Insight for Leaders

How to stop the two-headed monster of impostor syndrome and burnout before it takes hold of your team

According to new research, impostor syndrome and burnout are now being examined as linked conditions.

Impostor syndrome—the persistent sensation that you aren’t qualified to be where you are, and it’s only a matter of time before someone exposes you as a fraud—is a well-established field of scientific research. First described in 1978, the term came into greater prominence after the publication of The Impostor Phenomenon, the 1985 book by Pauline Rose Clance, the scientist who was among the first to coin it in the late ’70s. Burnout—a result of chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been properly managed—is a term from the same era: Herbert Freudenberger memorably chronicles the impact of burnout in his 1974 book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.

“We’re seeing impostor syndrome and burnout start to speak to each other”

Dr. Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley

Dr. Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, says these conditions are simultaneously cropping up in more early-career workers.

“We’re seeing impostor syndrome and burnout start to speak to each other in ways that are of concern, but it also makes sense. That is a fascinating new area to dig into, especially regarding younger folks—Gen Z—who are starting their careers now.”

“Focus is a muscle” that gets stronger the more one uses it, says Dr. Yousef.

Dr. Yousef was speaking on June 2, 2022, as part of a panel discussion hosted by Asana concerning the recent publication of our annual Anatomy of Work Index. Yousef noted that the new Asana report is among the first to surface such a connection. The Index analyzes a yearly survey by Asana of more than 10,000 knowledge workers about their work lives.

The mental health of millennials and Gen Z at work

The survey results found that millennials and Gen Z are simultaneously showing up to work with impostor syndrome, which can occur when someone is experiencing something new, and burnout, frequently a mid- or late-career affliction. One survey found the average age for burnout is 32. (The oldest member of Gen Z is 25 this year.)

“What did surprise me [in the Anatomy of Work results] is the link—the correlation, not causation—but the correlation between impostor syndrome and burnout, which is new. That is a hot topic, which has started conversations,” Yousef said.

To combat burnout and impostor syndrome, business leaders need to exhibit behaviors that establish norms in the workplace, Dr. Yousef said. The old saying that the manager shouldn’t be the last one to leave the office every night still rings true for burnout. But when you’re not working in an office five days a week, it can be tough to pick up on positive signals that can keep impostor syndrome and burnout at bay. It’s less obvious when everyone starts working for the day and when they log off. 

“In a time where we’re not necessarily seeing as much explicit modeling in a remote-work environment, you’re not picking up all those,” Dr. Yousef said.

In the Anatomy of Work Index, 37% of all U.S. workers said their workdays don’t have a clear start or finish time, potentially due to the lack of defined boundaries around working from home.

What managers can do about burnout and impostor syndrome in a hybrid work world

So what can workers—and their bosses—do to combat these linked syndromes in a hybrid-office environment? In the Anatomy of Work Index, it’s about budgeting breaks into one’s work life:

Dr. Yousef, an Asana academic partner, endorses the “3M Framework for Breaks” as another system to avoid burnout. It’s comprised of macro breaks, meso breaks, and micro breaks.

  • Macro breaks are monthly and can last for a full day while one does an activity to disengage from work (going on a hike or long bicycle ride). 
  • Meso breaks are weekly, one-two hour breaks that can be cooking a special meal or taking a music lesson. 
  • Micro breaks should be taken several times a day and can be short walks or brief meditations.

The two-headed beast of burnout and impostor syndrome being experienced by the same person is common. According to the Anatomy of Work Index, 46% of U.S. respondents said they were experiencing both.

In the U.S., “knowledge workers”—people whose job involves handling or using information—are experiencing burnout more times per year on average than in any other region. After the initial shock of the pandemic’s onset in 2020, burnout levels have begun to fall but remain high at 71%. According to the Anatomy of Work Index, 80% of knowledge workers worldwide face either burnout or impostor syndrome. 

Why burnout may be linked to impostor syndrome

Work-about-work—e.g., email inbox clearing, managing mobile notifications, color-coding spreadsheets, constant instant messaging, and attending overstuffed, overlong meetings—keeps knowledge workers from doing the rewarding tasks for which they were hired. 

Fighting off the nagging feeling you’re an impostor in a new job can manifest in tedious work-about-work. That can burn out early-career workers using their intellectual energy to tick boxes and not do the work they were hired to do. 

The link between impostor syndrome and burnout may only be correlated now, but it’s not difficult to see how impostor syndrome may cause burnout. According to the Anatomy of Work Index, some 43% of workers say that burnout is an inevitable part of success and 51% of managers say the same.

Reducing work-about-work is a “pot of gold” for business leaders

Nick Bloom, a Stanford University economics professor and another panelist, said the Anatomy of Work finding that 60% of a knowledge worker’s day seems to be doing work about work offers real potential for business leaders. (Bloom also contributed to the Asana Anatomy of Work survey.)

“If you could reduce some of [work about work], it’s an enormous benefit in terms of productivity,” Bloom said. “For the U.S., we’re growing productivity about 1% a year. So if you could cut out some of that work about work, that’s a pot of gold.

“In fact, in talking to a lot of clients, one of the things they’re very focused on is trying to cut [work about work] back and focus more on dealing with actual core problems.”

The benefit of improved focus: Greater employee impact

Preventing impostor syndrome and burnout will leave brainpower to solve big problems and core work issues, says Tim Bowman, Head of Compete and a product marketing manager at Asana.

Focusing on core problems requires just that—focus. Bowman, another panelist, said that building focus should be viewed similarly as preventing burnout. The ability to shut out distractions should be a discipline that workers build into their careers early.

“If you can’t focus, you can’t tackle hard problems,” Bowman told moderator Emily Epstein, Head of Editorial at Asana. “If you can’t tackle hard problems, we’re not going to be able to address the big challenges that are facing us right now. Globally—whether it’s a pandemic—locally, it is the breakdown in trust between people, companies, or governments: All these things require intense focus.”

The interconnected nature of impostor syndrome and burnout may be in the nascent stages of research. Still, how they can be prevented among workers—via an increase in focus and clarity—is applicable right now, Dr. Yousef says.

“Focus is a muscle,” she said. “You are every day—whether you want to believe it or not—you’re training your brain. You’re either training it to be more focused or training it to be less focused. But we as individuals, not our companies, are the ones who have to sit with those consequences and those rewards.”

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