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Six Types of Burnout and Their Symptoms

Six Types of Burnout and Their Symptoms

The other day I was reading the chapter on burnout in Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy’s book Big Feelings.

In the book, Duffy, who’s a high-achieving woman—she’s written two books, worked at IDEO and served as the Global Head of Learing and Development for a multinational design firm—shares about her personal experience pushing herself to do too much and burning out as a result.

As I read it I thought, “This is useful, but that’s not quite what I felt when I was burned out.”

Duffy and her co-author describe what I’ve come to think of as classic burnout. The typical kind of burnout we think about, driven by overwork.

But there are other types of burnout. Psychologists, in fact, describe three types of burnout. But I actually think there’s more—or at least that we need an even more specific and nuanced list of the kinds of burnout we can experience.

So I’ve put together my own personal glossary of burnout that I see high-achieving women experience based on my own experience, and my work coaching high-achieving women to reach and make an impact in senior leadership.

When you’re feeling burned out as a high-achieving woman, it’s overwhelming. Your natural inclination to dive in and fix things feels at odds with how deadened and stuck you feel. Often, you may not even know exactly what is causing the problem. You can feel so incredibly stuck, and it can lead to a cycle of judging and criticizing yourself even more.

My hope is that this burnout glossary allows you to more specifically understand what you might be feeling so you can feel less lost and less trapped.

The Six Types of Burnout

Classic Burnout: Overwork Burnout

Classic burnout is fueled by overwork and overcommitment. I’ve worked too hard, I’ve committed to too many things, and I’m not getting enough sleep/time to myself/time to think. You’re often not prioritizing the things that fill you up and reset you. That might be a quiet night at home, a long dinner party with friends, or making time to go running.

The problem with Overwork Burnout is that when you let it go on too long, everything explodes. Sometimes it happens slow—you start dropping the ball on things. Or you might get so sick you need to take massive time off of work. Or one day you find that you’re just done. You’ve let yourself get so overtaxed that you just can’t do it anymore. You can’t even muster the energy to care about anything. Overnight it can feel like you go from operating at 150% to not even being able to motivate yourself to do 20%.

This is one of the most painful aspects of Overwork Burnout. As a high-achieving woman, you’re used to being motivated and getting energy from accomplishing and seeing results. You may have issues you care about or goals that move you to action. But when you’re struggling with burnout, none of that energy or motivation feels remotely accessible to you. As someone who’s always been a go getter, it can be incredibly frightening and disorienting.

Success-Chasing Burnout

This is a burnout I’m intimately familiar with as a high-achieving woman. Success-Chasing Burnout is when you pick a certain milestone or accomplishment that symbolizes success for you. It might be a certain title you’re climbing the ladder to achieve, or a certain revenue level or project you want to land. Oftentimes as a high-achieving woman, this milestone is just another in a string of milestones you’ve created for yourself over your life, and you likely started very early: Get an A on this test. Get into that school. Climb the ladder. Get onto the Executive Committee. Land that account.

In my coaching programs, we call this “milestonitis”.

The big problem with Success-Chasing Burnout is that we put our ability to be happy with ourselves on the other side of whatever milestone we choose. Then once we achieve that goal, we shift the goalpost anyway.

The other problem with Success-Chasing Burnout is that we have so much access to others’ accomplishments in today’s internet- and social media-filled world. We often pick people who are wildly successful outliers to be our yardsticks and then struggle when we come up short. It’s like telling yourself you can’t be happy with what you’ve accomplished as a rapper until you’re Jay-Z. 

happiness

Goals and growth are motivating. Ambition isn’t a dirty word. But in order to sustain a happy, purposeful life and career, (and to love this one precious life!) you have to let yourself feel good about yourself along the way.

This is a skill that many high-achieving women often struggle with, and one that I can help you develop through my coaching.

I'm-Not-Good-At-This Burnout

As high-achieving women, we get good at being good at things. 

We had the right answer in school. We distinguished ourselves early in our careers because we tried hard and were persistent. But as we grow into leaders of greater influence, we hit more and more points where we’re less successful most of the time.

Jean Carroon, a guide of mine and leader at an architecture firm once told me that she wins 25% of the projects she goes after.

And guess what—for her industry, that’s a great hit rate! Hearing no 75% of the time actually means she’s amazing at her job!

This is a mindf*ck for us high-achieving women. We got here because we were so good at being perfect and always being right. Does it mean that to be successful in our next level we have to learn to be ok with being unsuccessful a big portion of the time? 

We have to choose to be ok being “bad at things”. Sometimes it’s because we’re learning something for the first time. But sometimes it’s because wild success at the top means not ”winning” most of the time—and that’s actually what success looks like!

Female-Breadwinner Burnout

Female breadwinners are increasing, and in a growing proportion of heterosexual families, females are the main or only breadwinners. Sometimes this is on top of having and nursing the babies, and even doing a disproportionate amount of housework or the mental project management of the household.

housework

But even when it’s not—it can be so hard to carry the burden of being the moneymaker (or a significant moneymaker) for the household. You might find yourself with seemingly traitorous longings (I did) for a simpler time when (many, but not most) women didn’t have to work and just had to focus on the home. (And then of course, your inner feminist gives you a smackdown for even considering it which makes you feel even worse).

It’s true that there’s a lot of responsibility in supporting a household. But it’s worth considering how you decide to make that responsibility “feel”. For me, it was reminiscent of group projects I’d done in high school and college where I took control and decided that no one else was going to step up or be good enough, so I’d just have to do it and direct it all myself. Responsibility is not optional, but deciding to approach it with that energy is.

Loneliness Burnout

As we get older, making adult friendships often becomes harder. We think back with nostalgia to how easy it was to make friends in college or right after school. Or maybe you moved around a lot for work or for your partner. Or if you have kids, you suddenly don’t have the freedom in your schedule you used to have to find and hang out with “your people”.

I work largely online. I loved my business and never minded being a remote worker. But post-pandemic, after moving three times and having a baby, I felt more lonely than I had in a long time.

lonely, working from home

I am an extrovert. I thrive off of people and miss having my crew of awesome local friends as I navigate a new community and finding my people. And as much as I love my daughter, being a parent is not my main interest or hobby. I met some parents of young children who had the same schedule as me, but I found that I didn’t want to talk about kids all the time. I was bored with the conversations.

The irony of loneliness burnout is this: You need to get out there to find your people. But we have to wade through meeting a bunch of new people and a lot of chitchat to get there—which feels like the opposite of the meaningful relationships you actually want! It’s easy to try, get hopeless, and then give up, leading to more burnout.

Loss-of-Purpose Burnout

Sometimes what fills you up at work has changed. Or sometimes what you’re doing never really filled you up at all, but it felt like the “right” path. Sometimes it’s boredom—you were engaged by what you were doing, but you’ve mastered it and now you’re just feeling done.

When your sense of purpose changes, you can idolize the days of yore when you were so filled up and energized by your work. You can keep trying to “get back to how it was”. It’s very painful to accept that what you loved in the past is no longer what you love now. There’s a loss of identity and certainty that comes with fully accepting how you truly feel about your work now. And it may take time for you to find your next growth edge or values alignment. It may not look like  anything you’ve done before. But moving forward to a place where you can find your next edge of interest and curiosity takes getting yourself to a place where you’re not blaming yourself or trying to grasp onto something that doesn’t exist anymore.

None of these types of types of burnout precludes experiencing another. For example, you might be experiencing Success-Chasing Burnout, and also struggling with Loneliness Burnout because you put off your social life or dating until you had achieved whatever milestone you’ve been gunning for.

In short, your burnout “fingerprint” will be unique to you.

But when you start to untangle and identify for yourself what the root issue is, it helps. It helps you first begin to accept yourself, and then to take the first steps in finding your way back to a motivated and energized you.

Which one of these types of burnout are you experiencing? Or is there one that’s not on my list? Reach out and let me know.

As a high-achieving woman, you’re often the go-to get-it-done girl. Don’t get stuck with OPP (other people’s priorities). Instead, learn how to confidently say no to requests that don’t align with your priorities, and avoid overwork burnout. Click the image below to download my done-for-you scripts.

Hi I'm Maya

Mia Scharphie , career coach, headshot

I’m a career coach and strategist with a secret power (I mean, past career) as a designer. I love road trips, graphic novels and helping people like you design the career you love on your own terms.