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Is the pressure to 'love your job' causing the burnout epidemic?

Shot of a young businesswoman lying with her head down on a desk in an office
It has become such a problem among workers that the World Health Organisation recently added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases. Photo: Getty

Millennials have long been told to do what they love for a living. Although being able to pay the rent and bills is essential, we’re now looking for more than just a salary to cover the basics: we want meaningful, enjoyable work that we’re passionate about and makes us feel fulfilled.

By doing work that we’re passionate about, we’re told, it will never feel like we’re working at all. But everyone knows this isn’t necessarily true — and the pressure to tick all of these boxes may well be making us sick.

Burnout is a growing problem. In a recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time US employees, 28% of millennials claimed feeling frequent or constant burnout at work, compared with 21% of workers from older generations. An additional 45% of Millennial workers say they sometimes feel burned out.

It has become such a problem among workers that the World Health Organisation recently added burnout to its International Classification of Diseases — IDC-11 — describing it as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed…”

So why is the pressure to love your work contributing to the problem?

There are a number of reasons why millennials are succumbing to this state of chronic stress at a higher rate than other generations. Most millennials entered the workforce at the height of an economic recession or its immediate aftermath, making it extremely difficult to land a job or progress. Being a workaholic is often seen as a badge of honour — and being constantly connected means the line between work and life has almost disappeared.

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The pressure to find employment that reflects well on us adds to these problems even further. Not only do we need to find gainful employment, it needs to be the kind of employment that impresses our parents and peers — who are able to see our every career move on social media. Internalise this pressure can often lead to stress, anxiety and other mental health problems.

“From a very early age, many of us are bombarded from elders with the necessity of having a well thought out plan for the future. It often includes a job with a steady salary, paid holidays and a pension scheme,” says Life Coach Directory member Nicolette Wilson-Clarke.

“You may question if it is ok to settle for something just because it pays the bills. Or is there added pressure to follow your passion and work out how to pay the bills as well? It may be emotionally and physically exhausting can this be to the point of burnout.”

“For those of us who define success financially, these questions may never arise because you’ll do whatever it takes to grow your wealth, often without a care of whether you actually enjoy it,” Wilson-Clarke says.

READ MORE: Why do we get anxious about picking up the phone at work?

“However, for those of us who are driven by an intrinsic fulfilment that nurtures and nourishes within this is probably a daily conflict.”

When we feel deeply connected to our work, we tend to identify so strongly with it that we fail to distinguish between our work and personal lives. The temptation is to work all hours available and to take on more work, leading to stress and resentment towards something you once loved.

On top of that, the jobs lead by passion — often in the creative and arts industries or in “helping” professions — are often vastly undervalued. Our society has transformed many of these jobs into “callings” instead of recognised employment, devaluing the labour behind them. As a result, working longer hours and risking burnout will likely lead to little financial gain.

And with so many people wanting to do these jobs, there may be added pressure to overperform — answering emails late into the night, for example — over the fear of being replaced. It’s also easy to base your entire sense of self-worth on what you do professionally, so if things don’t work out, your self-esteem and confidence will take a real hit.

READ MORE: Why returning to the office post-COVID could lead to proximity bias

“Concerns like making the wrong decision, personal responsibilities, fear of being unemployed, anxiety of the unknown and future salary concerns are all thoughts that allow you to remain small,” Wilson-Clarke says.

“But if you’re someone who works to live rather than lives to work, there’s a chance that you’ve discovered a work/life balance that works for you. By working to live, you’ve found ways to enjoy life outside of work and can contribute to society as a functioning member.”

However, the answer isn’t as simple as abandoning a job you are passionate about in favour of simple paid employment. Rather, it’s about creating boundaries between your personal and working lives that allow you to fully enjoy both. Most importantly, we need to consider whether our work is really making us happy — and the price we are paying to do it.

Careers Clinic
Careers Clinic