Kelley Bonner, Burnout expert License Therapist.
Kelley Bonner, Burnout expert License Therapist. Credit: Amanda Ghobadi (The Branding Babe)

The traditional 9-5 structure is changing.

Younger Millennials and Gen Zers face a multitude of social, economic, and financial issues that impact their lives and careers over time.

They’ve entered the workforce during a global pandemic, with concerns over rising inflation, recession fears, and intense geopolitical conflicts. Not only has this created a heightened sense of stress but it creates a situation of instability and a feeling of limited control of their careers.

As companies grapple with the lingering effects of the pandemic, and the desires of Gen Z which often included more flexibility, work-life balance, development opportunities, and competitive salaries, they also have to work with this demographic to create an inclusive, healthy, sustainable, workforce.

Burnout expert and licensed therapist Kelley Bonner has emerged as a leading voice in helping Black women manage everyday stressors while offering tools to cope effectively. Through her podcast “Black Girl Burnout,” Bonner encourages women to “opt-out of struggle and opt into a life of authenticity of joy.”

Bonner spoke with the Defender to share some tips on how young Black professionals can manage burnout in the workplace and how Gen Z is going to revolutionize work and how companies can prepare for it.

Defender: Share with the audience your own burnout story.

Bonner: My burnout story led me to the work that I’m doing. I was just a regular therapist. I specialize in trauma. I tell people that I had my own incidents of spectacular burnout in the first professional job I had. I was working in a prison system, so you can imagine doing mental health in a prison system. Although it was my dream job, there were some things systemically that made me burn out. Also, there were some things I just wasn’t doing for myself. To be able to lose the ability to love what I do is heartbreaking and at the same time, I had no language to be able to tell you this is burnout. It has become my mission to give people the tools to both recognize and recover from it.

Defender: How does burnout specifically affect the Gen Z workforce compared to previous generations?

Bonner: I think it’s a couple of things. Culturally, work has changed. We’ve lived through some really chaotic and traumatic events around work. The way that we think about work is different. Millennials and Gen Z want to have purpose. They want to find meaning in the work they do outside of salary and compensation. It’s not that they don’t want to get paid, but it’s like what is your driving reason. We’ve learned so much from previous generations. Our parents who worked really hard, but then maybe lost their retirement in a stock market crash, or got fired or laid off or experienced discrimination and were replaced by younger folks. We want to have balance, but the system of work still continues to operate in some ways like they did in the 1950s. If you work hard, you’ll get your reward when you retire. It’s the gaps between those perspectives that contributes to burnout.

Defender: How are Gen Z workers challenging traditional workplace expectations and norms?

Bonner: I think they come in saying “Where are the benefits? I’m going to give my time to this company, but what is this company going to offer me? What are the mental health resources? What’s your compensation for work-life balance? Do you do raises and promotions? What are your diversity, equity, and inclusion policies like?” We don’t even walk through the door without having those questions answered. The questions asked now are so different from the questions asked 20 to 30 years ago. This generation doesn’t live to work, they work to live. They want to be able to have fun, take care of their mental health, and rest to be a good performer. The companies that don’t have answers to these questions aren’t getting anyone new on the job.

Defender: In what ways do you see Gen Z revolutionizing work culture and practices?

Bonner: I think generations before us are scared to quit. Many in this generation tend to have children later on in life than back in previous generations. They can quit with no strings attached. Also, there is the power of saying no. This generation is focused on what they can do better and having the mentality to change things. Our careers aren’t linear, we zigzag. I’m considered a geriatric millennial, but one of the things I have in common with millennials across the board is to leave when it was clear to me that my original plan wasn’t working.

Defender: Are there any specific strategies or approaches that Gen Z workers can adopt to maintain their well-being and avoid burnout?

Bonner: Tap into your values and don’t be afraid to really work with what’s aligned to them. If flexibility matters to you, you need to optimize your time so you can have flexibility, because a lot of times, the system of work isn’t going to do that for you. A lot of that comes down to time management, really planning your day for what’s going to make an impact. Time management is also key. If there is a task at work that you don’t like to do, swap with a co-worker and see if you can take on a task they dislike as well. Talk to your management to get more clarification around certain tasks. Last thing is to set boundaries. We don’t talk enough about that. One of the key drivers to burnout is saying “yes” to everything. How are you saying “no” to your ability to have rest? Be clear, don’t apologize when you set them, be specific about what the boundary is and remain firm when you get pushback.

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...