Do burned out parents have burned out kids?

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Everyone who has a job is working harder than ever. And I meet a lot of people who are pretty burned out by now. But a recent study undertaken by the Finish Academy suggests that burned out parents have burned out kids. Stress is shared within families and becomes a new and damaging model of behavior that our kids pick up from their parents.

"Experiences of burnout were shared most particularly between adolescents and parents of the same gender -- i.e. between daughters and mothers, sons and fathers. The parent of the same gender seems to serve as a role model for the development of burnout," said the author of the study, Professor Katariina Salmelo-Aro.

When you think about it, this makes sense. Burnout, after all, isn't just about being tired. It's about working against the grain: persevering with tasks that are abhorrent or pointless, losing the sense of purpose that, perhaps, once informed your work. In other words, people get burned out when they continue to do work long after it has ceased giving them any pleasure. They work because they have to -- and for no other reason at all.

Now consider your average adolescent, surrounded by statistics, movies and articles describing the "lost generation" that will be stuck in unemployment, debt or both. They're compelled to enter into the fierce competition to secure elite college places which are held up as the only gateway to success -- at a time when places like Columbia are rejecting upwards of 90 percent of applicants. What can a kid do? Just what their parents do: give up -- or persevere blindly in the face of insuperable odds.

Such perseverance may be teaching some valuable lessons: not to give up just because the going gets tough, the need for determination, a work ethic and willpower. But it may also be teaching a second, less positive lesson: that work is just for paying the bills. The only thing you can expect from work is money. It isn't rewarding in any other way. Hating it is normal.

Absorbing those lessons makes burnout inevitable because it forecloses the possibility of joy in work. And if a rising generation goes into work expecting it to be miserable, that attitude will pretty much guarantee that it will be. So tired and stressed as we all are, it's important to remember what we love about the work we do. Perhaps it is our colleagues. Maybe it's just the sense that we're doing something useful. It could just be getting out of the house and having the income to celebrate the next birthday. But it's important not to forget the joy of work. We owe that much to our kids.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.