Work. Bust your ass. Don’t work 9-5: work 95 hours a week. Work 126 hours a week. If you want success, you better sweat for it. Save time: don’t eat during the day.
Welcome to the world of “hustle culture” and one of its many consequences: Millennial burnout. Millennial burnout takes a heavy toll on every person born between 1982 and 1997. While there are lots of great articles on the effects of burnout in Millennial women (see Millennial Women Are Facing Serious Burn Out—Here’s How to Beat It and Here’s Why the Burnout Economy Fries Women First if you’re interested), this article focuses specifically on the effect of burnout on Millennial men.
As a generation that has an insane amount of debt, high unemployment numbers, and are on track to be the first generation poorer than their parents due to two major economic crises (The Great Recession and COVID-19), hustle culture is appealing–and, for many, it’s a necessity to just make ends meet. We’ve reached the point where Millennial burnout exploitation has become a million-dollar business.
I’m only a year removed from the point I reached my own breaking point. Burned out and faced with a choice, I made the difficult decision to quit my career as a teacher to found Dudefluencer. As an educator, long hours and low pay were the expectation: stay late after-school for study sessions, or parent-teacher conferences, or grading papers. Now a business owner, the push to work 14-18 hour days haunts me and millions of other male Millennials. Much like devaluing positive masculinity, the emphasis on unhealthy hustle culture will only hurt men more in the long term mentally and physically.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion that’s most often used concerning problems at work. Other factors that could cause burnout include parenting, caretaking, and even training a puppy. If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed, exhausted, or suddenly disinterested at work, there’s a good chance you have or are experiencing burnout. Often because of working long hours, or attempting to do too many tasks at once, burnout can affect any employee. A 2018 Gallup study revealed 67% of employees experience burnout at least sometimes during the workweek.
(I also like the term “performative workaholism” to describe a toxic lifestyle that promotes long hours, little sleep, and no fun as the only way to become a successful entrepreneur.)
According to the World Health Organization, burnout symptoms include “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”
Milena Regos, the creator of the Unhustle Movement, knows all about work burnout. Regos writes on her website, “During a 10-day ‘digital detox’ trip to Baja California Sur, I realized that my work addiction and chronic stress had resulted in health and relationship problems. I became passionate about finding the sweet spot between hustle, well-being, and performance, and I saw a big need for a new way of living and working.” After her realization about work addiction, Regos realized she could make a big difference fighting back against burnout and hustle culture. Regos told me, “We work more, but we are less happy. We are more connected than ever, but we are more lonely. Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46%) or left out (47%). We don’t take our vacations (50% of Americans don’t take a vacation), but we produce less than other developed countries.” The goal of the Unhustle Movement is to show people how to maximize their potential while not overworking and suffering the consequences of burning out.
During my worst cases of burnout, I often found myself taking long naps after coming home from work, half-assing lesson plans, and, according to Rachel, just complaining about work during most dinner conversations. The worst was the obsessive-thoughts that went with the burnout: I knew I wasn’t invested in my lectures, and the students weren’t getting the best version of me. No one was.
As a Millennial guy, I internalized burnout as a personal failure. I was supposed to tough out my depression, work through my lethargy, and in no way admit that I was burnt out as a teacher. But the reality proved that workplace burnout affected my mental and physical well-being. My dosage of Wellbutrin increased steadily as the school year went on. 150, still tired. 300, still exhausted. 450, “Sorry, there’s no higher dose.” Sleep habits changed. I stopped exercising. My social circle shrunk.
I needed help, but like a lot of men, I didn’t even know how to admit that I wasn’t okay, let alone ask for a sympathetic ear. I was stuck.
Male + Millennial + Burnout
There is a difference between how men and women experience burnout.
For example, a 2011 study identified that for men, “depersonalization seemed to be the onset of burnout.” Depersonalization can also be described as cynicism or having a callous attitude toward work. The authors of the study believe that “the construct depersonalization may also be considered an avoiding coping strategy, which may easily be adopted by men as a method to deal with a stressful situation.”
But as men detach themselves from their work, the next step of burnout takes shape: emotional exhaustion. We’ve all had periods where we’ve felt unable to display our feelings. Our mental health suffers. Then our physical health. We’re tired, detached, and unsure of what to do. Women experience burnout in the opposite order: first, the emotional exhaustion, then the detachment.
Men will display signs of burnout through irritability and anger. Both of these are also ways men frequently show symptoms of depression. Men also experience inefficacy, meaning that while you may have once been confident in your abilities and/or fulfilled from your work, you’ll now be discouraged and unconfident. Male burnout is further exacerbated by the fact that men struggle with communicating their emotions, opening up about their mental health, and tend to view work through a more traditional masculine lens.
And burnout is an issue for Millennials. A Gallup study found “that about seven in 10 Millennials are experiencing some level of burnout on the job.” The study further found that Millennials are 10% more likely to experience burnout than previous generations.
Workplace burnout is not inevitable; companies that employ mandatory vacation time note higher rates of happiness and productivity.
And while I’ve experienced burnout, it’s important for me to acknowledge that 44% of all millennials are non-white. Experiences with burnout for non-white millenials are even more difficult with additional challenges. For example, check out Tiana Clark’s account of how generational trauma and everyday racism compounds her experience of burnout and Anne Helen Peterson’s collection of millennial burnout experiences from people of different races, backgrounds, and economic statuses.
Masculinity in Hustle Culture
I’m going to be 100% honest with you: Garrett Carlson was not built for hustle culture.
Regos told Dudefluencer, “Hustle Culture has become a mindset, philosophy, desire, addiction, cult, and a way of life. This never-ending vicious cycle is not sustainable, not human, and not profitable.” It’s about productivity, success, and the idea that the only thing holding you back from being a millionaire is your lack of work ethic. And of course, there’s some truth in that: you can’t be successful without putting in the work. But pushing ourselves to our maximum capacity every day is more likely to lead to burnout.
I had teacher friends who’d brag about staying in their classroom until 8 P.M. grading papers, or passing up weekend brunch plans because of lesson planning. At the same time, those same friends spent every lunch block miserable, frustrated, and burnt out (and there were still three periods left in the day). More work didn’t mean more success, or more happiness: more work led to more dread the last week of August when the realization kicked in that the entire cycle was going to begin again. I made it a point to never bring physical work home (I had enough planning time during the day and before school to get it all done) and did my best to avoid late nights after school.
During a conversation about starting Dudefluencer, Rachel told me that she was bracing for me to disappear—for me to start working 16-hour days. It was enough of a kick in the pants to get me going a bit more on the site, but I knew there was never going to be a time where I could work that long and still produce content that made me proud and enthusiastic enough to keep going.
For Millennial men, it’s understandable why hustle culture is appealing: hustle culture is masculine. President Barack Obama highlighted the difference in how men and women are viewed in terms of ambition. “When men are ambitious, it’s just taken for granted — well, of course, they should be ambitious. When women are ambitious — Why?” Men aren’t punished in the workplace for their high aspirations and are often punished if they don’t reach specific male workplace standards (i.e. high ambition, confidence). A 2010 study found that “perceptions that modest men violated men’s prescriptions that are strongly linked to high status (e.g., confidence and ambition)—agentic qualities that characterize leaders. Thus, modest men suffered backlash because men are obliged to engage in status-enhancing displays, whereas they are penalized for status-attenuating behavior.” Traditional male gender norms emphasize confidence, ambition, and a need to be the primary bread-winner in the family.
Take Gary Vaynerchuk, for example, the biggest name out there in hustle culture. Watch any of his daily streams on Twitter, or Youtube, the man exudes confidence. And why wouldn’t he: Vaynerchuk runs a multi-million dollar digital marketing company, sold millions of copies of his book Crush It, and boasts a massive social media following that tunes in daily to The Gary Vee Show.
And when it comes to ambition, few come close. Vee speaks openly about his packed work schedule: he starts at 8 A.M. and finishes the workday at 11 P.M. Every minute in between is scheduled for meetings because productivity and efficiency are Vaynerchuk’s brand.
The reality is that men will see more successful men embrace the long hours, lack of sleep, and ambitious work-ethic, and conclude that hustle culture lines up with their idea as to what it means to be a man.
Regos warns Millennial men, “Social media influencers, your parents, your school, society’s norms demand that you work long and hard to succeed. However, the latest science shows that long work hours doesn’t make us more productive, it makes us less productive. Not only that but when you work 16-18 hour days for long periods, you end up exhausted. You are sleep-deprived. You are not taking care of your well-being. You have no time for yourself. And all of this adds up to burnout.”
For male Millennials struggling with student loan debt, low-income job opportunities, and a bleak financial outlook, hustle culture makes sense. The only thing stopping you from success is your own work ethic, so you work harder, you optimize your time better. And while the idea of 16-18 hour work weeks works for some, for the majority hustle culture leads to unhealthy habits and eventually male Millennial burnout.
But when you look up spaces where people are talking about the dangers of hustle culture and Millennial burnout, those articles are written by women (see How Millenials Became the Burnout Generation or Workplace Burnout). Although, on Youtube, there are a lot more men talking about the negatives of hustle culture. Why aren’t more Millennial men speaking out against workplace burnout?
Why aren’t men talking about burnout more?
The most obvious answer to why we aren’t hearing from more Millennial men about burnout is because we don’t know how to talk about it. For generations, men have been taught that stoicism is a condition of masculinity, and mental illness is a sign of weakness. Most men are either too afraid to tell their boss that they have too much on their plate, or in the worst cases, simply refuse because that isn’t the masculine thing to do.
But those who believe in positive masculinity know that isn’t true. Traditional male gender norms have held men back from building close male friendships or speaking out about their mental health. There should be a further push to encourage Millennial men to experience burnout to speak out.
A study published by Frontiers in Psychology analyzed the relationship between burnout and depression and found that their “results showed that while there is statistical relationship between burnout and depression and burnout and anxiety, and while they are interconnected, they are not the same constructs.” While burnout and depression are not the same, one often triggers the other which is why it’s important to look at how men react to depression to further understand how men treat workplace burnout.
A study originally published in Canadian Family Physicians stated that “the lower incidence [of depression] among men might be a by-product of men’s tendencies to deny illness, self-monitor and self-treat symptoms, and avoid professional health care providers and services as a means to enact and preserve their masculinity.” Due to traditional masculine gender norms that emphasize being competitive, powerful, successful, men struggle to admit vulnerability and uncertainty. Because traditional masculinity is still rewarded in the workplace, male Millennial burnout continues to be an unspoken issue.
A 2014 study published in Sex Roles about unemployment and masculinity revealed men’s complicated relationship with work. “Although men expect to be viewed as relatively ‘less manly’ in the abstract following job loss, they do not anticipate changes in how they are viewed on the specific traits that define how ‘a real man’ ought (and ought not) to behave. This finding supports existing theory that argues that men’s gender status fluctuates according to social achievements.” Men who are not working see themselves as unable to provide for their family, and according to traditional male gender norms, those who are unable to provide are seen as less manly. Two major fears men face, unemployment and loss of masculinity, are clear reasons why male Millennial burnout continues to be an issue.
Men are afraid that if they don’t work long hours, or tell their boss that they’re overwhelmed, they’ll lose both their job and manliness.
What can we do about it?
We need to reexamine how we look at work. Unless you’re Gary Vee, your 16-hour workday isn’t just working: there’s time for conversations, putzing around on the internet, and eating lunch. The same goes for the 40-hour workweek. Michael Ortner proposes a different way of placing expectations on employees for businesses: focus less on the number of hours worked versus how productive your employees are.
Ortner states that people who love either averaging a 40-hour workweek or a 80-hour workweek share the same flaws: there is too much “emphasis on hours as opposed to actual productivity… Our performance – essentially what we produce – is way more important than the number of hours we put in. In comparison, the number of hours we work is not even close.” By overworking employees, and ourselves, we push closer to burnout while also being less productive.
On the individual level, one crucial step is to make sure that you’re getting enough sleep. I know I have said that before, but good sleep maximizes productivity, lowers instances of depression, and improves your immune system. Avoiding burnout needs to start the moment you let yourself rest.
Regos suggests, “To avoid burnout, make sure you get 8 hours of sleep, eat well, move on a regular basis, and take a break for every hour you work. Take time to unplug from your phone and do something that brings you joy in real life – hang out with your friends, go out in nature, do something fun outside. Charge your batteries just like you charge your phone.” Often recognized as a predominantly female-driven ideal, men’s self-care is understated and underutilized. I mean, have you ever had a pedicure? Damn, did it feel good getting my nasty feet cleaned, massaged, and taken care of. If you haven’t, do it as soon as you’re allowed back outside. Pedicures are game-changers.
Gregory Brown, founder and director of Green Psychiatry Center told Mashable, “A lot of men when they think of self-care quite frankly imagine a woman in a bubble bath with a glass of champagne- and that’s just not manly. They think that if they’re taking time for self-care, they’re losing productivity, time from work. And that goes against what society tells us is masculine.”
Before I left education, my county announced that mental health days would no longer be considered as sick days. They should be. Regos said, “And when you need a mental health day, don’t feel guilty about taking it. You’ll come back refreshed and energized. It’s OK to do nothing every once and awhile.” If you’re feeling overwhelmed, overtired, and overworked, understand that you might be suffering from workplace burnout. And it’s okay to admit that you’re struggling. Take some time for yourself, maybe spend an afternoon off the computer, or just do nothing all day.
What’s most important is taking care of yourself.
Milena Regos says it best: “You can still have a life and perform well at work.” Male Millennial burnout is entirely avoidable, but we all need to do our part by shifting the narrative around positive masculinity, moving away from hustle culture, and taking time for self-care.
If you’ve experienced or are experiencing workplace burnout, let us know in the comments below. How did you move on? What helped best?
If you enjoyed this, be sure to check out some of my other pieces here on Dudefluencer: