early mornings to playing catch-up. I worried that my colleagues and superiors didn’t understand how much time I was putting in, so I started, mostly unconsciously, broadcasting how hard I was working. Meanwhile, I kept taking on new responsibilities and sacrificing the parts of my job that I loved (not to mention the outside projects my day job sustained) because I had more pressing tasks to do.

As it turns out, this is a common affliction among millennials. A recent Project: Time Off/GfK survey found that young people disproportionately see ourselves as “work martyrs” — basically, people who are afraid to unplug from their all-consuming jobs. Though employees born between 1981 and 1997 made up just 29% of respondents, they comprised 43% of work martyrs. And we’re proud of our suffering. Of millennials, 48% (compared to only 39% of Gen Xers and 32% of baby boomers) hope our bosses think of us as work martyrs, too.

These findings are more than just another set of statistics to throw in your “so much for those stereotypes about lazy, entitled millennials” file. Despite a Harvard Business Review writer’s “theory” that we can thank another great millennial myth — that we’re all narcissists — for our generation’s saintly self-image, the raw numbers reveal that we really are sacrificing our personal lives for work. Not only do twice as many millennials feel guilty for taking time off as boomers (16% vs. 8%), but a higher percentage of us actually forfeit vacation days. The fact that we also get significantly less paid leave than our older colleagues makes this difference even more dramatic.

Project: Time Off’s report suggests a more plausible reason than narcissism for this discrepancy: Millennials entered the workforce during the Great Recession and suffered the most dramatic consequences of the dire labor market that came with it. “Coming of age during an economic downturn has consequences,” the pro-vacation coalition writes. “When millennials landed jobs, they brought with them a strong desire to prove themselves, intensified by the often long and painful search that preceded their first day.”

I was lucky enough to graduate college in 2005, a few years before the economic crisis, and I landed an entry-level job pretty easily. But by the time I finished grad school at the end of 2008, getting hired — even with an advanced degree — sounded like winning the lottery. Competition was out of control, full-time jobs with benefits were in short supply, and I was conscious that if I failed to meet expectations, there were hundreds of other smart, hard-working young people out there who’d be thrilled to replace me.

If being out of the office makes you more anxious than being in it, something has to change.

Perhaps that’s why we not only put unrealistic pressure on ourselves while we’re at work, but have also stopped giving ourselves adequate time off. Overall vacation usage has declined since 2000, and about a third of millennials work every single day they’re off anyway. I didn’t feel guilty about taking vacations from my old job (that was one boundary I succeeded in setting), but I did tend to ruin the last few days of them by obsessing over what my first morning back would be like, even though my fears were generally unfounded. I forfeited a handful of PTO days every year, too.

This is not a healthy way to live. Maybe that should go without saying, but work martyrdom has become such a common lifestyle that it seems necessary to state the obvious. The thing is, when you’re stuck inside it — though you may complain about stress or miss the sane person you used to be before work took over your life — it’s impossible to fathom how deeply it’s affecting you. If being out of the office makes you more anxious than being in it, something has to change.

It’s easy to blow this problem out of proportion. Billions of people in this world work harder than I ever have, under far more gruelling conditions, and still don’t make a living wage. (More than anything, the woes of privileged, American, white-collar workers speak to just how few people our global labor economy actually benefits.) Even on my craziest 14-hour days, I felt grateful to have a good job in a competitive industry, with talented coworkers I genuinely liked. But the point is, I still didn’t understand how much the stress had changed me until I’d spent a few months living a slower, less intense — and inevitably less lucrative — professional life.

What I realised, when I cut back to a flexible, 40ish-hour week, was that I could not have sustained my old lifestyle for much longer. The problem wasn’t just that I never stopped working — it was that I was so busy trying to meet expectations, I’d lost sight of what I wanted out of my career in the first place. This seems to be a common experience among millennial women.

As it turns out, dissonance between the kind of work that suits your personality and the kind of work your job requires can actually make you sick. Last month, ScienceDaily reported on research from the Universities of Zurich and Leipzig that attributed employee burnout to “a mismatch between a person's unconscious needs and the opportunities and demands at the workplace.” If you’re managing a big team when independent work or one-on-one collaboration are what sustain you, it’s going to take a toll. And, for me, it did. Now that I spend most of my time doing tasks that don’t chip away at my sense of well-being, I don’t even mind the occasional long day. I also need less money than I did before, because my existence is no longer propped up by the many cottage industries that enable our culture of overwork, from food delivery to car services.

None of this is to say that if you’re feeling overworked, or you realise the demands of your job are incompatible with your long-term mental or physical health, you should just quit and everything will fall into place. Most people's lives are not Eat, Pray, Love. The truth is, it can take years to get to a place where you’re financially stable enough to weather a period of unemployment, or even a pay cut. And, when you do, you’ve got to have some kind of plan.

In the meantime, there are things you can do to get down off that cube-farm cross. You can start taking your richly deserved vacation days, for example, especially since time off is actually tied to higher job performance. You can also put serious thought into how climbing the ladder of your particular company or profession is likely to affect you, and whether it’s worth sacrificing your happiness for a higher salary. Will the promotion that comes with a £10k raise ultimately cost you money, if you hate your new responsibilities and burn out in six months?

But it would be unfair to place too much of the onus for fixing this work-martyr situation on individual employees — or a generation still reeling from the trauma of graduating into a terrifying job market. Somehow, I doubt that young people simply prefer overwork to relaxation. As much as hysterical headlines like “Millennials Are to Blame for America’s Vacation Problem” would have us believe otherwise, it’s company leadership that creates the culture of a workplace. When employees don’t feel like they can take time off, and even when young managers worry about covering their reports’ vacations, they’re probably getting that message straight from the top. If we want to have sustainable careers that don’t make us crazy, we have to stop martyring ourselves to work. It’s up to our employers, though, to make sure we have other options.
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