Australian study shows some personality types more at risk of burnout

Burnout costs Australia $14 billion annually. It’s been recognised as an ‘occupational syndrome’ by the World Health Organisation, and a new study from UNSW has found there are as many as nine symptoms associated with burnout.

Burnout is a word that’s become a part of our understanding of work-life balance in recent years, but a new study suggests some people are more at risk to burnout than others. 

In Australia, burnout has had a significant economic impact as stress-related work absences and presenteeism - working while sick - has been estimated to  

The World Health Organisation listed burnout as an “occupational syndrome” in their International Classification of Diseases last year. In the ICD, and other studies, burnout has been described as encompassing emotional exhaustion, lack of empathy and reduced performance.

New research from the University of New South Wales School of Psychiatry and the Black Dog Institute found nine other symptoms related to burnout that aren't currently present in the ICD's descriptors.

"We found that loss of empathy wasn't really the best description. It's a much broader construct, people lose general feeling of tone for everything. They become indifferent to what's going on around them," UNSW Scientia Professor Gordon Parker, who led the study, told The Feed.

"A new dimension that has come up in some other measures is one of cognitive impairment. People said that their memory wasn't so good that they tended to scan rather than read things because they couldn't focus."

Prof Parker says burnout was accompanied with very high rates of anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and an inability to sleep despite people feeling exhausted. And most surprising, they discovered that people experiencing burnout are generally overrepresented from a particular personality style.

"What we found was that people who are really laid back and don't tend to worry about things. They just don't develop burnout," Prof Parker told The Feed.

"Burnout is increased in those who are reliable and conscientious and perfectionistic. And it's often as a consequence, because they keep on giving and giving. And they have great difficulty in turning off work. They feel guilty if they don't complete assignments and get tasks done, and this puts them under stress."

Lawyers, teachers, managers more at risk

Some industries face higher risks of burnout than others. Prof Parker says multiple studies show data that one third of physicians will experience burnout over any one year period. 

“The most over represented groups are those in the health professions, lawyers, teachers, managers, clergy basically those who are involved in helping others,” he said.

What's it like to have burnout?

Will is a 25-year-old medical student at the University of Sydney, he remembers feeling drained, tired and an overwhelming sense of stress when he experienced burnout. He also experiences personality traits matching those suggested by the study to put him at a higher risk of the condition.

Over the last five years, he's been working part-time, doing advocacy work around mental health and working with national and international organisations. Will is a high achiever.

"I guess in terms of a general portfolio and in terms of stuff that I do, it's certainly kind of like mounted up to a significant degree at times," he told The Feed.

When the workload began to overwhelm him, Will was working 30 hours a week in addition to his studies. He was wrapping his head around finding time to study, tutor his students and work his part-time job. It was all beginning to be too much.

"It just led to me kind of essentially mentally shutting down," Will said.

"I was so burned out, I would sit in front of the computer, and like try to read through my notes. And it was like my eyes would just slide off the screen. I would be completely unable to focus on anything.

"I would find myself rereading the same sentence like five times over and it still not going in. My brain had been so stressed out that it was impossible to just sit still."

Will was frustrated, he wasn't able to do the work he felt he was capable of, the workload he had no issues with getting into medical school from his undergrad. He says except now, it wasn't happening.

"[I was] guilt tripping myself why don't you have the willpower to do this? Why are you like you're allowing yourself to be distracted, and sliding off onto YouTube?," he said.

Before Will went to see his doctor, he says despite knowing the ins and outs of burnout he couldn't help but feel responsible.

"So hearing that validation from my GP was kind of like quite reassuring. You're not just secretly being lazy which I think was a large fear that provoked a lot of fear and anxiety," he said.

Working on getting out of burnout is difficult for Will. He admits he is a self-driven person, who takes on more responsibilities than he might be able to manage.

"So burnout is something that I've kind of like had to repeatedly deal with," he said.

"I went to my therapist, and kind of like, had a bit more of a conversation about what I was doing, what behavioural habits I was engaging in that was contributing to my burnout.

"I guess I would say I did climb out of it."

If this story raised issues for you, help is available. Contact a crisis support service below. 

Make sense of the week with stories that matter and jokes that don't. Meet a different Australia with The Feed. Read more about The Feed
Have a story or comment? Contact Us

Make sense of the week with stories that matter and jokes that don't. Meet a different Australia with The Feed.
Watch nowOn Demand
Follow The Feed
5 min read
Published 30 April 2020 at 5:23pm
By Ahmed Yussuf