What’s Behind The Great Resignation?

What’s behind The Great Resignation, which has resulted in the departure of 15 million workers since April of this year alone? In looking for explanations, the subject of burnout has risen to the fore. With younger workers at the center of The Great Resignation, younger workers are, likewise, at the center of the burnout discussion. 

Some argue that Gen Y (Millennial) and Gen Z workers are more prone to burnout than their Gen X and Boomer counterparts. Others have suggested that these younger workers lack resilience. Still others have attempted to connect the dots between more frequent job changes by younger workers and a lack of mental health support. The trouble with all this conjecture is that much of it comes from people who spend more time talking about young workers than talking to them. As a result, a mythology is emerging about Gen Y and Z employees that is not altogether helpful. 

If you’re running a business, guessing about what’s motivating your associates is never a good idea, especially when it comes to mental health issues like burnout and exhaustion. This is even more true for smaller enterprises, many of which lack even basic HR departments, let alone on-site counseling or other resources. It is always best to simply talk to your associates and to ask them how they are feeling or, wherever possible, to listen to those who do.

In my work, not only do I speak to younger workers, but I also talk to other people who make a living talking to them as well – folks like YPulse, the leader in youth research and insights, and the leading expert on Gen Z and Millennials. In doing so, I’ve begun assembling a list of common Gen Y & Z myths. Several are particularly relevant to the topic of burnout. Dispelling these myths is critically important for business owners seeking to engage and retain an associate bloc that now comprises over 50% of the workforce. 

Three of these myths that have colored the way many think about exhaustion and burnout among young workers are:

  1. Millennial and Gen Z workers are more prone to burnout
  2. Because younger workers job-hop, they don’t stay anywhere long enough to develop support systems needed to cope with burnout
  3. Young workers suffer burnout because they are not resilient

With the help of actual data from YPulse and others, coupled with my own observations, I’m going to dispel these myths in order to help prevent business owners from making potentially catastrophic decisions based on them. 

At the onset, it is helpful to recognize that burnout is a certain and growing issue among younger workers. According to  YPulse, in a survey of 1,000 Millennials and Gen Zs, 63% of young workers reported feeling overwhelmed by work in the last year, a 16 point increase over the year before. It’s an issue that has led 51% of the YPulse sample to report having experienced memory issues and a lack of mental clarity at work. What’s more, these numbers actually increase among work from home populations. And with no clear end in sight to the current pandemic, increasing economic uncertainty and now heightened global instability, worker exhaustion and instability promises to be with us for the long haul. Winning leaders will be those who not only recognize this reality but also the facts surrounding it, a task made easier by rejecting the mythology that has informed the conventional wisdom until now. 

Myth 1 states that Gen Y and Z workers are more prone to burnout than their older counterparts. This is false. While studies are available that seem to show younger workers suffer burnout at a greater rate than their Gen X or Baby Boomer counterparts – like a recent Gallup study of 7,500 workers which showed that 28% of younger workers complained of being frequently burned out vs. 21% of older workers – there is more to the story. Older generations are far less likely to admit to or talk about mental health issues than younger workers. In fact, according to a recent study from the American Psychiatric Association (APA), 62% of young workers are apt to talk about mental health issues at work, compared to just 32% of older workers. Similarly, a survey from Mental Health at Work showed that Boomers and Xers are 80% more likely than Gen Z workers to have never talked to anyone about mental health at work. The same survey found younger workers are 3.5 times more likely than older workers to say that workplace issues contributed to a decline in mental health. While these numbers on their own are shocking, they are a clear indication that younger workers aren’t necessarily suffering more, they are simply willing to talk about it more than others have historically been willing to do. Business owners should pay attention and make talking about and accessing assistance for mental health issues more common in their organizations. 

Myth 2 posits that youngsters do not stay in jobs long enough to build support networks that can help guard against burnout. This too is false. The young are pragmatic. They have watched the experience of their parents and grandparents. They have seen that there is no payoff for loyalty or silent tolerance of toxicity. They leave in search of support, not in spite of it. The aforementioned Mental Health at Work study bears this out, having found that half of Millennials and 75% of Gen Z workers have left a job because of mental health issues. Clever business owners are those who spend less time complaining about young worker turnover and more time getting to the root cause of it. What they find, in many cases, are managers employing inappropriate management styles, a problem which has been exacerbated, not helped, by the remote work economy. 

Finally, Myth 3 says that young workers lack resilience. This is, likewise, false. In evidence, The Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey found that Gen Y and Z workers are “both resilient and resolute.” As a group, they highly value, by a long margin, in fact, Flexibility and Adaptability, identified by CEOs in The 2021 Deloitte Global Resilience Report as the number one contributor to resilient organizations. So, it’s not that these young workers lack resilience, if anything, they lack direction, resulting in a decline in overall mental health. And the last 18 months of remote work have offered less direction, not more, to a group of workers that requires greater amounts of structure and clarity. In fact, a 2019 study by Clarine Jacobs, PhD, published by Sage, found that a non-supportive work environment is a major source of stress and negative emotion. Small and medium enterprises intent on reducing anxiety, stress and burnout while simultaneously improving engagement and retention, then, should focus on ways to improve the level of structure and direction they are providing to associates – particularly those working remotely. 

More important than ignoring these and other myths that surround Millennial and Generation Z workers is to establish a greater degree of dialogue directly with them, especially in regard to issues related to mental health. These myths are the result of guesswork. To learn the facts about young workers, just ask them. These are not only issues that these workers are open to talking more about – according to YPulse, 83% of them want to live in a world where people openly talk about mental health – they are issues that they want their employers talking more about too – 87% believe their employer could do a better job offering mental health support. These younger workers will make employment decisions taking mental health support into account as well. In fact, YPulse found that 28% of young workers are more likely to take a job because of the level of mental health support offered.

Smaller businesses have an opportunity to lead the way here, both by taking advantage of their size to talk directly with associates more often to learn what’s really weighing on their minds but also in moving past the historic labels and stigmas that have kept larger, more traditional organizations from making meaningful progress in this area. It’s a simple matter of talking openly and honestly with associates about issues related to their mental health, working collaboratively with employees to reduce the incidence of stress and anxiety in the workplace and ensuring that benefit programs offer a comprehensive range of mental health coverage and support services. 

90% of young workers believe that mental health is as important as physical health. It’s time that their employers joined them in this belief. 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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