The types of people more likely to get burnout and how to manage it

·Features and Health Editor
·8-min read

Studies have shown that even pre-pandemic 30 per cent us are likely to experience burnout during our lifetime, but some people, particularly women, may be more likely than others. 

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, but as Gabriela Tavella, co-author of Burnout: A guide to identifying burnout and pathways to recovery, explains, recent studies show there are more symptoms to look out for.

woman working from home with burnout
What are the symptoms of burnout you should be looking out for? Photo: Getty

Speaking to us as part of Yahoo's Real Talk series, the PhD Candidate and Research Officer at UNSW says there are other symptoms that are "really important" when it comes to determining whether or not you might be experiencing burnout.

Symptoms of burnout

"One of them would be cognitive dysfunction," she tells us. "So that's things like having brain fog, not being able to remember, not being able to concentrate, having to reread things because you're having difficulty focusing.

"Another one is decreased work performance. There is also a lack of empathy, and this is particularly true for those working in people-facing professions - when ordinarily they feel very empathetic towards their patients or their students. But once they start getting burnt out, they start to not care as much about what happens to the people that they're working for.

"The final set of symptoms is what we've labelled insularity, but this just means becoming very withdrawn, so you're withdrawing from your social circle, you're withdrawing from the world around you, and you feel a lack of interest in things."

Gabriela Tavella UNSW
Gabriela Tavella is a PhD Candidate and Research Officer at UNSW. Photo: Supplied

What causes burnout

Looking at the causes of burnout most people won't be surprised to hear that stress at work can play a big factor. Things like being overloaded, having tight deadlines, not being recognised for achievements, having conflict, or having a calendar that doesn't allow for a break, can all be contributing factors to an eventual burnout.

However, Gabriela explains that burnout is an equation - also taking into account any predisposing personality styles and the external stressors from both work AND home.

"We identified lots of different factors at home that may contribute to burnout," she says, citing one response from a research participant who said her primary cause of burnout was related to additional caring duties at home and being the 'sole person' who has to do everything in the home.

"If you're finding that like work is kind of an escape from home that could also be an indication that your home factors are leading you onto that road of burnout."

woman burnout
30 per cent us are likely to experience burnout during our lifetime. Photo: Getty

Who can get burnout

Previous studies show that the rate of burnout is actually higher in those working across what are considered people professions (working with patients, students or clients). As well as those in informal or unpaid care-related roles.

So it may not be a surprise to learn that some evidence suggests burnout is higher in women than it is in men. Though there is some discussion around whether that is because women are more likely to disclose psychological issues and distress, particularly in research settings.

"But it's also very likely that women are taking on this thing called the 'second shift'," Gabriela points out.

"Pre pandemic, what the 'second shift' meant that women are going to work, whether that's full time, part time, and then they're coming home from work, and that's when they start a second shift, and that's when they're looking after the children, running the household, they're primarily responsible for all the home and care duties, and this is why burnout was seen to affect them more. 

woman working at home with child
Women are more likely to experience burnout. Photo: Getty

"And now because of COVID, this has actually exacerbated the 'second shift' issue for women. Even though men are taking on more child-rearing responsibility because they are at home, research consistently shows that women are still shouldering most of the unpaid labour in the household."

Quoting the Sydney Morning Herald, Gabriela also points out it is often then case that 'women have moved their work home only to find they've been left with the kitchen table, with the children to manage around them, while their partner got the home office, uninterrupted.'

Sep 6 - Sep 10 is Women's Health Week - the biggest week in Australia focusing on good health and wellbeing for women and girls.

When it comes to who might be more likely to experience Burnout, Gabriela also points our personality traits can play a large part.

"You might be experiencing some of the work or home stressors we've mentioned, but you might not go on to develop burnout unless you have some predisposing personality factors that might make you more vulnerable to getting burnout in the first place," she says.

Research suggests there are a few types of personality traits that put you more at risk, including neuroticism, type A personality, and introversion. But the biggest one Gabriela said came out of their studies was perfectionism.

woman being a perfectionist
Perfectionists are a likely type of person at risk of experiencing burnout. Photo: Getty

"A key trait of perfectionism is where you are setting really high, unrealistic standards for yourself, which means that you are never able to meet them. You're always setting yourself up for failure, and that could be something that could lead you to developing burnout," she explains.

How to treat and manage burnout

When it comes to treating and managing burnout, Gabriela stresses that is all comes down to correctly identifying the root causes.

In the book Burnout: A guide to identifying burnout and pathways to recovery Gabriela and her colleagues put forward a three-step management model:

  • Address the external trigger: Whether that's in your work or home environment, or both

  • Apply de stress strategies: Like exercise and mindfulness practices, and disconnecting

  • Addressing any personality drivers: seek help from a professional

"It might be really helpful to go to a mental health professional like a psychologist, in order to change the way you think about the world," Gabriela suggests, sharing one potentially helpful cognitive technique you can try.

"For example for those driven by anxiety or worrying - one technique is scheduled worrying time, where what you do is you allocate, let's say half an hour of your day to worry," she explains.

"So you might say okay 5:30pm is my worry time. During the day whenever you find yourself worrying about something you acknowledge it and file it away. Then when it gets to 5:30pm you can worry, worry, worry.

"And over time - it takes practice - but you learn how to recognise when you're worrying, and you get better at worrying, and working out what's actually beneficial to worry about and what isn't. "

woman worrying
Scheduling 'worry time' can be a technique to manage stress and anxiety. Photo: Getty

The key is to adopt multiple management strategies, Gabriela points out.

"It's not a one size fits all kind of method, and don't get discouraged if you try something and it doesn't work, because it just might mean you need to try a few different things before you find the perfect recipe to solve the burnout that you're experiencing."

And for perfectionists in particular, she wants you to try and focus on the bigger picture.

"One of the main consequences of perfectionism is procrastination, because what perfectionists tend to do is they're so worried about their performance on a task, and making it perfect, that they'll actually put off starting it, because they think 'I'd rather not start it, and have it be bad'.

"What you need to be doing is just focusing on getting tasks done rather than making sure they are perfect - things like focusing on the bigger picture rather than the finer details, because the finer details can always be be fixed later."

Burnout vs depression

When it comes to discussions around burnout, Gabriela says there is often a link between it and depression, particularly when looking at the symptoms of insularity and becoming withdrawn, and the team is currently looking into more data around this topic after completing a study.

"There's a lot of talk about stigma, so we know that burnout has less stigma than depression," she points out. 

"A lot of people are more likely to be able to say 'yes I've got burnout', because it's not as stigmatised as acknowledging that you might have depression. So there is a question as to whether people are just labelling things like depression as burnout."

But she says there is a relationship between the two conditions, though it is "very complex".

"We know that symptoms of depression are common in burnout, so that's why it's important to be looking out for them. But we know that burnout can also predispose to developing depression, and that depression can predispose to developing burnout," she says.

"So it's really important if you're thinking that you're experiencing burnout or depression, and you're not sure what's going on, you should be approaching a mental health professional or a GP, because they're going to use their clinical experience to try and tease out what the primary concern is."

Mental health support for yourself or a loved one can be found by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, Mensline on 1300 789 978, or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800. Online support is available via Beyond Blue.

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