Early career burnout - Part 1: Individual factors

Early Career Burnout and mental health in the workplace reflecting organisational culture and workload challenges as well as individual factors such as perfectionism and imposter syndrome. By The Skill Collective Clinical Psychologists and counsello…

EARLY-CAREER Burnout (Part 1: Individual factors)

by Giulia Villa + Joyce Chong



Commencing a career is an important transition point in a young person’s life, and the first ‘real’ job should be an exciting new adventure. Yet the challenge of adapting to a new role and a new lifestyle can come with a great deal of stress. For many who are in the early stages of their career, and starting to feel stressed and anxious about work, it’s important to consider if poor wellbeing is tipping into early career burnout. Burnout is a work-related state of mind comprising exhaustion, distancing from one’s work, and decreased personal achievement [1].

Why are new graduates at the beginning of their career at a higher risk of burnout? There may be a combination of factors, including experiencing challenges they feel underprepared to cope with, or unable to fit into a new culture and way of life. Overwhelmed and unable to adjust to their new circumstances (both professionally and personally), these individuals then start to experience burnout.

Burnout is a phenomenon recognised in many professions - something routinely identified amongst junior doctors and nursesteachers and academics (amongst many others) - yet we all have the potential to experience burnout, no matter our profession or our stage of career, and it has a very real effect.

Consider the impact of health professionals caring for the lives of others, workers operating heavy machinery, and teachers tasked with educating the next generation, turning up to work feeling frazzled and overwhelmed.

Indeed, burnout is regarded as such a significant issue that the 11th Revision of the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) has classified it as an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.[2]

Organisations should sit up and notice the very real implications that burnout has for employee wellbeing and mental health, lost productivity, and turnover, and it is something that is disproportionately affecting early career employees. In fact:

In this two-part series on early career burnout we look at reasons why new graduates at the beginning of their career trajectory are at risk of burnout, and what can be done to make the transition easier at the organisational and individual levels. Here, we shine a light on those personal factors that contribute to early career burnout.

Individual factors in early career burnout

For many, ‘early career’ follows many years at university or in an apprenticeship. Stepping into a job can look very different from sitting in a classroom, or working under significant direction, as you transition into working independently in an organisation. Below are some individual factors that contribute to early-career burnout.

Mindset, Imposter syndrome, Perfectionism, and early career burnout

Mindset plays a powerful role in early career burnout. Consider the expectations you had of your first ‘real job’, and your desire to make a good impression in the workplace. Stepping into the real world may even trigger Imposter Syndrome, in which you feel like an intellectual fraud and fear being exposed. These fears can then lead to perfectionistic coping behaviours so as to avoid negative evaluation, which in turn can inflate workload and contribute to burnout. [3][4]


Openness to feedback and normalisation of ‘failing’

When there is a fear of failure, feedback and asking for help can seem taboo - as if bringing into sharp attention one’s inability to understand what’s expected of them. This mindset [5] can be self-sabotaging, particularly where goals are not communicated clearly to you - rather than asking for clarification, a fear of failure can lead you to spend too much time trying to guess what you’re supposed to be doing.

Ability to manage yourself - what your study habits reveal

Congrats! Your uni days are finally behind you. Or are they? You may have heard every tertiary student’s favourite saying: “Ps get degrees”, mainly that passing your course and getting a degree helps with finding a job. While this is hard to argue against, there are certain student characteristics that set you up for a helpful adjustment to your new role or early career burnout. An 18-year exploratory longitudinal study tracking students through their university studies and subsequently into the workforce found that individuals who showed high initial social optimism, and whose social optimism increased, were less likely to withdraw and ‘self-handicap’ through task avoidance.[6],[7]. Put simply, being able to manage yourself and avoid procrastination bodes well for an easier transition into the workforce.

Constant connection and social comparisons

Yes, smartphones and laptops, as well as the blurring of work and personal spaces thanks to COVID-19, means that many early career individuals can essentially be constantly connected. However, is it in your best interest to be tethered to your work at all hours of the day, dreading each time you receive an email notification?

Constant connection can also breed upward social comparisons with other early-career colleagues, or even those whom you studied with. This can lead to lowered self-esteem as you believe that everyone else has achieved more than you, and create pressure to perform at - or even exceed - what you think others are doing [8].


Tips TO MANAGE early career burnout

1.Manage your expectations

The start of your career is an exciting time indeed, but it’s important to manage your expectations (about the job, about your work pace, about what is expected) appropriately to avoid burning out. Learn all you can about your role, look to others who perform similar roles for guidance, but above all recognise that you are at the very start. Avoid comparing yourself to someone who has done this for 5 or 10 years.

2. Practice self-care (no, really!)

Nurturing your mind, physical health and social life is just as important as nurturing your career. Some ideas for finding balance are:

  • Make the most of your lunch breaks. Take a mindful break by going for a walk, enjoying a meal away from your desk or calling a friend. This will give your brain a much-needed rest and boost your energy levels for the rest of the day.

  • Schedule ‘me time’ as you would schedule meetings. Whether it’s an exercise class, your meal-prep time or a social outing, blocking this time out in your calendar will help you stick to your plans.

  • Listen to your body’s cues. Everyone is different. You may find yourself losing sleep, getting sick more often, or simply being in a worse overall mood. Ignoring these signs is likely to lead to a breaking point later down the track, so be vigilant that your body may be trying to tell you something.

3. Set boundaries with others and with yourself

This may seem daunting to a new starter, but protecting your own wellbeing will make you a better employee in the long run. If you are able to, consider removing unessential work-related content from your mobile phone. Reducing the notifications you’re receiving after work hours will help you switch off, so that you can be more refreshed and productive the next day. New employees often overestimate what their boss actually expects of them. To avoid miscommunications, setting boundaries may involve having a conversation with your employer about your availability outside of work hours and the importance of this time for your rest and wellbeing. Our article on leavism can help you understand what leads us to work outside of work hours or on holidays and what we can do about this.[7]


4. Seek help

Our tip sheet below looks at some ways in which you can manage burnout, but if your burnout symptoms have reached a level that you feel you no longer can control, it may be time to speak to a professional. Most workplaces provide confidential psychological support services via Employee Assistance Programs, or you can reach out to an external professional to assist you in this time such as a psychologist who works with workplace mental health (like us!) to help you understand the cause and drive of your burnout as well as help you manage them so you can go back to feeling like yourself.

Early-career burnout getting you down? Grab our tip sheet below to learn more about how to help yourself.


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[1] Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W.B., & Leither, M.P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review in Psychology, 52, 397-422.

[2] https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases

[3] Sakulku, J., & Alexander, J. (2011). The imposter phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6, 75-97.

[4] Dudau, D.P. (2014). The relation between perfectionism and imposter phenomenon. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 127, 129-133. Doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.03.226.

[5] Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

[6] Salmela-Aro, K., Tolvanen, A., & Nurmi, J. E. (2009). Achievement strategies during university studies predict early career burnout and engagement. Journal of Vocational Behavior75, 162-172.

[7] Salmela-Aro, K., Tolvanen, A., & Nurmi, J.A. (2011). Social strategies during university studies predict early career work burnout and engagement: 18-year longitudinal study. Journal of Vocational behavior, 79, 145-157.

[8] Patrick, H., Neighbors, C., & Knee, C.R. (2004). Appearance-related social comparisons: The role of contingent self-esteem and self-perceptions of attractiveness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 501-514.

[9] Hesketh, I., & Cooper, C.L. (2014). Leavism at work. Occupational medicine, 4, 146-147