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American workers are burned out before even starting their first job and they expect employers to think carefully about work-life balance

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The term “burnout” has become ubiquitous in the workplace in recent years. Tackling the issue is now a top priority for HR leaders, both for their organization’s workforce and within their own teams. But leaders might also need to look out for the problem popping up in the next crop of workers—graduating college students are already burned out, and expect future employers to support their mental health as well as provide work-life balance.

Around 80% of upcoming college graduates report having experienced symptoms of burnout during their undergraduate career, according to a new survey of 1,148 students expected to graduate next year, published by Handshake, a career and recruiting platform for college students and alumni. The survey defines burnout as “characterized by persistent feelings of mental or physical exhaustion, accompanied by lack of motivation, reduced productivity, and/or feeling negative or cynical about your academic work.”

Around 80% of students also report worrying about experiencing burnout once they start their professional careers, and 25% of them said they are “highly worried” about workplace burnout.

“This particular generation and class of graduates recognize that there are so many components to living a purposeful and meaningful life. Because, quite frankly, they experienced the pandemic in the middle of some very formative years,” says Christine Cruzvergara, chief education strategy officer at Handshake. This incoming class of workers was confronted with existential questions about their career plans and priorities, all while finishing high school or starting their undergraduate education.

Their burnout concerns are translating into high expectations about their future employers’ support for work-life balance. “This generation, more than any other in the past, [is] not just looking to work for work's sake,” she adds. “They're looking for work to be a complement to the life that they want to live. And they don't want to wait until they retire to be able to live that life.”

Sixty-six percent of respondents said that receiving mental health days is “very important,” and 67% said the same about getting flexibility to deal with personal responsibilities. Even the majority of respondents who are “not at all worried” about career burnout said these benefits are “very important” to them, and want work-life guidance from their future employers.

While older generations may have taken time off work for mental health or personal issues, they would likely have done so by just calling out sick, Cruzvergara says. But Gen Zers, who are more likely to be vocal about their mental health, are bringing that candidness to the workplace, and expecting the same openness from employers.

Some organizations are taking note. The share of job descriptions mentioning mental health, well-being, and work-life balance rose from 6% in early 2019 to 15% in 2023, according to Handshake’s survey. And it appears to be paying off. A previous Handshake survey published in May 2022 found that job posts for high-stress or competitive roles—such as investment bankers and software developers—that explicitly mentioned mental health and wellness keywords received up to twice the amount of applications compared to similar jobs that did not explicitly mention these words.

“If HR folks are not paying attention to that, you're going to lose some really great talent,” says Cruzvergara. “You're going to lose a whole swath of this generation that, quite frankly, will go to your competitor. They'll just go to another company, because there are companies that are paying attention to this.”

Paige McGlauflin

This story was originally featured on

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