As I reported last year, in May 2019 the World Health Organisation classified burnout as ‘a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’. The three main experiences they reported in people suffering burnout were
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy
The UNSW School of Psychiatry has recently studied personal attributes of those who suffer burnout and those most at risk.
In the study, they describe additional burnout themes:
- Depression and low mood
- Irritability and anger
- Sleep disturbances
- Lack of motivation or passion
- Lack of concentration, memory loss or brain fog
- Withdrawal from others
- Physical symptoms such as aches, headaches, nausea and low libido
- Emotional fragility
Personally, based on clients I work with, I would add:
- Perceived lack of reward or recognition
- Feelings of overwork and overwhelm
- Lack of purpose or fulfillment
The study agrees that perfectionism is a major red flag.
My observation in clients is that there are some very strong links between personal attributes – you could call them stress signatures – and burnout. I have previously talked about the Alpha Male or Type A Personality having a stress profile that predicted double the normal rates of coronary heart disease in otherwise healthy individuals.
In my case it also brought me to burnout. When I look at the nature of these symptoms in my coaching practice, it seems clear that burnout is on the cards for such people.
Why do Type A Personalities get burnout?
Let’s look at perfectionism.
Perfectionism has at heart a fear of failure or judgment. Essentially a fear of rejection. As herd animals, we are programmed to pay major attention to that. As alpha males, even more so.
Very few alpha males are excited to expose their vulnerability, and they will usually toil indefinitely to fix any perceived problem. They are usually hyper-alert to obstacles to success. Imagine the toll that takes, in our current over-demanding work environment.
Then people-pleasing layers on top the tension of keeping everyone onside. More effort is required. Resources and success sink further and the alpha becomes more anxious about others’ opinions.
Finally, our Type A bloke will have retreated in to a cave of overwork, creating distance between himself (or herself) and the others who he now perceives to be threatening.
The result is disenchantment to say the least. Our man is exhausted and sleepless, frustrated at the diminishing success and recognition, resentful of others. Confused, he wants to change jobs.
Sadly, by this time it’s too late. He will need to fix his burnout, or take it with him to the next job.
Personally, I found that there’s a cure for burnout. I no longer worry that it could happen to me again. I have cultivated the practice of resilience.
Now, I teach this to others in a Burnout to Leadership program.