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Perfectionism or work-focused traits could be red flags for those developing burnout, according to research.

Two Australian-first studies from University of New South Wales (UNSW) and Black Dog Institute on burnout, have mapped out which personality styles were more likely to burn out, while the other study has developed a check-list of signs and symptoms of people experiencing it.

The study participants came from a range of backgrounds including nurses and midwives.

While burnout has been described by the World Health Organization and other research literature as encompassing emotional exhaustion, lack of empathy and reduced performance, the study indicated nine other factors commonly affecting people experiencing burnout, including:

  • 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

“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.”

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.

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.

The results of the checklist study are published in the  Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease.

The results of the personality study are published in the Psychiatry Research Journal.