You’re not alone – everyone else is having a work crisis too

Burnout. Languishing. The great resignation. The midlife crisis. The brain drain. Something is going on with how we feel about work, and those feeling the worst of it aren’t yet 40. What’s driving the desire to do less? Kirsty Johnston reports.

When Auckland councillor Richard Hills decided not to run for mayor, almost everyone who knew him was surprised.

Hills, elected as a North Shore councillor in 2016, always pushed himself to go for leadership roles. Before council, he was on the Kaipatiki local board, while working in his day job supporting youth. Now, he’s the chair of the environment and climate change committee. His days are filled with meetings and committees and projects and consultations, his nights with residents’ events, more meetings, reading and social media. He works up to 80 hours a week. And he’s always been like this, his time full of community and social and volunteer activities.

“Everyone thought being mayor would be something I’d relish,” he says. “And after I said, no, I’m not going to run, even I was like ‘why did I do that?’. I had a bit of a crisis about it.”

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But during the pandemic something had shifted in Hills, 35. In November, he became a father, and having baby Theo – something he never expected as a younger gay man – made him want to spend more time at home. Even before that, he’d begun to have nagging doubts that the way he was working wasn’t quite right.

“The two long lockdowns, they refocused my activity – they took all the site visits, community events, they took that all out,” Hills says.

“I remember in the first lockdown in March 2020 my husband Leight​ and I were watching TV together, bingeing TV shows. We had time to walk around the neighbourhood. I was like, ‘woah this is what normal people do’. It gave me time to assess things and focus on what was important, that family was important.”

And so, adding the extra duties that come with the mayoral role seemed less appealing. Even though he’s decided to “slow down” to see Theo more, the Friday morning I call, he’s been out four nights already that week, and attended an event that day at 7am.

Auckland councillor Richard Hills.

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Auckland councillor Richard Hills.

“I assume when I look back on my life on my deathbed I will regret not spending as much time with family and friends. I regret it now,” Hills says.

There’s no data that really captures Hills’ experience. There are no academic studies. There’s no catchphrase to go viral, like “burnout” or “languishing”, yet.

It’s not “The Great Resignation” (because not everyone can or wants to quit). It’s a more underlying shift in our attitude to life, and the way we feel about work. And likely, in the last few months, as the chaos of the pandemic has begun to wane, you’ve heard colleagues or friends or your partner expressing similar feelings, or maybe you’ve even felt it yourself. Because, experts say, this isn’t an isolated feeling, but a collective one.

“Covid stripped away the top level of busyness,” says Dougal Sutherland, a clinical psychologist at Umbrella Wellbeing. “It allowed us to pause for people to think about their lives, step off the hamster wheel and re-evaluate their priorities. To ask ‘what am I doing here?’”

The answer? It depends on who you are, what you do, and what you find important. For some people, this reckoning might have been prompted by a taste of what was possible, with working from home giving them more time for hobbies or kids. Or, it might have been a reaction to what wasn’t possible, like the inability to travel overseas and begin an OE.

Clinical psychologist Dougal Sutherland.

KEVIN STENT/Stuff

Clinical psychologist Dougal Sutherland.

“It’s an awakening to groundhog day,” Sutherland says. “It’s people discovering or uncovering their values, what they value about life. And they’re finding that life is about more than commuting for two hours and sitting in an office.”

For Emlyn Williams, 35, this moment came somewhere amid the long August lockdown of 2021.

“I was a barista, so I couldn’t work. I was at home for a long time and I was able to clear my head. I didn’t have stresses or worries or obligations,” Williams says. But he also didn’t have the other work that kept him happy – acting, and playing music.

“I realised I felt trapped in my job. I had met heaps of amazing people and I loved it, but I didn’t know how to get out of it. There wasn’t a ladder to climb.”

Williams says his reflection was quite existential. But eventually, it provided an answer. He loved podcasts, he realised. So he decided to move to Tauranga from Auckland and study broadcasting.

“That time and space for perspective changed a lot in me. I think it must be healthy for the human psyche to withdraw a bit.”

Emlyn Williams, 35, changed career during the pandemic.

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Emlyn Williams, 35, changed career during the pandemic.

On some level, all of this was expected. People often face these kind of existential crises, a search for deeper meaning, after major life events like a health scare, death, divorce or job change.

Even growing older can prompt such questions about the meaning of life, as we become more aware of our own mortality. The pandemic exacerbated these fears. Studies show that trauma and natural disasters can push people to make big decisions, as they seek security.

And equally, as Sutherland points out, the idea of “tossing it all in” and returning to something more hands-on, or traditional has been attractive to the disillusioned wage-worker for a long time.

“Maybe they’ve gone into a career on auto-pilot after school, and they’re now thinking, ‘maybe I don’t want to be a lawyer, maybe I want to grow olives,’’’ he says.

What’s different about the current phenomenon is both how quickly traditional work norms have been overhauled – driven by forced shift to working from home and the current worker shortage – also how widespread the desire for more change seems to be, says senior lecturer Paula O’Kane, from Otago University’s business school.

“We haven’t seen anything like this for a long time, not in the industrial revolution, not in the technology revolution, there wasn’t more power in the hands of employees,” O’Kane says. “I don’t think we’ve ever been at this point before where people are saying ‘I don’t need to do this anymore’ or ‘there has to be more to life than this and I’m going looking for it.’”

O’Kane says what people seem to want most is for work to fit around life – rather than the other way around.

For some, a change is fulfilling. Wellington IT worker Josh O’Connor Chen, and his wife Michelle Harrison, have used a job change forced by Covid to create their own working set up. O’Connor works six hours in the morning, from 6am, while his wife cares for their two-year-old daughter, Esther. At lunchtime, they swap.

“It was an opportunity for us,” O’Connor Chen says. “I like hanging out with my daughter. And the weeks don’t feel so relentless if you have a midweek day off.”

Wellington IT worker Josh O’Connor Chen, and his wife Michelle Harrison, and their two-year-old daughter Esther O'Connor-Chen.

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Wellington IT worker Josh O’Connor Chen, and his wife Michelle Harrison, and their two-year-old daughter Esther O’Connor-Chen.

Others have used their new-found mindset to free themselves entirely. Next week, Sara Dodds, 24, will leave her hotel management job in Tauranga and go to Canada, with few plans.

“Covid helped me come to this realisation that you don’t need to have your whole life figured out at 25,” she says. “It’s helped bring me back to reality. Why not go overseas? There might be another pandemic tomorrow, who knows?”

But such change hasn’t worked – or isn’t possible – for everyone.

When Anita*, 34 – who doesn’t want her real name used – quit her job in procurement during the pandemic, she thought it would help her growing sense of unease.

“My job was stressful, everyone needing buckets of hand sanitiser, and it’s like, there’s none in the world,” she says. “And I was struggling, having to have the kids at home all the time too.”

She now works from home online, and runs a small business on the side. On paper, it looks like she’s made the kind of changes that everyone thinks will improve their lives. But she’s still not happy.

“The thought of staying in my current job makes me feel sick,” she says. “It’s weird. My dad would have done anything for his job, but I feel like work is different now, where everyone is replaceable. Everyone is expendable. It makes me feel like… I don’t even want to work. I don’t know why, but lately I don’t even want to.”

Other workers spoken to for this story said the same thing. They’d tried going down to four days, or three days, and it didn’t make much of a difference to their mood. They’d changed jobs, or roles, and they still felt too busy, or overwhelmed.

“Work makes me so miserable and stressed I feel like I don’t have time to do anything,” says Jennifer, 39, who works in media. “And it’s such a trope. We all spend time sending our friends memes like ‘I’m burned out’ and they reply ‘me too’. I’m exhausted. It’s hard to feel any skerrick of joy for my work.”

How did we get to the point where a whole cohort of workers, at once, feel they’ve managed to get life so completely wrong?

For much of today’s workforce, the story starts with the Global Financial Crisis, which arrived accompanied by redundancies, scarcity, low wages, and total lack of job security in 2008.

Content designer Holly Riverton, 34, graduated in the midst of the GFC’s first wave, after completing a communications degree at AUT. She now has a successful career she loves in Auckland, and a company that provides the flexibility she needs to look after her toddler, but it’s taken hard work to get there.

Content designer Holly Riverton.

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Content designer Holly Riverton.

“It was so competitive after university,” she says. “I would meet up with friends and it was like, ‘have you got a job yet?’ and I was still working part-time in retail saying ‘not yet.’

Eventually Riverton got a job doing SEO for Yellow Pages, a skill she taught herself. It wasn’t the magazine job she dreamed of, but it was a relief.

“I had to do a lot of job interviews, because everyone wanted experience not graduates, so you had to think outside the box.”

Hand in hand with this more competitive environment, workers began to face “qualification creep” – where for example, you once might have needed a bachelor’s degree to get a role, now it required a masters. Student debt kept growing. And at the same time, work became less secure, with the decline of unions and the rise of contract work. The gig economy added more pressure. Why not have a side hustle? Cars turned into Ubers, houses to Air BnB. You could monetise your hobbies, your art, your body on the side. One job wasn’t enough. And technology meant that work followed you, wherever you went.

“If I can’t sleep, if I’m really stressed about something I need to get done tomorrow, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and do it,” says university researcher Mansi*, 26. “Everyone I know struggles not to answer emails. So many people work in the evening. It’s like you’re always on.”

That meant guilt also followed workers home, with no excuses not to be perpetually available.

“I went out for lunch with a friend the other day, and she had to ring her sister to move her mouse so it looked like she was working because we were slightly late,” Mansi says. “When my friends go on a break they offer to take their laptops just in case… when really most things can wait.”

Technology, supposed to make workers more productive, just enabled more work. By the time the pandemic hit, workers were doing longer hours than ever before, as “overtime culture” mushroomed. As of 2021, nearly a quarter of New Zealand’s full-time workers were doing more than 50 hours a week.

“There’s definitely an understanding we all work too much among my friends,” Mansi says. “But academia, where I work, is a space where people work hard. There’s few jobs, no security and almost everyone is on a short-term contract. So if you know your superiors are working over the weekend… you’re also probably going to work.”

By the time economist Brad Olsen, 25, graduated in 2019, the workaholic path felt like a conveyor belt you had no choice to jump into, but to perform for social media as well.

Economist Brad Olsen: “People were walking this tightrope of wanting exposure, or to be seen doing good stuff, but not wanting to be called out.”

MONIQUE FORD/Stuff

Economist Brad Olsen: “People were walking this tightrope of wanting exposure, or to be seen doing good stuff, but not wanting to be called out.”

“What came across clearly to me was the feeling like if you take a breath for a second someone will overtake you,” Olsen said. “And then with social media, even leisure time was being performed. People were walking this tightrope of wanting exposure, or to be seen doing good stuff, but not wanting to be called out. It added stress.”

On top of all of that, another set of ideas had stealthily crept their way into the minds of a generation. Where Baby Boomers wanted a job for life; and Generation X wanted a career for stability; for Millennials, the generation born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s, a job also had to provide purpose.

“That was me,” says Danielle Selman Julian, 26. “It felt like my career was my identity, I was the PR girl, I answered everyone’s calls and I’d get to work at 7.30am, before everyone else. I felt I had to be the best or I’d get cut. My mum thought I was going to work myself to death.”

Selman Julian has already been through a work crisis, once before. In 2019 she got sick, and had to quit. But rather than take an extended period off, she decided to do a PhD.

“I thought that was how I’d still get ahead, still be that PR girl” she says, laughing at herself. “My supervisor said ‘no-one does a PhD because they need to slow down in life.’ I’m learning. But I’m still addicted to email.”

Danielle Selman Julian, 26, is working towards a PhD.

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Danielle Selman Julian, 26, is working towards a PhD.

The trouble with work becoming so enmeshed with identity, is two-fold, writes author of work culture book An Ordinary Age, Rainesford Stauffer.

Firstly, as work dominates more of our waking hours, “it also monopolizes more of our identities meaning career transitions, job losses, or financial strains often double as identity crises,” she writes.

For two, it means we fail to see the problem as structural rather than personal. If we can’t afford a house, we think we have to work harder. When burnout hits, we blame ourselves.

This idea that we are doing “what we love” keeps us from critiquing the systems we work within, Stauffer says.

“It seems to put the burden of “creating work-life balance” back on individuals, rather than a workforce that takes, takes, takes.”

“Our current system of work tightly ties job titles, income, and dream jobs to ambition, value, and self-worth–but the system is failing us.”

One argument about the shift wrought by Covid is that it sped up a change that would have happened anyway, as Zoomers, or Generation Z, arrived in the workforce – with their Tiktok dances and their strong moral outlook, and their refusal to work extra hours.

“Generation Z are very emotionally aware, very environmentally aware, and work-life balance is really important to them,” says O’Kane, the business lecturer. “They’re certainly not working all the hours God sends.”

And just as Millennials learned their work ethic from their Baby Boomer parents (for example, Hills’ father worked as a labourer six or seven days a week; Mansi’s parents were immigrants and took her with them to the office on the weekend), Gen Z have learned by watching their older peers strive, while paying outrageous mortgages, rushing to daycare, always on their phones, until they crashed and burned.

For workplaces to serve Generation Z, O’Kane says, it’s going to take more than foosball tables and beanbags and free bananas. Because they don’t want fun at work – they want their time back.

“I don’t have email on my phone,” says Natasha*, 23, an engineer. “I don’t want to do a second more work than I need to out of hours. I watch my Millennial colleagues working overtime every week and I think, ‘it’s not worth the cost to you and your family life. You can put your foot down.’”

The next question is, where does this crisis lead? Mass upheaval? A work revolution?

Maybe, says Professor Lucas Walsh, the director of the Monash Centre for Youth Policy & Education Practice in Australia. Currently, this kind of reflection is limited largely to the office-oriented middle classes, those who can afford to push back and work less.

Professor Lucas Walsh: “Disaffection can be amplified if we are all sold this one dream.”

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Professor Lucas Walsh: “Disaffection can be amplified if we are all sold this one dream.”

And even then, there’s still a risk the changes to work-life forced by Covid – remote working, flexible hours – could be clawed back by businesses at any time.

“You have to plan for the future. Say you’ve upped stumps and moved to the country – what if business wants you back in the city?”

But, equally, Walsh says, if businesses don’t adapt, younger workers might be pushed to the point of political action, particularly for those also feeling frustration with climate change and inequality.

“You’ve got this group who, rather than turning up and applying for a job, they’re saying ‘what will you offer me, work isn’t my whole thing, I exist beyond the workplace,’” he says. “But what happens when they’re denied any choice? Disaffection can be amplified if we are all sold this one dream, if you’re told you have a choice, you’ve got mobility. If you then find out you don’t have it you’re going to get pissed off.”

“I don’t think anyone has grappled yet what that could mean.”

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