Thinking you’re bad at work sucks. And the worst thing is that it leaves you subject to professional burnout.
“People seem to think I’m doing a good job, but I don’t really feel it’s true,” says Fiona, a senior manager in her 40s who works in the UK construction industry. “You always think you could do better and that people must be doubting you.”
Fiona (not her real name to protect her professional reputation) has spent her career battling imposter syndrome — the fear that she doesn’t actually deserve her success.
“Even though I’ve won the position I hold, I still don’t believe in myself. It seems like other people do, but I just don’t think it’s right,” she says.
imposter syndromealso called the imposter phenomenon, manifests itself in various ways in different people, but usually leaves someone with the unshakable belief that it is an intellectual fraud, despite all evidence to the contrary.
People with imposter syndrome believe they need to work and produce more on their projects to avoid being discovered — Photo: Thinkstock via BBC
People with imposter syndrome believe they need to work and produce more on their projects to avoid being discovered. They can achieve great results, but they may refuse challenges to keep them from failing in public. They attribute success to luck or hard work, not their ability.and fear that this will only lead to them being given another chance to stumble.
- Imposter Syndrome: What It Is and How You Can Deal With It
Studies indicate that up to 70% of people have suffered from imposter syndrome at work at some point in their lives. While some research indicates that the syndrome can sometimes motivate people to achieve results, there is also ample evidence that the stress generated can cause great exhaustionto the point of creating intense pressures on mental health.
A 2016 study showed, for example, that US medical students who feel like imposters were also likely to show “higher levels of burnout” [física]emotional exhaustion, cynicism and depersonalization” — symptoms very similar to the World Health Organization (WHO) definition of burnout.
And a recent international survey of 10,000 knowledge workers — those who primarily use their knowledge, information and intelligence to develop their jobs — carried out by the American job management platform Asana found that 42% of them believed they had suffered from imposter syndrome and burnout at the same time.
“When you look at an individual who suffers from imposter syndrome, they are more likely to experience burnout. And people who experience burnout are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome,” according to Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist who researches productivity on site. at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Management, who collaborated on the Asana research.
Yousef says it’s important to note that the research was conducted with people who had their own assessment of burnout, a serious clinical syndrome that can take months to recover from. But while some people might be too quick to label themselves burnout (rather than too tired and stressed), it was clear that many identified with both syndromes at the same time.
It is not entirely clear, scientifically speaking, that the two syndromes are increasingly overlapping, according to Yousef, but a fundamental factor is that the imposter syndrome manifests itself in a similar way to the third dimension of burnout, defined by the WHO: “feeling of professional inefficiency”.
As Fiona is discovering, when someone is experiencing burnout, “it seems like no matter what you do, nothing is ever enough. You’re the most ineffective person on the team,” says Yousef. She adds that this is clearly similar to the definition of imposter syndrome.
The perfectionist tendencies of someone with imposter syndrome can mean that all interactions are marked by intense stress.. Burnout can set in after “hundreds, perhaps thousands of endless stress cycles” in which the individual never had a chance to mentally recover from the pressure.
Clare Josa, founder of an imposter syndrome consultancy and author of the book Ditching Imposter Syndrome, notes a clear link between imposter syndrome and burnout, which she attributes “to the body’s fight, flight or freezing mechanism that is blocked”.
Their recent study of 2,000 US and UK workers took a year to complete and found that 62% of people faced the feeling of being an imposter on a daily basis, while 18% described themselves as being “on their knees” in the face of stress.
Based on their responses to a series of assessment questions, 34% of participants were considered to be at high risk of impending burnout. She concluded that imposter syndrome “is one of the most important factors in predicting the possible risk of burnout.”
Josa believes that the correlation largely comes from the tactic people develop to compensate for or mask imposter syndrome, such as taking on jobs they don’t have time to do in order to gain approval, or avoiding promotions for fear of exposure. As one survey participant stated, “I feel like I’m the center of attention, that everyone will see if I make a mistake. So I do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
A person who is so “wired for threats” will quickly see this situation affect their well-being, pushing them into burnout, according to Josa.
Prevention is key
Anne Raimondi, director of operations and business at Asana, says her research shows that Gen Z workers are currently most likely to say they are experiencing imposter syndrome and burnout at the same time. She attributes this to the unprecedented challenges facing young people starting their careers during the pandemic.
Unable to observe their colleagues in person and adjust to the dynamics of the workplace, without clear boundaries between work and personal life, and without the “feedback and reassurance moments” that are critical to establishing professional trust, Raimondi says that It’s easy to see junior employees starting to feel like they don’t belong at their job and becoming overwhelmed.
Josa says that while younger workers may be able to express their struggles more, older generations are also suffering. One of the biggest triggers she identified for imposter syndrome is menopause in women or promotion to senior positions among men. And Jose adds that working mothers are a high risk group for imposter syndrome and burnout.
There is also a lot of research that indicates that people who belong to minorities may be more acutely affected. Kelly Cawcutt of the University of Nebraska Medical Center in the United States says that imposter syndrome has long been observed as a factor in the high incidence of burnout among medical workers.
His research indicates that “ingrained biases and lack of diversity” in the profession can mean that underrepresented groups and ethnic minorities are particularly affected. As an example, black physicians are known to face a higher risk of burnout, in part due to the stress of discrimination.
Cawcutt says that “if we’re told we’re not good enough, smart enough, or don’t belong — or if we’re made to feel that way with microaggressions — these extrinsic biases can be internalized,” fueling the imposter syndrome and, in the long run, longer, the burnout.
“While there are now many efforts to combat these biases, they still remain,” says Cawcutt, creating what his research calls a “substantial negative cycle” for the individual. According to her, this demonstrates the importance of treating imposter syndrome and burnout — and also rooted prejudices — not as isolated issues, but as related phenomena that need to be tackled together if we are to solve them.
Josa says that, with regard to the individual, the starting point is to fight the imposter syndrome by redefining the brain’s reaction to stress, “so you don’t suffer that unconscious trigger of the fight, flight and freeze reaction”.
But to prevent imposter syndrome from triggering burnout, she says, companies need to do more to address cultures where “everything has become an emergency” and people feel compelled to outperform, grinding their teeth at adversity rather than being honest about their well-being.
Yousef and Raimondi agree that it is critical to encourage workers to establish cognitive boundaries around their work so that they have time to mentally recover after periods of tension, breaking these cycles of stress. Younger workers, according to Yousef, need help connecting with mentors at work and learning how to fit in, eliminating the feeling that they would be imposters at the outset.
“Here, prevention must be fundamental,” she says. “I would just love for our kids to be educated in high school about what happens when you work too hard.”
But for people like Fiona, solving the problem is harder than it looks. She has been advised by her doctor to take time off work, but fears that doing so will let her team down or simply prove to herself and others that “I have been promoted beyond my capacity.”
Instead, she continues to struggle daily to “cross the quagmire of work,” envying people who seem to be coping well. “Wouldn’t it be a nice feeling to know that you won’t be upset having to go out to work every day?”