The 5 Behaviours That Lead to Burnout
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, which has become an alarmingly common occurrence in workplaces today. It’s a widespread problem that we see across industries, organisations, countries, cultures and genders. However, the research shows that burnout is particularly impacting women with the latest women at work survey finding that 53% of women have experienced increased stress levels in the last 12 months and 46% of women feel burned out in 2022.
There are several different factors that lead to burnout, which can either be external or internal factors. Whilst a lot has been written about the external causes of burnout, there’s been less focus on the internal factors, which are also incredibly important to understand. When it comes to internal factors, the empowering thing to know is that by developing your self-awareness and using specific tools, you can learn to manage these factors and help prevent yourself from burning out.
However, let’s be clear at the very outset about where these behaviours come from. We want to point out that many of the behaviours that lead to burnout are behaviours that we see displayed by women more often than men, and it’s important to understand why this is the case. When we look at things like perfectionism, people-pleasing, a reluctance to ask for help, and a strong inner critic - so many of these things are rooted in the ways that women have been socialised to be kind, agreeable and of service to others. It is operating within flawed patriarchal systems that has caused women to participate in many of the behaviours that can be detrimental to their own wellbeing and lead to burnout. Researchers Emily and Amelia Nagoski describe this phenomenon in their book Burnout, as ‘Human Giver Syndrome’, which is the “false, contagious belief that women have a moral obligation to be pretty, happy, calm, generous, and attentive to the needs of others.”
We want you to know this so you can have compassion for yourself as you read through this list. If you recognise that you display one or more of the following behaviours, it’s not your fault and you are not the problem. There are so many ways that the patriarchy has failed us, and by us, I mean all genders. But in recognising that, we can’t just sit around and wait for the system to change. We also need to stand up for ourselves, step into our power and reclaim our own sense of wellbeing. So, let’s take a look at the 5 behaviours that lead to burnout and what you can do about them.
It’s probably not surprising to know that perfectionism very often leads to burnout. It makes perfect sense. Setting the bar too high, working too hard, and striving to achieve an unattainable standard is incredibly exhausting, and it’s only a matter of time before this reaches a point where you can no longer bear it.
If you’re a perfectionist, you have a difficult time being able to determine when something is ‘good enough’, so your default is to keep going. The extraordinary effort you put in can mean that you’re quite motivated and conscientious, however it usually comes at a cost. One of the things that can happen with perfectionists, is that by throwing all their energy into a task or project, they can inadvertently neglect others or miss the value in maintaining positive relationships with their co-workers, which is one of the key support systems that prevents burnout in the first place.
It’s also interesting to understand that perfectionists tend to fall into two categories: ‘excellence-seeking’ or ‘failure-avoiding’. If you’re an ‘excellence-seeking’ perfectionist, you fixate on excessively high standards and put unnecessary pressure on yourself to go above and beyond. This can lead to high amounts of stress to get things exactly as you want them, and it’s this build-up of stress that leads to burnout. Similarly, if you’re a ‘failure-avoiding’ perfectionist, you will also spend too much time on tasks, leading to a build-up of stress, the difference being that your obsession is with not making mistakes.
Perfectionism is not only a contributing factor towards burnout, it’s also a behaviour that stops us from being vulnerable and showing up authentically in our lives and in our careers, which impacts our ability to connect with others. As researcher Dr. Brené Brown has found in her work, perfectionism is a type of armour we wear in an attempt to protect ourselves from blame, judgement and shame. It is the false belief that if we do everything perfectly, we can avoid these uncomfortable feelings.
Here are some helpful questions to reflect on:
- What gets in the way of being your most authentic self at work? What’s the fear that holds you back?
- What might your perfectionism be costing you in terms of opportunities for genuine connection or learning?
- Where and why do you want to be braver?
- If you truly made peace with the idea that imperfection simply means you’re learning like every other human being on the planet, could you accept that you are perfectly good enough? If this feels like a big ask, what could you do to experiment with these ideas and see what unfolds?
- How can you embrace a growth mindset?
2. PEOPLE PLEASING
Being a people-pleaser is one of 12 derailment factors that we talk about in module 5 of the Women Rising program, and it’s also a behaviour that significantly contributes to burnout and one that impacts women in particular. This can be attributed to both nature and nurture, as well as the double bind, the research showing that women can be perceived as competent or likeable, but rarely both.
As the name suggests, a people-pleaser wants to please, to be liked, be helpful, and not ruffle any feathers. If you’re a people-pleaser, you don’t want to let anyone down. This often means that you take on too many responsibilities, and struggle to set effective boundaries because you have difficulty saying ‘no’. This creates an excessive workload as well as a lack of time to rest and restore, which means that burnout is on the cards.
When people-pleasing shows up in managers or leaders, they can be overly nurturing with their teams. They want to protect their team at all costs and often it results in them taking on too much and bringing unnecessary stress on themselves.
If you struggle with people pleasing, it’s important to become aware of the stories you’re telling yourself and the impact they’re having. Take some time to reflect on the following questions:
- What am I afraid will happen if I say no to this request? Is that true?
- What stories am I telling myself about what it means if I say ‘no’? Is that true?
- What would pleasing myself look like in this scenario?
- What would make it easier to say no to this person or this request?
Often people pleasing has become such an ingrained behaviour, that we say yes to requests on our time without taking a moment to think about it. Here are some suggestions for what you can say when someone asks you to do something rather than defaulting to ‘yes’ straight away:
- Let me have a look at my priorities and my schedule and get back to you on that tomorrow.
- I don’t have the capacity right now for anything more.
- I can’t help you with that, but you might find this resource helpful.
- I appreciate you asking, but I don’t have space for that.
Similar to a perfectionist, an over-achieving, Type A personality is much more likely to burnout. If you’re an overachiever, everything feels important and urgent and you want to go the extra mile to make sure that everything gets done to an excellent standard.
Overachievers are also very intent on career progression and proving they have what it takes to scale to heights (if not the top rung) of their chosen career ladder. This often results in them broadening their skill set, taking on more assignments and responsibilities and continually adding things onto their plate.
Because of their focus on achievement, they often work too much without enough time for socialising or relaxing, which is another key factor that contributes to burnout. As with perfectionists, if you’re an overachiever, you might find that you accidentally neglect family, friends or your own wellbeing as you strive for success in your career.
The constant pressure you place on yourself to keep achieving and getting everything done can build up over time, and when this pressure or stress accumulates without enough resources to alleviate the stress, it causes burnout.
If you recognise that you’re working too much and you’re not consciously creating space in your calendar to either socialise or relax, then this is a simple action step that I’d encourage you to take this week. Have a look at your diary and really consider what can come off your plate? What can you delegate? What help can you ask for? What meeting can you cancel? And where can you make some space for you to take a break? It’s so important to consciously factor in time for rest, relaxation and restoration.
4. RELUCTANCE TO DELEGATE OR ASK FOR HELP
Another type of behaviour that can be problematic is a reluctance to delegate or ask for help from others. You might think, “It’ll be quicker for me to just do it myself.” Or “My team is so busy, I don’t want to burden them with more work.” Whilst that may be fine in some situations, overtime, taking on too many responsibilities and an inability to delegate or ask for help is a recipe for burnout.
There are lots of reasons why you might find it difficult to ask for help or delegate - whether it’s the need to be in control, people-pleasing tendencies, believing that your needs aren’t as important as those around you, the way you’ve been socialised to be of service and give to others, believing that asking for help would burden others - the list of reasons is long. However, it’s something you’ll need to work on and improve if you want to prevent burnout and protect your wellbeing. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it’s the opposite. Like many things, asking for help is a muscle you can build. The more you practice it, the easier it becomes.
As with all of these behaviours, it’s important to understand why it is that you’re reluctant to delegate or ask for help. Here are some questions for you to reflect on:
- Why am I reluctant to delegate? What stories am I telling myself?
- What am I afraid will happen if I delegate something or if I ask for help?
- What would make it easier to ask for help?
- How will the person I’m delegating to or asking for help from benefit from me asking?
- What will I create space for in my life if I delegate this task or ask for help?
As I said, asking for help is a muscle you can build through consistent practice. If it seems confronting at first, you can start with small asks. This week, challenge yourself to ask for help with one thing. Write down one thing you need help with, brainstorm a list of people who could help you with that, choose the person you’re going to ask and commit to asking them.
5. BEING SELF-CRITICAL
Finally, if you’re someone who is self-critical or has a pessimistic view of yourself, this can also contribute to burnout. Did you know that negative self-talk activates the stress response in your body? It’s not only your mental and emotional health that’s affected by a negative view of yourself, but on a physical level, your body is also under stress when you have self-critical thoughts. When your stress response is activated day-in and day-out, it’s the accumulation of these unfinished stress cycles that causes burnout.
If you’re self-critical, it’s also highly likely that you suffer from imposter syndrome. When you’re experiencing imposter syndrome, the fear of failure and being ‘found out’ leads you to work harder and harder to prove that you deserve your seat at the table, which further exacerbates the problem. And it’s an issue that affects people from minority groups more than others.
People who encounter biases based on their identity groups such as women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, often wear an armour to protect themselves and they can have a strong fear of failure, which they try to avoid by working harder and harder.
If you struggle with a harsh inner critic, it’s time to become more intentional about practising self-compassion. The next time you notice that you’re criticising yourself or engaging in negative self-talk, ask yourself - what would I say to my closest friend if they were in the same situation? How would I treat them? Once you can answer those questions, it’s about turning that kindness and compassion inwards towards yourself.
Here are some other FREE resources that can help if you find that you’re self-critical:
- 3 Steps For Taming Your Inner Critic (PDF Guide)
- 10 Tested Strategies To Manage Your Inner Critic (Article)
- Your 3-part Framework For Radical Confidence (Article)
I hope this has been useful in helping you understand the behaviours that lead to burnout and giving you some ideas for ways that you can manage them. Remember to be kind to yourself as you work on these aspects of your behaviour. As I said at the beginning, this is not your fault. Many of these behaviours arise from the way you’ve been socialised and the flawed patriarchal systems that we’ve all had to work within (all genders). So take it one step at a time. Be gentle. You’re amazing just as you are and you deserve to be vibrantly well.