FINANCIAL TIMES BOOK PRIZE WINNER: Mental meltdown – how stress, work culture and millennials form a ticking time bomb

Originally appeared in: The Financial Times, Nov 18th, 2016

“Doctors’ waiting rooms, it turns out, were good places for me to ask myself a lot of questions about the kind of life I was living.”

— Arianna Huffington after her collapse in 2007.

The financial meltdown has caught all the media attention. Yet, an invisible and far more dangerous meltdown is happening in the shadows — a mental meltdown. We can now see the early symptoms: increasing rates of burnout, exhaustion and stress-related diseases. But the worst is yet to come, and the millennial generation is at greatest risk.

When we look at the statistics, we can only conclude that our workforce is slowly deteriorating from the inside.

An estimated one in four working-age women and men in the developed world are exhausted or burnt out. Depression will be the leading cause of disease globally by 2030, according to the World Health Organisation. In the UK, stress has already emerged as the top cause of illness.

This may sound like a topic for a mental health seminar, but the business world should take note.

What makes stress and stress-related diseases such dangerous and costly enemies is that they come with consequences:

  • The Benson-Henry Institute estimates that 60 to 90 per cent of doctor visits are to treat stress-related conditions.
  • Studies show that US employers already spend 200 to 300 per cent more on indirect costs of healthcare — in the form of sick days, absenteeism, and lower productivity — than they do on actual healthcare payments.
  • In Germany work days lost to psychological illness have gone up over 80 per cent in 15 years, and it is estimated that burnout is costing the country up to €10bn annually.

“Nothing is more expensive than sending a good worker into retirement in their mid-forties because they’re burned out”

– Ursula van der Leyen, Germany’s Minister of Defense

And these numbers do not even consider the really damaging consequences of exhaustion — poor decision-making, time and energy wasted on unnecessary tasks, a draining corporate culture, feelings of inadequacy as you put in the hours, yet still feel you are not doing enough.

Why is this happening?

In the developed world the load on our mental resources has been slowly increasing, and powerful trends in society and the workplace are now further adding to it.

On a societal level, how we view success is fuelling the flames. Exhaustion and burnout are taboo topics. A study by Harvard Medical School showed that a staggering 96 per cent of leaders reported that they felt burnt out, yet no one talks about it. Especially among high-achieving knowledge workers, the unspoken rule is that there is nothing a bit of extra motivation, a double-espresso and a fake smile will not cure.

Fundamentally, how our society speaks about career success has given workaholism elite status. Digital devices keep us “always on”, adding to the mental load even when we are off work. The start-up boom is creating heroic stories of overcommitted entrepreneurs for the rest of us to admire.

In short, the output of a whole generation is at risk, and we are celebrating the disease.

In the workplace, the future reads like a recipe for added mental load. Artificial intelligence will threaten tens of millions of knowledge jobs, effectively pushing out comfortable routine tasks and increasing the need for high-quality thinking. Careers are becoming more fragmented: freelance and project work is on the rise; and those lucky enough to hold down a steady job face pressure to succeed and move on to the next role faster.

Millennials: “Generation Stress”?

It gets even worse when we look to the younger generation. The millennial generation, only now entering the workforce in large numbers, seems to provide the most fertile ground for the effects of stress. Already, as many as 25 per cent of US college students have a diagnosable mental illness.

Millennials are sadly often described with one word: “entitled”. This generation grew up as victims of the “self-esteem theory”, which links high self-esteem to good grades and career success. It was a well-intended theory, but along with parents dispensing praise and coaches giving out trophies just for participating, also comes a tendency towards self-absorption. For this generation, the aftermath of the financial crisis has been devastating. It is psychologically difficult to adapt to dwindling job opportunities and increased financial insecurity when you feel you are settling for less than you are worth.

Millennials are also the first generation to reach adulthood under the watchful eye of social media. Whereas earlier generations barely knew what happened outside their closest friends, millennials seem to have grown up knowing all activities of all their friends and acquaintances.

This nonstop social comparison leads to feelings of insecurity and self-consciousness.

These are just a few of the reasons millennials are now topping the stress charts. In a study by the American Psychological Association almost 40 per cent of millennials said their stress had increased over the past year (compared, for example, with 33 per cent for baby boomers). The consequences are clear and frightening. Already, 19 per cent of millennials have been diagnosed with depression, compared with 12 per cent of baby boomers.

When these people enter the workforce, symptoms that today may be only alarming become a ticking time bomb.

°°°

Why this blog?

I’m not a medical doctor, a researcher, or a journalist. I haven’t even experienced burnout myself.

But I have watched the effects of stress from a front-row seat. I’ve seen people struggle and I’ve seen talent go to waste. I’ve witnessed people fundamentally change due to stress and I’ve visited the edge a few times myself. I’ve been a health entrepreneur for years, and I’ve listened to hundreds of stress stories from all over the world.

What I’ve come to realize is that we have too much complaining and too few solutions. Also, not enough people are talking about stress. Stress, exhaustion and burnout are still taboo topics in our society.

So I decided to start the discussion.

We all wish to work with energy and live with calm. But it’s a stressed-out world. And it’s killing many of us from the inside.

I’m here to tell you that you can learn to thrive with stress by stressing smart. Eliminate the toxic stress and learn to embrace the rest. All it takes are small actions and mindset shifts that often take less than one minute.

Stress smarter, not harder.

That’s what this blog will be about. The brave, new work environment where we stress smart, work with energy and live with calm.

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