Research maps new concepts of burnout

Morgan Liotta

29/04/2020 3:39:18 PM

Two recent studies reveal key predictors of personality types most at risk of burnout, suggesting new models of diagnosis.

Man experiencing burnout
Perfectionistic personalities and work-related stress are the biggest red flags for risk of burnout.

The World Health Organization classifies burnout as ‘a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’, and recognised it as an ‘occupational syndrome’ in the 11th edition of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) in May 2019.
In collaboration with Black Dog Institute, the University of NSW (UNSW) School of Psychiatry has explored burnout and the commonalities for those who experience it and those most at risk in two Australian-first studies.
The researchers uncovered that there may be more fundamental symptoms than previously thought.
The first study developed a roadmap of certain personality types that predispose people to burnout, with the other a checklist of signs and symptoms by people experiencing the condition.
Through a qualitative study of participants who self-identified as experiencing burnout, the study found that aside from the trifecta of themes typically defining burnout ­– emotional exhaustion, lack of empathy, reduced professional accomplishment – several additional themes presented.
Published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, the study highlighted that with several overlapping themes and the ‘distinctive presence’ of additional themes, this suggests ‘burnout syndrome comprises a broader set of symptom constructs than those currently accepted as the defining features of the condition’.
Responses from 1019 people who completed a UNSW questionnaire indicated nine other factors commonly affecting people experiencing burnout:

  • Anxiety/stress
  • 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
Black Dog Institute founder and UNSW Scientia Professor of Psychiatry Gordon Parker led the studies. He said burnout ‘has become a shorthand for a range of negative experiences, yet relatively little is known about its causes and treatment’.
He also found more extensive commonality about burnout exists than previously thought, but perfectionistic and work-focused traits are the biggest red flags.
‘While further studies are required to tease out these questions in greater depth, we can now see that this condition affects different people in the same way across a number of factors,’ Professor Parker said.
Through broadening the study’s scope to include those with unpaid home or care duties, researchers were able to determine that the condition affects different people in the same way, regardless of occupational background across a number of factors, not exclusively for those in paid employment.
Study participants completed an anonymous online questionnaire about their experiences and potential symptoms, the likely causes of these symptoms, and any helpful strategies to handle them.
They were also asked whether they had stopped working due to burnout, and results showed that similar symptom profiles across those who had and had not stopped working due to their burnout.
The UNSW research team is aiming to use the burnout studies as a launching point for further research to measure the condition and its clinical markers, to help guide better targeted treatments and clinical guidelines.
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