Type and Burnout

By Lynne M. Baab
Published in TYPEtype: New Zealand Association for Psychological Type, Autumn 2009

Carl Jung used the analogy of being left- or right-handed to help people understand the kind of preferences that type describes. Everyone who has two functioning hands uses both of them, but almost everyone has a preference for their right or left hand. There are few people who are ambidextrous or close to it, but most people have a clear preference for one hand over the other.

When we think about type and burnout, this hand imagery can help us understand what is going on. As a right-handed person, if I overuse both hands about equally, my left hand stops functioning first. In fact, when I had carpal tunnel syndrome about 20 years ago from too much typing and piano playing—both of which use my hands about equally—it was my left arm that gave out first. That was where I had the most pain. The muscles simply are not as well developed on my left side because I am right handed. Carpal tunnel is like burnout, caused by too much stress and too little relief. For me, carpal tunnel problems came from overusing my less preferred hand.

If I write too long with a pen, however, my right hand gets knotted up and stops working effectively. My right hand becomes less accurate, and I have less control. I have, in effect, burned out my right hand from overuse of a part of my body that is quite competent and easy for me to use. In fact, I am so comfortable using it that I forget to notice when it is getting tired.

Researchers on type and burnout have theorized that burnout can come either from overuse of our most preferred function or from overuse of our least preferred function. There does not appear to be any data about whether one or the other is more common. A balanced life seems to involve using our most preferred functions most of the time, while using the other functions from time to time, so we grow and develop and have inner balance. Overusing either our most preferred functions or our least preferred function sets up the kind of emotional strain that can lead to stress and burnout.

Many people believe that an ideal job enables us to work out of our strengths all the time or almost all the time. After I learned about type and burnout, I began to realize that an ideal job will allow us to use our strengths a lot of the time, but we will also have opportunities to grow and develop, to be challenged by facing into some tasks that are quite difficult for us. To use the language of type, in an ideal job we will be able to use our dominant function much of the time, but we will also engage in some tasks that draw on our other functions, particularly our third and fourth functions.

This paradigm can help us chart a path for leisure activities if our job is unbalanced in causing us to use our dominant or inferior function too much. We can compensate in our leisure activities by choosing activities that use the functions that are underused at work.

What Does Burnout Look Like?
One British researcher, Anna-Maria Garden, did some fascinating work on what burnout looks like for different types. She found that people who prefer sensing become less able to deal with details when they are burning out, and people who prefer intuition become less able to consider the big picture. She also found that people who prefer feeling become harder and less sensitive to the needs of people, and people who prefer thinking become less analytical and more concerned about people.

I have heard anecdotal evidence that confirms Garden’s research. I have heard about people who are concrete and factual (indicating a preference for sensing) who begin to catastrophize under stress and imagine all sorts of negative possibilities that bear no relation to the facts. Some people who are big-picture thinkers (with a preference for intuition) become obsessed with insignificant details under stress. I have heard stories about people who are analytical and unsentimental (indicating a preference for thinking) who become sappy and overly emotional when under stress.

Much of the research on workplace burnout indicates that as people are burning out, they become less sensitive to the needs of the people around them. Garden’s research would suggest that this would be most true of those who prefer feeling. Since much of the burnout research has been done on people in the caring professions, such as teachers, nurses, and social workers, where a preference for feeling is most common, it makes sense that researchers would observe that the majority of the subjects become less caring. According to Garden, however, people with a preference for thinking can actually appear to be more caring as they approach burnout, although the caring might take inappropriate forms and manifest itself in overly emotional ways.

This research has implications for family life as well as the workplace. We can watch those we love and those we work with in order to try to notice those times that they are acting in ways that are atypical for them. That atypical behavior might be a symptom of burnout or approaching burnout. In the same way, we can ask those around us to watch us. We can certainly try to watch ourselves, but the exhaustion that accompanies burnout usually means that we lack the energy and insight to have very much wisdom about our own behavior.

Different Types and Burnout
Another significant area of research on type and burnout involves the question of whether some types burn out more easily or more often than other types. This kind of research involves determining if some types experience more stress than other types and also if some types use more coping strategies than other types.

Research shows that introverts experience more stress than extraverts and feeling types experience more stress than thinking types. (Regarding stressors, the research shows there is no difference for the sensing/intuition or judging/perceiving preferences.) If introverts and feeling types experience more stress, does that mean they burn out more often, too?

Yes and no. Research indicates that introverts do burn out more than extraverts because introverts, on the average, do not have and use as many coping strategies as extraverts.

In contrast, feeling types use many more coping strategies than thinking types, and evidently those coping strategies compensate for the increased stress that they experience. According to the research, thinking and feeling types burn out at pretty much the same rate, even though feeling types experience more stress.

In one seminar I led on type and burnout, I had a vivid illustration of the abundant coping strategies of extraverts and feeling types in contrast to introverts and thinking types. It was a small seminar with only six participants. Two of the participants had type preferences of INTJ, three had preferences for ENFJ, and one for ENFP. I put the two INTJs together and the other four (with ENF in common) in another group and asked both groups to list the coping strategies they enjoy using.

The two INTJs—one man and one woman—talked for a long time before they wrote anything down. Ultimately, they decided, their major coping strategy when under stress was to work harder to get the job done. Getting finished removes the stress, so they always push on to get done with whatever was causing the stress. They also noted that walking was a good stress reliever for them, so they might occasionally take a walk when under stress in order to enjoy the beauty of the world. Ultimately, they ended up with two things on their list of coping strategies: continuing to work and walking.

My own type is INTJ, and I watched with amusement while my two seminar participants spent so much time talking about how they like to get a job finished before they can relax. I could see myself reflected in them, and I recognized the risk I run for burnout all the time because of my high need to finish things. I came out of that discussion more committed than ever to continue the growth process of learning when to set aside my perfectionism and my need to finish.

The other group—two men and two women with preferences for extraversion, intuition, and feeling—wrote a list of more than 20 coping strategies they use at different times. When stressed, they might talk on the phone or have lunch with a friend. They might take a bubble bath, light a scented candle, do something artistic, or listen to music. They wrote down several ways to enjoy nature and get exercise: walking, biking, hiking, gardening. They might get a massage or treat themselves to a manicure.

This group ran out of space on the piece of paper that I gave them. To me, this was a clear illustration of the reason why introverts burn out more than extraverts, and why feeling types do not burn out more than thinking types, even though feeling types experience more stress than thinking types. I could see clearly the ability of feeling types to understand how and where to receive personal nurture when things get tough.

Paying Attention to Coping Strategies and Stressors
Type can help us to articulate and explore the kind of coping strategies we enjoy. For example, extraverts often use coping strategies that involve relationships, and introverts often use coping strategies that involve being alone or with only one person. In considering coping strategies, however, the situation is more complex than it first appears. If the most effective coping strategies help to bring balance to our lives, then extraverts who work with a lot of people will need time alone, and introverts who work alone will probably need time with friends.
In the seminar where I had two groups of people list their coping strategies, the extraverts listed lots of coping strategies that involved being alone; in fact, the majority of the coping strategies on their list were solitary activities. All of them worked in people-intensive jobs, so it was no surprise that they experienced balance through recreation that involves being alone.

Type can also help people notice and describe the stressors they experience:

  • Introverts often experience stress in large groups or when having to cope with the outer world for long periods of time.
  • Extraverts often experience stress when they have to be alone for a long time or when they cannot think out loud about what they need to do next.
  • Sensing types often experience stress when they have to deal with abstract concepts or undefined tasks for a long time.
  • Intuitives often experience stress when they have to deal with concrete details for long periods of time.
  • Thinking types often experience stress when dealing with people needs.
  • Feeling types often experience stress when the emphasis is on a task or information, with no consideration for relational harmony or other people-related needs.
  • Judging types often experience stress when they have to keep things open-ended for a long time.
  • Perceiving types often experience stress when rapid closure is necessary.

Numerous researchers have proposed definitions of burnout. Many of those definitions describe burnout as a state of chronic stress overload accompanied by insufficient coping strategies. Type can help us understand the sources of stress and the kinds of coping strategies that work for us. And type can help us recognize the symptoms of stress and burnout in ourselves and others.

A mature understanding of type does not put ourselves or other people in boxes (“I’m an extravert, so I can’t be alone”). We will use all type preferences from time to time, just like we use both our right and left hands. The language of Myers-Briggs type can help us articulate our preferred and less preferred areas of functioning, so we can strive for a life where we use our dominant function a lot of the time, but not all of the time, and we experience balance by using our less preferred functions enough to grow and develop them. Growth and development of those less preferred areas is a part of the kind of balanced life that prevents burnout.

Symptoms of Stress for the 16 Myers-Briggs Types

  • ISTJ—excessive emphasis on precision, high need for control
  • ISFJ—pessimism, lack of emotion, stinginess, become demanding and overly conventional
  • INTJ—skepticism, broader questioning, obsessed with hair-splitting precision
  • INFJ—increased caution, unrealistic expectations, pessimism about the world
  • ISTP—become restless, critical, overly analytical, obsessed with feelings of rejection
  • INTP—become restless, defensive, rebellious, hypersensitive, and disappointed in others
  • ISFP—become undependable, suspicious, hypercritical, skeptical, and touchy
  • INFP—become touchy, unrealistic, distracted, impulsive, critical, and petty
  • ESTP—become opportunistic, restless, unkind, engage in catastrophic thinking
  • ESFP—seem to be undependable, touchy, rigid, abrupt, engage in catastrophic thinking
  • ENTP—become impulsive, unrealistic, hasty, ask for answers very forcefully then later become very quiet
  • ENFP—become impulsive, hasty, distracted, very talkative then later very quiet
  • ESTJ—become demanding, instructive, hypersensitive, seen as aggressive, arrogant and stingy with resources
  • ENTJ—become aggressive, arrogant, hypersensitive, detached, high need to get the job done now
  • ESFJ—engage in hasty observations, unrealistic expectations, and nit-picking
  • ENFJ—internally self-critical and can appear pushy, impatient, hasty, impulsive, and hard-headed

Symptoms of stress adapted from Enhancing Leadership Effectiveness through Psychological Type by Roger Pearman

Anna-Maria Garden, “The Purpose of Burnout,” British Region: Association for Psychological Type Newsletter 1, no. 6 (1990), 1, 2.

A good summary of the research on type and burnout can be found in “The Relationships Among Personality Type, Coping Strategies, and Burnout in Elementary Teachers,” Journal of Psychological Type 51 (1999), 22, 23.

Lynne M. Baab is the author of Personality Type in Congregations: How to Work with Others More Effectively. She served as interest area consultant for the Association for Psychological Type in the area of religion and spirituality and as instructor for the Center for Applications of Psychological Type on the topic of type and burnout. She has also written widely on Christian spiritual practices. Her best selling book is Sabbath Keeping: Finding Freedom in the Rhythms of Rest, now available in audiobook format as well as paperback and kindle.