Illustration by Andrew Baker
© Andrew Baker

Like share options, a corner office and a company car, burnout used to be something executives had to work for years to achieve. But, as in so many other areas, millennials are getting there sooner than their parents did.

Dreaming of fulfilment, autonomy and progress at work, graduates are putting themselves under immense pressure to succeed and be content — often in junior roles that are, by definition, sometimes bound to be dull and unrewarding. Such pressures are surfacing even during the race to accumulate internships, increasingly a springboard to formal offers of the most prestigious jobs in consulting, banking and accounting.

The death of Moritz Erhardt in 2013, while working as a summer intern at Bank of America in London, prompted soul-searching among some of these employers. Erhardt suffered an epileptic seizure. But a coroner’s inquest found that working a long nonstop shift could have triggered the fit.

BofA and others tightened their rules about interns’ weekend and evening working in an attempt to force them to rebalance their priorities. A more profound adjustment is needed, though. Clearly, employers should ensure enthusiastic would-be masters of the universe do not overdo it in their zeal to impress. But they also need to stop promoting unrealistically lofty expectations of what work may involve.

In 2012, Bogdan Costea of Lancaster University Management School and colleagues analysed recruitment advertisements in The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers, an annual guide. Employers urged students to “invest in yourself” (Herbert Smith, the law firm), “See more, be more” (Barclays) or “Be the one who never stands still” (PwC). In a later paper, Prof Costea set Erhardt’s tragedy in the context of this “culture of work focused intensely and unremittingly on the self, a culture which becomes obligatory from the very early stage of careers, so much so that internships themselves become a kind of testing ground for the mettle of individuals”.

Pursuing a similar line of inquiry, Kira Schabram of the University of Washington and Sally Maitlis of Oxford university interviewed current and former workers at animal shelters for a new study in the Academy of Management Journal. Burnout and dropout were real threats for those who saw their work as an intense calling. For instance, these employees struggled to cope with being forced to witness and carry out animal euthanasia (“Kittens were being, you know, put down,” recalled one, lamenting “the sheer numbers” of animals involved).

When I was a graduate trainee, I remember telling my parents I would never be that colleague who seemed to work late into every night. But youthful ambition, peer pressure and accepted work practice have a way of shaping recruits, however much they may think they are carving their own path. Within months, I was on a similar schedule to my colleague, driven by an urge to get on and the sheer excitement of the new job.

You may also say that if people are more engaged with their work, that can only be a good thing, and I agree — up to a point. For every advertisement seeking “passionate” and “committed” employees, there are new hires wondering why they aren’t feeling the sense of self-realisation and contentment they signed up to.

This is a version of what new chief executives sometimes experience when they finally reach the pinnacle of their careers. Globetrotting consultant Ram Charan, whose latest book is The High Potential Leader, told me such people are usually “very good at selecting what to devote their time to and very good at saying no”. Some of these high-flyers still crack, even so, and companies are starting to recognise the value of supporting their high-potential managers to avoid breakdown. Johnson & Johnson surrounds its leading executives with a team, described by Bloomberg as “like the medical crew around an astronaut after splashdown”, that includes an executive coach and a dietitian.

Employers should take similar care with high-potentials at the start of their careers. Young workers are aware of stress and how to offset it with exercise, meditation and proper sleep, according to surveys, but they, too, should step back and consider how an all-or-nothing devotion to workplace success can be a shortcut to ruin.

That study of animal shelter staff found that the workers who avoided burnout tended to be those with more modest aspirations. These realists did not put work at the centre of their identity, or treat their job as a world-changing mission. As a result, they kept their zest for the job alight long after others had had their spark snuffed out.

Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor

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