EDITOR IN CHIEF
Hot, tentative tears collected in the corners of my eyes as I sat, sweaty and overwhelmed, in the human resources office at my most recent internship.
I had been working all summer in the same position and continued my job as a marketing and communications intern in the fall semester. By the middle of September, I started dropping some of the many plates I had been spinning. Some of those titles included my other job as an editor of a newspaper, my work as a full-time student, a loving friend and partner—and a person who needs sound mental and physical wellness.
As I battled my second sinus infection in three months and my ongoing anxiety disorder, it dawned on me that my sleep schedule and wellness habits were flawed, my creativity was suffering, and I truly only valued myself if I was being productive.
I didn’t see myself as a bright, creative, kind person—but rather, someone who could do many jobs well, exceed the expectations of others and be successful in any capacity. In other words, I was living to be a laborer, not a human being.
“I love this internship so much,” I said, feeling immediately guilty. “But I need to step down because of my health.”
I was suffering from workplace burnout—at age 21.
Fast Company defines workplace burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion” that “includes increased mental distance from one’s job, which is also characterized by negativity and feelings of cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy.”
And I am not the only young professional feeling this way. In a report by Refinery29, research found that “workers under 34 are the most overtaxed group of all.”
While my workplace was very accommodating, and I was lucky to work with a helpful team and compassionate supervisors, I still felt the need to work myself into the ground, to use all the hours of my week to be productive—and to be as marketable for the post-grad job hunt as possible.
This is the plight of many young professionals—especially women. Refinery29 noted that “young workers, especially women, are increasingly feeling the pressure to (over-)perform,” which we have seen in other studies like that on the “confidence gap.”
The Atlantic writers and researchers Kitty Kay and Claire Shipman found through a Hewlett-Packard discovery from several years ago that women only applied for a promotion when they believed they met 100% of the qualifications listed for the job. Men, on the other hand, felt ready to apply when they thought they could meet 60% of the job requirements.
“Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect,” Kay and Shipman said.
Was it a deeply ingrained patriarchal standard of excellence that made me feel the need to be a work martyr? Was it my own weaknesses I had to confront? Or simply, was it a growing process in my young career that I needed to learn to set boundaries in my work life?
John Kretzschmar, Ph.D., and founding director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies said burnout stems from an economic system where senior decision makers and CEOs value maximizing profits most in business, looking to become “leaner and meaner” to succeed in a capitalist society.
This means many workplaces—from the Great Depression until now—see this as an opportunity to cut labor costs, which Kretzschmar said ultimately pits employees against one another to work harder and faster.
“That business model creates the idea that the way to succeed is to be a non-complaining workaholic,” Kretzschmar said. “Want to get and keep a job? Be willing to work yourself non-stop. Those tensions based upon the ability to find work in order to support yourself and your family, can lead not only to mental stress but also to some pretty atrocious behaviors in our nation’s history.”
I was in an extreme place of privilege to step down from a paying job for my health. Most individuals must stay in toxic work environments or overwork themselves into dangerous levels to keep food on the table for their families. In fact, an intimate relationship exists between mental health and social conditions, meaning the socioeconomic status and expectations in Western society may be playing into the global mental health crisis.
Kretzschmar mentioned countries, such as Japan, that have seen increased suicide levels because of the aforementioned economic system.
“The all work and no play lifestyle that businesses value is horrible for a person’s well-being,” he said. “Young professionals and their future quality of life…they need to take control of it.”
Citing labor unions and the labor movement as catalysts for change regarding this issue, Kretzschmar said social safety nets are the key to developing our nation’s future quality of work life.
In the meantime, young professionals can advocate for themselves, seek wellness accommodations and programs from their employers and demand workplaces with well-structured vacation, healthcare and culture policies.
And maybe, if your employers won’t listen to you, they’ll take a note from Dolly Parton’s classic hit “9 to 5”—a brave socialist beat that resonates to this day.
“They just use your mind and they never give you credit,” she sings.
“It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”