Millennials and burnout tend to go hand-in-hand. From trying to navigate myriad social media channels right on down to surviving in the gig economy, it’s no surprise that generationally, Millennials are by and large finding themselves perpetually exhausted and stressed, with a range of studies exploring and confirming associated health issues.
To that end, Maria & Ian sat down with Tess Brigham, known as the pre-eminent “Millennial Therapist,” a Licensed Psychotherapist and Board-Certified Coach specializing in helping Millennials navigate a #boomer world, for a fantastic discussion about self-care, work/life boundaries, and what burnout looks and feels like across generations.
IF: We wanted to talk to you because, reading what you’ve written, you’re incredibly insightful about what we’re generationally up against. Maria and I are both entrepreneurs…
MP: We both do a “weave,” both got a lot of natural hustle, which as you know having worked in the industry, you need to have that to be able to build a voiceover business. But the more we look around, it seems like the hustle is getting compounded by just trying to survive in a gig economy.
IF: I know I’ll look around and see similar issues, no matter what industry my peers are in.
MP: Ian and I know we face burnout by the nature of our business, but is this something that has actually gotten significantly worse generationally? Would these problems still be there if we picked different careers?
IF: Also, we apologize in advance that the way a lot of these questions will be posed will be like you’re our personal Sage.
TB: [Laughs] I tell this story a lot when I consult for companies and talk about millennials. Everyone wants to know, not just what’s the difference with Millennials, but what’s the difference about how things are in the world that we live in today?
My first job was working for this talent agency in San Francisco and at that time, there were no cell phones, there was no email — we spent all of our time on the phone all day, every day, but we worked 9:30 to 5:30, and when 5:30 came, we’d literally turn off the lights, we shut the door, we locked it, and we walked out. My boss had no way of getting a hold of me unless I was home and I actually picked up the phone.
And so, the expectation — I always talk about these “always on” expectations. When my first millennial clients came into my office eight, nine years ago, what surprised me was how much you have to be on all the time. Like, there is no work/life balance. It’s all mixed in together. And what’s so hard is, while yes, I own my own business, and when you own your own business, you could be working all the time if you wanted to.I can’t imagine being 25, 26 and trying to impress a boss, trying to build a career, and then having to sort of say at 9 p.m., “Oh, I’m going to ignore my bosses phone call, I’m going to ignore my bosses fax, I’m going to ignore the email they sent me over the weekend.” And let’s not forget, a lot of these expectations, and the technology we use to satisfy them, were created by boomers.
IF: I never think about that aspect of it.
TB: When I was young, there were well-defined areas of my life, you know: “this is work time,” this is life time.” What I’m seeing with my clients is they, on their own, have to figure out how to set their own limits and boundaries and expectations on themselves for their “work.” It’s much easier for a 50-year-old to figure that out: the boss sending the email maybe isn’t thinking so much about, “They know not to work on the weekend or whatever it is,” but it’s very hard when you’re 25, 26, 27 and you’re trying to build a career, where you feel like, “Okay, I should just respond.”
MP: The technology is so pervasive, and once you get a notice, it takes so much impulse control to *not* look, let alone *not* respond.
TB: I know people have written about Millennials that they “just don’t want that,” they want their lives to be intermixed all the time. But actually, they do and they don’t. On one hand, there’s that freedom to engage as you please… the flip side of it is, is that you’re then having to decide for yourself, when am I going to work, when am I not going to work?
There’s a recent article in the Harvard Business Review where a psychiatrist was talking about how he kept having people come to him thinking that they had adult onset of ADD. And really they did think that. Essentially, because of all the distractions that we have in our world, we increasingly can’t connect with our frontal lobes for our executive functioning — decision making, reactions, all of that. We’re basically short circuiting our brains on a daily basis. And so what’s happening is, we rationalize that as, “I’m not strong enough. I’m not hard-working enough.”
MP: Which makes it so much harder to allow yourself a break.
IF: We both struggle with that all the time. I had a sketch comedy show for about 4 years here in Minneapolis, and we realized fairly early on that part of what made our team click was that we all “relax by working more.”
TB: My clients really struggle with valuing play. They really struggle with valuing sleep, play, rest… doing nothing. There’s such a drive to optimize everything all the time. “I have to optimize, I have to ‘like,’ I need to make sure that if I go to this country, I see all these things. If I’m home for the holidays, I have to see all my friends. I have to optimize.” None of us are just sitting. We never just sit, you know? I take BART into the city to see my clients, and once upon a time, most people were sitting there reading, staring out the windows. And now we’re all like, “Well, I’m on the train, I should optimize and get some work done.”
MP: Or even worse, you get together with your five friends for dinner that you haven’t seen in six months and you all are sitting there on your phones.
TB: Exactly. People are struggling to just “be,” right? We’re struggling to sit still.
I was having a conversation last week and as we were about to part, she said she was on her way to a class, and I asked, “Oh, you’re going to yoga?” And she’s like, “Yeah… well, actually, it’s just kind of a nap.” It’s a guided nap, where they go and they lie down, allowing them to sit and process. I know there’s a spot in New York, building sleeping pods so people can take a nap during work hours.
IF: I remember seeing something like that really briefly when I went to college by Wall St, like a good 15 years ago. When I first saw those, I was like, “Why would you do that?” But it’s genius. Where else are you going to take a nap in lower Manhattan for 40 minutes? If you tried to get home, by the time you get there, you can’t even nap and recharge — you have to go right back to work.
TB: It’s like we’re little kids again. “Everyone get on your mat and lie down.” Or at least read a book for a bit. I remember my son going through this in pre-school. “Nope, you have to rest.”
MP: That’s basically all the startups I want to build next: nap time and snack time for all of us.
IF: [Laughs] Free snacks, kegerator in the kitchen, and nap pods and play time…
TB: [Laughs] You know, we joke about this, but the problem is, these are real perks companies are offering, and higher-ups and CEOs are sitting around thinking, “Well, we’re giving those snacks, we’re giving them breaks, we’re creating work/life balance.”
MP: “We’re doing their dry cleaning, they’ve got a gym here and day care. What else could you possibly want?”
TB: Exactly. But their workers are simply getting their lunch, and going back to their desk, eating their snack while they’re working. They’re not actually taking advantage of these things! They’re stressed out there.
MP: I was just chatting about that — I am the worst at not doing anything. Just allowing free time to be free time. I think part of it is a carry over for me: I worked two full time jobs essentially at the same time for about three and a half years, building my voiceover career while I was working for this nonprofit organization, which sometimes felt like a trick: you’re doing really good work, but there’s still bureaucracy just like at any other type of job.
TB: What did you do?
MP: I was working full time managing a team of eight people, essentially managing a team of fellow Millennials on their first jobs out of college, and communicating with everyone over video conference only. And I am an extrovert, a gregarious extrovert. So sitting in a room by myself, only communicating with people over video, which was very hard. And at the same time, building my voice over career, it got to the point where I would literally work from nine to six on the left side of my desk and then I would roll over and work from like, six to two in the morning on everything that had rolled in that day for recording. And then when I finished, I’d just go to bed and wake up and do it again. And that was working fine until I found a partner. And then I realized, “Wow, I went on 97 blind dates to find someone to actually like spend my life with, and I’m asking him to play video games on silent every night so that I can do these two things. And that was a real wake up call for me. But even when I focused on voiceover as my primary, I didn’t find any extra time in my day.
IF: I think that that’s one of the hardest things about truly getting going in voiceover, or really, acting in general. I know that that’s part of what drove me from New York, was realizing that I was spending all this time developing two careers — a survival career, and my actual career. But for Millennials as a whole in the gig economy, it’s not just a want, it’s a need to be working all the time.
TB: Which means that Millennials have to actually schedule their time off, and try to stick to it.
MP: We call them garbage days, where we, like, won’t leave the house. Like, no bras, no pants, just exist as the people that we are.
IF: So, knowing we’re all living in a 24/7 world, do you see this kind of thing happening much with Boomers, or even GenX? Or is this really a Millennial problem?
TB: I personally think that it’s across the board. But I think the difference is, I didn’t have to do any of this or figure any of this out when I was young. Your brain isn’t fully formed until you’re 25.
I remember being in my 20s, and so much of it is trying to figure out who you are and make all these big life decisions and find your path… and it’s also incredibly difficult to try to figure out what your priorities are, right? Because as you get older, your priorities, your values get clear. And so even though I see the older generations struggling to put the phone down and engage too, they’re much more able to prioritize. In your 20s, since you typically don’t have a ton of responsibilities, you can engage all the time and you don’t have nearly as much immediate incentive to not. When you’re young, these decisions and choices for yourself become incredibly overwhelming.
I live in the Bay Area, and a very typical thing out here in tech is four years to burnout. It’s this crazy race to get to five years. By the time people get to four years, they’re exhausted, but at five years, they’ll get a month sabbatical. But by the time they get there they’re really crispy. Burnt. I mean, there was a big report recently that showed that 50% of Millennials and roughly 75% of Gen Z have left a job because of mental health reasons — stress.
IF: What do you see as the best ways for Millennials in particular to pre-empt burnout?
TB: Eat lunch.
TB: We laugh, but it’s true: it’s really making a commitment to yourself to create down time for yourself, and a simple one to start is just eat lunch away from your desk. Sit somewhere else, talk to someone, sit quietly, do nothing. Look out the window! It could be as simple as that. Everyone has little buttons, but I do encourage people to kind of go back to the old school way.
Yeah, some days you have to be up at 6:00 AM for a meeting, and have to be up at 10 o’clock at night to talk to someone else in another part of the world. But make a commitment to schedule that out. If you’re going to be up working until 10, don’t start work till 11 or 12 the next day — if you’re going to be up at six, then leave at three, you know? There’s a reason the standard workday became 8 hours.
It’s also a simple thing, but try leaving the office. Most of us don’t smoke anymore, right? Take a non-smoking break. Once upon a time, smokers got up, they left, they went outside into the air and granted, they weren’t putting the best things in their lungs, but they’re taking five minutes to just breathe, away from the computer screen away from the work. Go outside, walk around with someone, see what the world does.
Outside of extreme circumstances, at the end of the day — no matter what generation you are — there is absolutely nothing that urgent that you can’t pull away from for a few moments. And we certainly know your work will be there for you when you get back, but you’ll come back far more ready for what’s next.
Tess Brigham (LMFT, BCC) is a Licensed Psychotherapist and Board-Certified Coach and specializes in helping Millennials discover their unique life path so they can go out into the world and make an impact. She’s been featured on the TV show “The Doctors,” is a regular contributor at CNBC as “The Millennial Therapist,” and has been a featured Millennial expert at NBC News, Oprah Magazine, and USA Today among many more.