Illustrations: Nejc Prah

Is Burnout an Epidemic Among American Workers? Experts Are Divided.

Markham Heid
Elemental

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InIn a story published in January on BuzzFeed News, reporter Anne Helen Petersen details her struggle with what she calls “errand paralysis,” or her inability to summon the energy for tasks that aren’t vital to her life or work.

Petersen identifies her brand of selective procrastination as a symptom of burnout, which she describes as a fundamental component of the modern millennial’s existence. “Why can’t I get this mundane stuff done? Because I’m burned out. Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time,” she writes in the essay, titled “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.”

Petersen’s story went viral, and her sentiments helped crystalize a trend that has lately attracted greater acknowledgment and analysis from mental health researchers, human resource experts, and most recently, major public health organizations: namely, that burnout is widespread among today’s workers — especially young ones — and it’s a noticeable drain on their health and professional well-being.

“There is now a lot of academic literature on burnout, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s a real phenomenon,” says Gloria Mark, a psychologist and professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine.

A 2018 study in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that the rate of “overall burnout” among the general U.S. workforce was 28%. A 2017 Kronos survey of human resources leaders concluded that employee burnout is both an “epidemic” and a “crisis.” And a recent Gallup study found that 23% of American workers feel burned out “often or always.”

Mark says that a confluence of factors — incessant email communication, for one, but also America’s shift toward more solitary leisure-time pursuits — have created a “perfect storm” of work stress and overload. “A lot of people are being caught up in this maelstrom, and it’s hard to get out of,” she says.

But not everyone is buying the burnout hype.

In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “Is Burnout Real?,” Weill-Cornell psychiatrist Richard Friedman questions the notion that burnout is truly more common now than it used to be.

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.