What is impostor syndrome and what does it have to do with feeling “burned out” at work

“People seem to think I’m doing well, but I really don’t think so,” says Fiona, a senior manager in her 40s who works in the UK construction industry.

“This has always made me think that I could be doing better and that people doubt me.”

Fiona, who is withholding her identity to protect her professional reputation, has spent her career battling imposter syndrome: the fear of not really deserving of success.

“Even though I’ve gotten to the position I’m in, I still don’t believe in myself. Other people seem to do it, but I don’t feel like it’s justified,” she says.

The stress of constantly questioning herself has been compounded by the anxieties brought by the pandemic and the pressure of remote work. Fiona now feels “sold out every day”.

You feel that you are showing all the symptoms of professional burnout, including the emotional side. She has begun to “question the meaning of work” and the value she brings “when other people do the job much better.”

Impostor syndrome is a known problem among professionals. But researchers are increasingly interested in the bond Fiona has experienced. between the impostor syndrome and that other modern professional malaise: professional burnout syndrome the feeling “burned out” at work.

As work moves through a period of rapid change, understanding how these two conditions feed into each other, and what can be done to prevent them from destabilizing careers, will be critical to both employee well-being and retention.

an insidious bond

Impostor syndrome (IS), which is also called the impostor phenomenon, manifests differently between people, but commonly causes someone to have the unshakable belief that they are an intellectual fraud, despite all evidence to the contrary.

People with IS often feel that they need to overwork and overachieve on projects to avoid being exposed.

Although they may have great achievements, they may avoid taking on challenges so as not to fail before others. They attribute success to luck or hard work, rather than skill, and fear that this will lead to other opportunities where they might stumble.

Studies suggest that up to 70% of people have experienced SI at work sometime.

While some research suggests that the syndrome may sometimes help motivate people to achieve more, there’s also ample evidence that the stress it creates can be so draining that it puts intense pressure on mental health.

A 2016 study, for example, showed that US medical students with impostor feelings also tended to demonstrate “higher levels of tiredness, emotional exhaustion, cynicism and depersonalization”symptoms very similar to the definition of exhaustion of the World Health Organization (WHO).

And a recent international survey of 10,000 workers by the US work management platform Asana showed that 42% believed they had experienced IS and prolonged burnout at the same time.


“When you see a person suffering from impostor syndrome, they are more likely to suffer from professional burnout. And people who are exhausted are more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome,” says Dr. Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist who researches productivity at work for the University of California Berkeley.

Yousef says it’s important to note that the survey was based on people making their own assessment of burnout, a serious clinical syndrome from which recovery can take months.

But even if some people may be too quick to label themselves exhausted, rather than just very tired and stressed, it is notable that many were identified with both syndromes at the same time.

It’s not entirely scientifically clear why the two are increasingly overlapping, says Yousef, but a key factor is that SI manifests as a third dimension of burnout, as defined by the WHO: “feelings of professional inefficiency.”

As in Fiona’s case, when someone experiences exhaustion “You feel like no matter what you do, it’s not enough. You are the ineffective person on your team.” Yousef says. This is remarkably similar to the definition of impostor syndrome, he adds.

The perfectionist tendencies of someone with SI can mean that every interaction becomes intensely stressful.

Burnout can set in after “hundreds, maybe thousands, of incomplete stress cycles,” where the individual never has a chance to mentally recover from moments of pressure.

Clare Josa, founder of an IS consultancy and author of a book on the subject (Ditching Imposter Syndrome) says he sees a clear link between the syndrome and exhaustion, something he attributes to “the body’s fight-flight-freeze mechanism getting stuck.”

His recent year-long study of 2,000 workers in the UK and US found that 62% of people dealt with impostor feelings on a daily basis.

18% described themselves as someone who is “on my knees” due to stress.

Based on their responses to a series of screening questions, 34% of respondents were considered to be at high risk of imminent burnout. He concluded that the SI is “one of the most important predictors of whether or not someone is at risk of feeling professionally burnt out.”

Josa believes the correlation stems largely from the tactics people develop to make up for or mask their imposture, such as taking a job they don’t have time for in order to gain approval, or avoiding promotion because they fear exposure.

As one contributor to his research put it: “I feel like if I’m in the spotlight, everyone will see if I make a mistake. So I do my best not to go there.”

Michelle Obama
Michelle Obama, a former first lady of the United States, said she suffered from impostor syndrome at some point. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

Someone who is so “prepared to look for threats” will soon discover that this affects their well-being and pushes them towards exhaustion, says Josa.

Prevention is key

Right now, says Anne Raimondi, Asana’s chief operating officer and chief business officer, her research shows that it’s the workers of generation Z those most likely to say they are struggling with impostor syndrome and burnout.

She attributes this to the unique challenges of launching careers for young people during the pandemic.

Being unable to observe colleagues in person and adapt to workplace dynamics, with no clear boundaries between work and personal life, and without the “quiet feedback moments” that are crucial to building professional trust, it is easy to see how junior staff could start to feel out of place and overwhelmed.

Josa says that while younger workers may be more open about their personal conflicts, older generations are also suffering.

One of the biggest triggers she has identified for impostor syndrome is menopause for women, or promotion to senior positions for men. Meanwhile, working moms are a high-risk group for both IS and burnout, she adds.

There is also a body of research that suggests that members of minorities may be affected more acutely.

Dr. Kelly Cawcutt of the University of Nebraska Medical Center says that impostor syndrome has long been indicated as a factor in high rates of burnout among medical workers.

A boy covering his face

But her research suggests that “entrenched biases and lack of diversity” in the profession may mean that minority and underrepresented ethnic groups are particularly affected. Black doctors, for example, are known to face a higher risk of burnout, in part due to the stress of discrimination.

“If we are told that we are not good enough, that we are not smart enough, that we do not belong there, or are made to feel that way through microaggressions, those extrinsic biases can be internalized,” he explains, which feeds both the SI and, long-term exhaustion

“Although there are a lot of efforts to address this now, these biases still exist,” Cawcutt says, creating a “substantial negative cycle” for the individual.

This says shows the importance of treating IS and burnoutand indeed entrenched biases, not as isolated problems, but as connected phenomena that, if they are to be resolved, must be addressed together.

A woman lying on her laptop

Josa says that when it comes to the individual, the starting point is to address impostor syndrome by rewiring the brain’s response to stress, “so you don’t have that unconscious fight, flight, or freeze response.”

But to address the SI exhaustion problem, he says that companies must do more to review cultures where “everything has become an emergency” and where people feel compelled to push themselves further and grit their teeth in the face of adversity, rather than being honest about their well-being.

Yousef and Raimondi agree that it’s critical to encourage workers to build cognitive boundaries around their work so they have time to mentally reset themselves after stressful periods, breaking those stress cycles.

Younger workers, Yousef says, need help engaging with mentors at work so they learn how to fit in, stopping those feelings of being fake in the first place.

“Prevention should be the key here,” he says. “I would love for us to educate our kids as early as high school about what happens when you work too hard.”

Man in bed looking at cell phone at night

But for people like Fiona, it’s easier said than done. Her doctor advised her to take time off work, but she fears doing so will let her team down or she will only prove to herself and others that she was “promoted above my grade.”

Instead, she finds herself struggling every day to “get through the molasses of work,” envying people who seem to be doing just fine.

“Wouldn’t it be a nice feeling to know that you don’t have to worry about going to work every day?” she asks.

You can read the original of this article in English on BBC WorkLife

It may interest you:

* Absenteeism from work, one of the serious consequences that the pandemic will leave
* How the home office has driven people out of big cities and how it may affect legions of remote workers
* How to get the best out of work you don’t like and can’t quit

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