Researchers looking into the common symptoms of those experiencing burnout have discovered there may be more cardinal symptoms than previously thought.
Perfectionistic and work-focused traits have also been discovered to be the biggest red flags for those developing burnout.
Researchers from UNSW’s School of Psychiatry and Black Dog Institute have carried out two Australian-first studies looking into Burnout. While one has mapped which personality styles could predispose certain people to burning out, the other has developed a check-list of signs and symptoms by people experiencing it.
While burnout is not currently recognised as a standalone clinical diagnosis, the World Health Organisation officially listed burnout as an “occupational syndrome” in the eleventh edition of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) last May.
The syndrome can have severe impacts on sufferers’ mental and physical health, while the financial impact of burnout is huge, with stress-related work absenteeism and presenteeism costing Australia $14.81 billion per year.
Burnout is described in the ICD-11, as well as in the broader research literature, as encompassing emotional exhaustion, lack of empathy and reduced performance. However, in one of UNSW’s new studies, the responses from 1,019 people who completed a questionnaire indicated nine other factors commonly affecting people experiencing burnout. These included:
- 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
Researchers from UNSW’s School of Psychiatry and Black Dog Institute carried out the study with participants from a range of backgrounds including managers, students, teachers, home/child carers, nurse and midwives. While it was open to both male and females to participate, three-quarters of those who took part were female.
“Burnout has become a shorthand for a range of negative experiences, yet relatively little is known about what causes it, how it differs from other psychological conditions, and how to effectively treat it,” said UNSW Scientia Professor Gordon Parker, who led the study.
“One study here shows that there is a more extensive commonality about this condition than has been previously thought. 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 regardless of occupational background across a number of factors.”
“The other study also raises intriguing questions about whether more carefree and easy-going people might be less likely to develop burnout due to a ‘protective’ personality style. Further studies are required to tease out these questions in greater depth.”
Participants in the studies completed an anonymous online questionnaire which asked for details of 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 hadn’t stopped working due to their burnout.
Researchers hope to use this exploratory study as a launching point for a new research measure for burnout and its clinical markers, to help guide better targeted treatments and clinical guidelines.
“Interestingly, our findings also show that burnout doesn’t exclusively affect those in paid employment,” said Professor Parker.
“By broadening the study’s scope to include those with unpaid home or care duties, we were able to note that burnout is not limited to those exposed to work-related stressors, which suggests burnout may be ‘context-free’.”
Researchers are now undertaking a follow-up replication study to further develop their new burnout measure. It will look specifically at clarifying burnout’s cardinal features and precipitating factors, as well as examine burnout’s relationship with depression.
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