Type A personality and burnout

Having a Type A personality makes it much more likely that you will experience burnout, along with a lot of other unpleasant things, particularly heart disease (Rosenman et al., 197S). These are classic aspects of the Type A personality:

  • • Highly competitive.
  • • Very self-critical.
  • • Easily wound up, with a tendency to overreact.
  • • Impatient, with a constant sense of time urgency.
  • • Always multi-tasking, such as checking a mobile phone while eating or watching television.
  • • Very prone to anger and hostility.
  • • Tends to see the worse in others.
  • • Displays a lack of compassion, and sometimes envy and sarcasm.
  • • Easily falls into bullying behaviour or being the victim of bullies.

Having a Type A personality exists on a continuum, with Type B at the opposing end. Type B people are, as you might expect, the polar opposite of Type A people. Type B people tend to be laidback and relaxed about life, and they tend to be more creative. People with a Type B personality can be just as ambitious and conscientious as those with a Type A personality, but without the high levels of anxiety, volatility and irritability.

In the big five model, people with Type A personalities are those who are high on conscientiousness and neuroticism (particularly the sub-trait of volatility) and low on agreeableness, lacking compassion for others and themselves.

Studies into Type A personality and well-being

Interestingly, Type A personality (and its manifestation, Type A behaviour) wasn’t discovered by a psychologist, but by two cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, back in the mid-1950s.

The chairs in the waiting room of their cardiac clinic needed to be frequently repaired and re-upholstered due to wear and tear. The story goes that when the upholsterer arrived to do the work, he pointed out to the cardiologists that the chairs had worn in an unusual way. Most hospital outpatients sit down and wait patiently, but the cardiac patients seemed unable to sit still in their chairs, constantly getting up to ask when they would be seen, and when they did sit, they sat on the edge of the chair and fidgeted. The two cardiologists became curious about this observation and this curiosity triggered years of research that led to the identification of Type A personality as being a bigger predictor of cardiac disease than smoking. Friedman and Rosenman found that more than twice as many Type A people as Type B people developed coronary heart disease. Even when the data was controlled for smoking, age and lifestyle, it still emerged that Type A people were nearly twice as likely to develop heart disease as Type B people. Almost as an afterthought, the two cardiologists commented that a Type A personality made their patients more prone to stress-related illnesses.

That’s cardiac disease, but what about Type A personality, burnout and more general psychological well-being? A study looking at nurses in a Canadian hospital (Jamal, 1990) examined the effects of job stress and Type A behaviour on both employee and organisational well-being. The research found that Type A personality employees experienced significantly more job stress and psychosomatic health problems as compared to Type B employees. This is consistent with an earlier study on blue-collar workers (Evans et al., 1987). More recent research in Queensland, Australia, found that the big five model and Type A personality variables were strong predictors of psychological well-being (Hicks & Mehta, 2018). These studies and other research indicate that having a Type A personality is a big predictor of both burnout and poor mental health.

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