The youngest employees are already feeling pressured and exhausted – even in the earliest stages of their careers.
Matt had been working as an audit accountant at a firm in Canada for two years when he began to notice a change in his attitude towards his job. “There were mornings where I wouldn’t start my day until 1130,” recalls Matt. “I was just like, ‘What’s the point?’ My motivation was at an all-time low.”
At the time, Matt, 24, had been working with a client known for its poor communication. “You work for an hour and a half, just to know that they’re going to change one number later on and you have to do the entire thing over again,” he recalls. His job featured lots of “repetitive and meaningless tasks”, and during busy periods, he often worked until midnight, sometimes even as late as 0300. “When you sign off [at midnight], you still feel kind of bad, because you know that there are people on your team that are still working,” he says.
While Matt knew he was dissatisfied with his job, it wasn’t until he talked to a friend who worked in mental health that he recognised he was experiencing signs of burnout.
More and more young workers have been reporting feelings of burnout. A 2021 survey from jobs website Indeed showed millennials and Gen Z workers were reporting the highest rates of burnout, at 59% and 58% respectively. Reporting rates among Gen Z were increasing fastest; in 2021, 47% of Gen Z said they were burnt out, compared to 53% of millennials.
Additionally, a 2022 survey by US-based work-management platform Asana showed more Gen Z workers were reporting feelings of burnout than other age groups, while a 2021 survey of British workers showed 80% of Gen Z respondents reported feeling more burned out since the pandemic, compared to an average of 73% across all age groups.
Burnout has been a significant problem within the working world for a while – but it’s worrying so many young people are already reporting feelings of burnout, in the earliest stages of their careers. Understanding why so many young people are feeling overwhelmed by work – and the unique factors fuelling this widespread sentiment – will be key to helping a generation of new workers as they take the first steps in their careers.
Intensified pressure points
Kim Hollingdale, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at California’s Pepperdine University, and a licensed psychotherapist specialising in burnout recovery, notes pandemic stressors have caused higher rates of burnout across all generations.
However, she believes that Gen Z has “the worst collection of stressors” among workers right now – from a lack of power at work to financial instability, the normalisation of hustle culture and an inability to unwind. And although all generations might be juggling high volumes of work, Gen Z has the least “workplace capital”, which means less power to set boundaries and say no to tasks.
Brittany, 22, who works in the professional services industry in the US, says she feels under pressure to perform, which has led to the feeling of overwork and burnout. “I’ll say yes to anything and stay up however late they want me to stay up … I want to seem like a hard worker,” she says. But it has taken a toll, even though the job is relatively new. “It just makes me feel exhausted – I’m constantly tired. I still have the energy to see friends and do fun things on the weekends, but certainly not as much as I would if I felt less burnt out.”
Gen Z are also stressed about money, notes Hollingdale. A 2021 Deloitte survey showed 41% of millennials and 46% of Gen Z respondents felt stressed all or most of the time about their financial circumstances. Of course, older workers also encountered similar financial pressures early on in their careers, but Hollingdale argues these stressors are more acute right now.
“The cost of living keeps going up faster than our salaries,” she says. For example, a US census data analysis shows median home prices increased 121% from 1960 to 2017, while median household income only increased 29%. Currently, rising inflation is pushing up prices around the world, and worker pay is not keeping pace, intensifying struggles.
To pay their bills and get closer to milestones like home ownership, Hollingdale says Gen Z workers feel pressured to pick up additional work, potentially increasing chances of burnout. Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index, released in March 2022, showed 70% of Gen Z respondents were considering earning additional income via a side project in the next year.
I’ll say yes to anything and stay up however late they want me to stay up … I want to seem like a hard worker – Brittany
“They finish whatever the job is that they’re working for their intended career plan, and rather than getting to relax, they’re going off to their side hustle to get a little extra cash,” explains Hollingdale. These additional pursuits, like entrepreneurship and content creation, have become increasingly common (and even glamourised) among Gen Zers – even though researchers have well documented the link between working long hours and burnout.
Constant screen time may also be exacerbating the problem. Gen Z is more likely to use social media to unwind, with some research showing they spend 4.5 hours on social media daily (almost an hour longer than millennials report). This can subsequently make it more difficult to ignore the work notifications constantly popping up. “If you’re always on your phone, I can see it being so much easier to respond to a [work] text or to an email, compared to if you’re putting your kids to bed or having dinner with your family,” says Hollingdale.
Brittany says she has trouble disconnecting after hours. She says she’s received work requests as late as 2230, sometimes linked to working with clients in different time zones. “It’s hard to log off,” she says. “I’m worried that I’m going to get another message telling me that I have to do something by tomorrow morning.” She also feels pressure to keep working if she sees that her boss is still working. “I don’t want to appear like I’m not putting in a lot of effort into the job. I don’t want to seem like I'm slacking.”
The pandemic effect
In addition to these general stressors, Gen Z are also facing unique challenges linked to the pandemic and the changes it has forced on the world of work.
Many Gen Z workers, including Matt, started their jobs during the pandemic, and have only known remote or hybrid work – something that impacts their working lives, according to Peter Caven, a Toronto-based career coach specialising in young professionals. “It’s very difficult to onboard people to a new organisation and for that person to build and maintain effective relationships across the organisation when everybody’s working at home,” says Caven. This isolation can lead to exhaustion and burnout.
Matt feels like he lost the opportunity to experience team camaraderie and friendships at the office. “A lot of people have said that in those first couple years, when you’re with people in the office until midnight, you’d all go out for pizza late at night,” he says. “We’re kind of missing that now because we work from home.”
While there are employees across all generations working from home, millennials, Gen X and Boomers have almost all experienced pre-pandemic face-to-face time with colleagues. And even if they’ve started a new job amid the pandemic, mid-career professionals are more familiar with navigating a new workplace, explains Caven, making it easier to integrate into a new company remotely.
This experience might also help older professionals to draw harder boundaries between work and home life; Oracle’s 2020 AI@Work Study showed 66% of full-time Gen Z workers who were in the workforce pre-pandemic reported working more hours per week than they did before Covid-19, compared to 59% of millennials and 48% of Gen X.
Room for optimism?
There’s not much Gen Z workers can do about some of the factors contributing to their burnout, like financial instability or a screen-centric culture.
But one thing younger workers have on their side is a better awareness of burnout, and the willingness to speak up about it. Asana’s report showed that, compared to older generations, Gen Z is most comfortable discussing feelings of burnout with their managers.
Although all generations might be juggling high volumes of work, Gen Z has the least “workplace capital”
This could mean the growing problem of Gen Z burnout could help catalyse improvements in the way we work, suggests Hollingdale. “The ramifications could be positive,” she says. “For example, [there could be] a much greater attention to workplace wellness, and revolutionising the work environment to prevent burnout for these employees and others.”
Yet not all these young workers are so optimistic.
Although Matt says he still has good days amid the burnout and frustration, he believes burnout is inevitable for him and other Gen Zers, especially with remote work becoming commonplace. “The Zoom fatigue and working from home doesn’t make it easier,” he says.
Still, he’s planning on sticking it out; he says the overall experience of working at his firm is worthwhile, especially as he receives pay rises each year, and has recently been promoted. He also believes he’ll be rewarded for his effort. “Every mentor I’ve had talked about how hard they worked in their 20s so they could enjoy their future life and get ahead.”
Brittany, however, is moving on from the position that’s burning her out. She doesn’t plan to stay long term, and will be pivoting to a different field entirely.
Experiencing burnout made her confident working at her current company wasn’t aligned with her future work plans. “I realised that I’ll have the most energy and freedom during my early 20s, and I want to dedicate those years to studying for a career that I am passionate about, rather than working a job that doesn’t necessarily mesh with my long-term goals. I hope that working slightly more reasonable hours and pursuing science and engineering will allow me to achieve more balance in my life and fulfilment in the work that I do. Perhaps these are unrealistic expectations, but I’m willing to give it a shot,” she says.
Yet, she’s not entirely jaded. “I’m the kind of person that never wants to retire – so I certainly haven’t given up yet on the working world.”