Emma: My best friend, Diane, sent me the New York Times article about performative workaholism a couple of days after I read the Buzzfeed essay about millennial burnout. My response was just, “Oh noooooooooooo.”
Andy: Right? To new-manager me — and even me now — these kinds of potent, viral articles feel like slow-moving tsunamis about to crash into my team. I always start out thinking I might be able to outrun it. Maybe no one will read it?
Andy: Maybe no one will bring it up?
Emma: Also, lol. But I 100 percent relate. When something as zeitgeisty as millennial burnout shows up at the job, it can get really complicated for managers — especially new ones, especially ones with millennials on their teams, especially ones who are millennials themselves. We have to bear the brunt of our team’s a-ha moments, while at the same time try to figure out our own reactions.
Andy: My instinct is to burrow deeper into my piles of work, and I don’t think I’m alone. Sweeping generalization or not, I agree that millennials are a crazy hard-working cohort. I’ve hired them! I am one!
Emma: I’m one too, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the part of me, deep down in my guts, that’s thrived in this shitty system. It’s pushed me to be great at my job, to love it, to prioritize it above lots of other stuff in my life.
Andy: To work harder than market for less money than market, and still be terrified that I’m not excelling enough.
I’ve worked as a way to stop thinking about how tired I am from working. And that’s the whole premise of millennial burnout. We’ve burrowed too deep for too long at too great a cost.
Repeat after me: It’s good when something forces you to poke your head up from underground.
Emma: It’s good! It was cathartic to read those pieces and diagnose the symptoms I’ve been suffering from my entire career. But I also felt like Keanu Reeves microdosing red pills. The Matrix is all around us. I’m part of it.
I’m very comfortable acknowledging the part of me that has fueled my own burnout. I’m less comfortable acknowledging that it’s the same part that has fueled other people’s burnout — namely, the people I’ve managed.
I may have never told anyone to “hustle harder,” but I’ve certainly modeled it. And I think I’m being a good manager when I coach my reports to win the game. And I’ve most definitely counseled them to find a job they love enough to give it their all. There are aspects to all of those things that reinforce a culture of burnout.
But even being able to see more clearly the infrastructure of that system, and my place within it, it’s not like I suddenly know how to subvert it.
Andy: That’s not how we’re programmed to operate, which is why it’s so much easier to ignore the reality we’re in. There’s got to be a good Matrix metaphor for this, too.
Emma: Of course there is, Andy. His name is Cypher.
Andy: Ignoring it will not make it go away. But know this: Millennial burnout is not something that you can solve. As mighty a manager as you might be, this is not something that you can fix. Not in the world, not in your company, and, to be honest, probably not even within your own team. Release yourself from that expectation. That’s just not how paradigm shifts work.
What we can do is talk about it and get better at recognizing how the system can be different. A conversation about burnout is happening. Let it. Hope for it. Maybe even bring it up yourself. Our teams need us to really hear them when they say they’re burning out. Right now, that’s enough.
How to Listen to Your People Without Solving Their Problems
Not cancelling your 1-on-1s isn’t groundbreaking news from us, but it bears repeating when there are lots of Conversations happening. Listen to what your people tell you with curiosity and empathy and validation. If you’re a problem solver, resist going into problem-solving mode.
Listening without problem solving sounds like this:
- Oh? Tell me more about that.
- Wow, yeah. That’s so hard.
- What does that feel like?
- I know what you mean. In my experience, it’s like this: _______.
- Right!? I know!
It does not sound like this:
- Have you tried _________?
- What if you _________?
- Wouldn’t it be better if _________?
- Why don’t you just _________?
- Let’s make a plan!
- Here’s what you should do.
If your 1-on-1s have historically been JUST BUSINESS, getting existential can be uncomfortable for both parties. Don’t force the conversation, but do ask the question. Just a simple “How are you feeling?” about 5–10 minutes into every 1-on-1 is a good way to begin. Another trick to get people to open up and feel heard is to start broad: “How do you think our team is doing?”
A Guide for Closing a Conversation in Which Nothing Actually Gets Solved
If you’re not used to ending 1-on-1s without specific action items, try one of these themes. When in doubt, hit all four.
1. It’s okay to feel this way. We’re humans. We are not machines. We get tired. (Even machines overheat and need to shut down!)
2. We can keep working on this together over time. Sharing is a great first step. We don’t have to solve it today. We’ll keep checking in.
3. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s impossible to be on all the time. The stakes are actually pretty low in most scenarios. It’s human to make mistakes. You’re doing fine.
4. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s hard to want to be self-sufficient and amazing all the time — and also admit you need help. It’s brave to ask for it and brave to accept it. There are people around you who will be there for you. I am here for you.
Good Boss Achievement Stickers: Burnout Edition