Burnout is a workplace phenomenon that has been around for decades, but is increasing in intensity, frequency, and becoming more widespread. 

That said, everyone burns out for different reasons and while we might be quick to point a finger at our circumstances in the office, the hidden truth is that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to burnout. 

To understand the reason behind these individual differences, we have to take a step back and consider what burnout is.

Simply stated, burnout is chronic stress. 

Stress is about perception. When we perceive the demands placed on us to exceed our resources, we feel stressed out. When this happens in a chronic manner, we burn out. 


The Stress Response

As babies, we don’t have the ability to take care of ourselves. We rely on our caretakers to get our needs met. 

But what happens when those needs aren’t met?

That’s when the stress response gets activated. What this means is that our brain and body get into survival mode. There are three forms this takes:

  1. Fight: We get a surge of adrenaline and cortisol that allow us to fight the danger
  2. Flight: Adrenaline and cortisol allow our body to have unparalleled strength and speed to flee from the danger
  3. Freeze: If we cannot run or flee, we go into a frozen state

You know you’re in a Fight-Flight-Freeze response when you experience fear, anxiety, or high stress. There are also physiological signs such as when your heart is racing, your breathing becomes rapid, or you feel tightness in your chest. These sensations in your body send a signal to your brain that you need to fight or flee.

While the stress response gets flipped on by your need not being met, it gets turned off or deactivated when a need is met.

Even the most attuned caregivers aren’t going to get it right all of the time.

It turns out that not having all your needs met all of the time is actually a good thing because it builds stress resilience. 

The problem is when your needs are consistently not met. This leads to toxic stress.


Toxic Stress and The Brain

Our brain develops throughout childhood and during the first seven years of life, we also establish some of our schemas, or core beliefs, based on our experiences. 

As a child, when your needs are consistently ignored or neglected, the toxic stress you experience shapes your brain development in three ways:

#1: Your prefrontal cortex, the area of your brain in charge of planning, is negatively affected. If you find that it’s hard for you to plan or problem-solve, especially when under stress, this is why. This part of your brain also largely contributes to the development of your personality. We’ll see how your personality then contributes to burnout later in life.

#2: Due to an overactive and hypersensitive amygdala, it becomes more challenging to regulate your emotions. This translates into an exaggerated fear response, hypervigilance, or hyperarousal.

#3: Once you become stressed out, because your brain didn’t learn to regulate the stress response system and you did not develop an innate ability to calm down, it may be difficult to turn off the switch. You might also perceive a situation as threatening when it’s not and therefore feel stressed when there is no need to be.

Now you’re a professional working in a corporate environment. You spend the majority of your waking hours at work. If you perceive your work as stressful, regardless of why you feel this way, you are at risk for burning out. 

In an effort to understand the patterns you bring to the workplace that lead to your burnout, it’s important to connect the dots between your early life experiences and your current situation. 


Toxic Stress and Programming

When your needs aren’t met early on in life, not only does that experience affect you emotionally, but those patterns program you to be a certain way in the world. After researching the connection between personality and burnout, I came across three burnout profiles. See if you can find yourself in one or more of these:

The Thinker

Thinkers are people whose primary emotional state is that of fear and this can take two distinct paths: Fear of failure and fear of harm. 

If as a child, you were mistreated or neglected by your parents, you might have internalized the belief that there is something defective about you which makes you feel ashamed of yourself.  This makes you more likely to experience a fear of failure. You know that’s you if you compare yourself to your peers and feel inferior or even like you’ve failed. You might tell yourself that you are incapable of succeeding, that you lack the necessary skills, or that it takes much more effort for you to accomplish the same tasks as others. 

These beliefs create anxiety, low self-confidence, and imposter syndrome. As a result, you might spend a lot of time feeling self-conscious that others might be judging you. When you do accomplish a goal, it may be hard to internalize it. Or, you might second-guess your decisions due to a lack of confidence in yourself. 

When you are in this state, you are more likely to focus on doing things perfectly to avoid failure. And when you don’t feel satisfied with either your ability to perfect the task at hand or with your work, you will procrastinate or avoid it in an effort to circumvent the judgment you fear from others. 

Alternatively, you might experience fear due to the notion that something bad is going to happen to you. This leads you to scan your environment for potential dangers and never allow yourself to relax or enjoy yourself when something good happens. It’s the Waiting-for-the-Other-Shoe-to-Drop Syndrome which creates a need for external reassurances, avoidance of perceived dangers or threats, and obsessive planning.

Either way, the constant worrying depletes you of your energy and leads you to burn out. 


The Feeler

Feelers are individuals whose needs weren’t met in childhood. Perhaps you didn’t feel supported by your parents or didn’t have them to lean on when you needed advice. Often, parents of emotionally deprived children are emotionally distant so the child doesn’t learn to express her emotions. Alternatively, you may have grown up with a parent with special needs due to a disability, substance abuse disorder, or mental illness that required you to become the parentified child, putting their needs ahead of your own. 

These early experiences can lead to the development of a belief that you are not important enough or that other people’s needs are more important than yours. You feel invisible and disconnected from others, which leads to a sense of emptiness. 

So what do you do to cope? You focus on pleasing others and sacrificing yourself and your needs. You take on more than you can chew, saying “yes” to others’ requests even when you’re maxed out, in an effort to feel connected and seek approval. 

The more you take on, the more stressed you become which can lead to burnout. But there’s more than just that. 

Saying “yes” when you mean “no” leads to resentment, especially when you feel taken advantage of or when others don’t return the favor. But the guilt you feel when you focus on yourself keeps you stuck in this perpetual pattern where you feel emotionally exhausted no matter what you do. 


The Doer

Children who grow up in a home where they were only praised for their accomplishments learn that their worth is dependent on achievement. 

As adults, they feel constant pressure to perform. They hold themselves to unrelenting standards and when they fail to reach them, they experience a sense of shame or inadequacy. 

This pattern leads to workaholism and because they can never relax, they spend much of their waking hours in “doing mode.” It feels like no matter how hard they work or how much they achieve, there is always more to do and never enough time to do it all. 

In addition to burning out due to the lack of balance in their lives, Doers can also end up feeling depressed, lonely, and develop harmful habits in an effort to self-medicate and fill the void. 


How to Reprogram Yourself Out of Burnout Mode

Regardless of whether your fear, need for approval, or belief that relaxation is a waste of time is the driving force behind your burnout, you can construct a recovery strategy and reprogram your brain to do it differently.

Thinkers might focus on letting go of a need for control, overcoming the fear of failure, increasing self-compassion, trusting their instinct to make good decisions, and grounding themselves to feel safe rather than anxious. 

Feelers might focus on creating boundaries, on shifting their belief about their importance, on identifying their needs, on managing their emotions and understanding how their actions feed into their guilt and resentment. 

Doers might focus on their limiting belief around their self-worth, on cutting back on their hours at work, on slowing down, taking time off or breaks throughout each day, on tuning in rather than focusing only on to-do lists.

Ultimately, each type needs to get to a state of balance based on what’s making them lopsided.

To get you started on your way to recovery, it’s always good to increase self-awareness. Find out how you’re doing by downloading the Burnout Checklist. This will give you a sense of which stage of burnout you might be in and what to focus on to bounce back. 


Dr. Sharon Grossman, AKA the Burnout Doc, is a clinically trained psychologist and subject matter expert in burnout and mental health. Associations and Fortune 500 companies hire her to be their closing keynote speaker, to help their members and executives crack the code on burnout, and create custom-tailored solutions for recovery.
Over the past 20 years, Dr. Sharon has been helping high achievers who are struggling with anxiety, overwhelm, and burnout go from exhausted to extraordinary by better understanding how their brain works and how they can design and run their programming on purpose to live the kind of life they want to live. She is the author of several books on burnout and mindset and host of the Decode Your Burnout podcast. Through her speaking, training, and coaching, she helps organizations keep their top talent.