Insight for Leaders

You can’t beat burnout alone—but you can start here

Burnout is not a feeling.

Burnout is a physiological and neurological condition that can take months to develop and months to undo.

Throughout the working world, both burnout and imposter syndrome are pervasive: Asana’s Anatomy of Work research has found that seven in 10 knowledge workers experienced either burnout or imposter syndrome in the last year, with an average of 42% experiencing both. These data suggest that the root causes of burnout and imposter syndrome may be linked.

I recently worked with Asana on a new special report on burnout to outline how company leaders need to invest in measures to retain their talent and stay ahead of burnout. That investment starts with education about what burnout is (and isn’t) and why imposter syndrome affects employees in ways managers don’t always notice. 

How and why imposter syndrome surfaces

Nearly half (49%) of Gen Z and Millennials reported feeling imposter syndrome at work. Additionally, more than three-quarters (78%) of Gen Z, the newest members of the workforce, reported feelings of imposter syndrome. Across all generations surveyed in Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index, 52% of women reported feeling imposter syndrome, compared to 46% of men.

Let me be frank for a moment about imposter syndrome: I’m a woman, a minority, and a person of color in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). I remember being in college and noticing that almost all of my professors, the authors of the books I was reading, the amazing faculty leading the research I was involved in were, in fact, caucasian men. At the time, I felt like I belonged, or maybe I just told myself I did enough that the delusion became quasi-reality, but what’s fascinating about imposter syndrome is that it can rear its ugly head when you perceive that you don’t belong, even if your performance is top-notch.

Am I actually naturally this assertive and confident? Or did all those years in theater pay off in an unexpected way as I pretended my way to blend in? Trying desperately to look comfortable when I was so different from everyone I looked up to. 

For example, let’s say I was acing my classes and doing a fantastic job in the lab, but I still perceive that I don’t belong in this space. Regardless of the reason, my perception wins, even though objectively, I am doing well compared to others. 

Here are two more data points we unearthed in our research: People who have experienced imposter syndrome in the past year are more likely to feel:

  • Worried at work (68%)
  • Worried outside of work (62%)

With the links to imposter syndrome and burnout suggested in the Asana data, let’s look at how to spot signals that someone is burning out at work.

Five signs of burnout

According to data in Asana’s special report on burnout, people who have experienced burnout in the past year are likely to:

  • Have lower morale (36%)
  • Be less engaged (30%)
  • Make more mistakes (27%)
  • Leave the company (25%)
  • Miscommunicate (25%)

These data show that burnout is more than a feeling and that there are likely clear leading indicators that organizations can measure.

Why stress can turn into burnout faster for young people

In my line of work as a cognitive neuroscientist, I have noticed many people struggle to distinguish between normal stress, chronic stress, and burnout. In my work as an organizational consultant, I also find that many senior leaders are shocked and confused about why young people are burning out. They wonder why the younger generations are burning out when they aren’t doing any more work than their older colleagues.

“The pandemic was different for young workers”

The pandemic was different for young workers: There were fewer opportunities to learn, connect and receive formal mentorship in person. There was more difficulty asking for help virtually and sometimes poor onboarding and training materials. 

Imagine if you were 23, right out of college, and living in a city away from home to start your career. Your older colleagues may have had spouses or lived with their family and may not have felt the complete isolation of the pandemic. 

Preventing burnout—and imposter syndrome—begins with education. The more we can learn about burnout and imposter syndrome, the better.

Five tips to prevent burnout

One of the most effective strategies we can adopt in our organizations to prevent burnout is to have leaders model behaviors to set the norm. Here are five actionable tips to proactively combat burnout—especially if you are noticing signs in your employees

1. Express your needs first and then ask others what they need. 

2. Set team expectations early on. 

3. Reduce distractions. 

4. Attend educational training sessions with your team. 

5. Dedicate time to burnout prevention every day. 

Want to know more?  Download Asana’s data for decision-makers here: The Asana Anatomy of Work Special Report: Keeping employees engaged in a burned-out world.

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Special thanks to Dr. Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist and leading expert on productivity, a faculty member at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, and an Asana Academic Partner.

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