How imposter syndrome is driving burnout

Impostor syndrome written on the sticker on the whiteboard.

Imposter syndrome, which causes employees to experience the feeling of ‘not being enough’ is contributing to high levels of burnout, with recent research showing that two-thirds (64%) of employees have experienced fatigue and burnout in the past year.

The reason for the link between imposter syndrome and burnout is the high levels of stress and anxiety that result when perfectly capable employees feel like they’re ‘faking it’. This drives them to feel like they need to be constantly attaining to be accepted, even when they’ve already proved themselves capable.

Overtime, those affected are not only at greater risk of becoming physically and emotionally burned out, but they’re also less likely to apply for promotions and more likely to leave the workforce prematurely. Meaning it’s important to address the problem in the following ways.

  1. Normalise the problem

Imposter syndrome is about people losing confidence in the role they are doing, the decisions they make and judgement calls. Even though they are qualified and know what they are doing. This can undermine mental health and stop people from going for promotions or new roles and make them feel like they’re not worthy when they are. Especially if there’s a lack of other individuals they can identify with already working in that role or for that industry.

Critical to addressing the problem is acknowledging that these feelings are normal and bringing them out into the open. Destigmatise the topic by explaining that even people at the top of their game, such as Taylor Swift and Richard Branson, sometimes struggle with imposter syndrome. Plus reassure employees that it’s normal to sometimes feel like they don’t deserve the role they have and encourage them to develop coping strategies to manage these feelings instead.

  1. Provide recognition and reassurance

There are lots of underlying reasons driving imposter syndrome. These can include family make-up, social anxiety, perfectionism and personality traits. As well as events in the past, such the education system or a former employer only providing recognition when the person was generating a high level of attainment. Leading the individual to feel like they need to be constantly attaining to feel validated.

Although this can lead to high levels of achievement, it can also cause employees to set the bar impossibly high for themselves. Leading to high levels of anxiety and perfectionism, causing them to feel like they’re failing or don’t deserve the opportunity they have been given. To help them overcome this, encourage managers to praise employees for what they’ve already achieved, instead of just looking at what’s yet to be done. It’s also important to reward people for their approach to problems and ability to deal with setbacks, rather than just the results generated. As well as make sure employees aren’t putting impossible expectations on themselves.

  1. Educate employees how to cope

Imposter syndrome is very much an invisible syndrome so many employees might not even be aware when they’re getting stressed or anxious due to this. Help employees recognise the symptoms. Which typically include feeling like they need to be exceptional to be accepted, which can lead to perfectionist tendencies, fear of failure and discounting success. Educate them how this can impact negatively on their performance due to increased anxiety levels.

Workshops can be used to bring employees and their manager together to develop coping strategies, such as asking their manager, or someone else they trust, to act as a sounding board to gain a more objective perspective. For employees whose impostor syndrome is driven by low self-esteem or being told they had to ‘be more’ during their childhood, access to a counsellor, via an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or other workplace scheme can be helpful. This will provide them with an opportunity to explore negative thought-patterns and understand how the pressure they’re putting on themselves is undermining their wellbeing and performance.


About the author:

Katy Cullum is head of mediation, training and consultancy at PAM Wellbeing, which supports over a million employees across the UK with their mental health. She works closely with some of the UK’s best-known employers to create and deliver mental health training solutions that empower people to manage their mental health to reduce the risk of them becoming too sick to attend or perform at work. Find out more at

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