Understanding Burnout

To destigmatize burnout, we first need to understand it better. In 2019, the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), which guides medical providers in diagnosing diseases.

The official WHO definition of burnout states: “Burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 
  3. reduced professional efficacy.”

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

Burnout often starts as the feeling of exhaustion which can soon be accompanied by a reduced sense of self-worth and the loss of personal identity. If the exposure to stressors continues and you have no opportunity to rest and recover, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain task or responsibility in the first place. 

Long before COVID-19, burnout was a rapidly developing workplace epidemic of its own. Many studies show that around half of the workers in Europe report suffering from burnout or feeling on the verge of it. 

Source: McKinsey – The Great Exhaustion, and Statista – State of Health

Burnout development stages

Burnout isn’t binary, a switch that goes on and off, it rather develops over time and follows a spectrum where initial symptoms look seemingly harmless. Then creeps in subtly, over time, impacting employees in a way they may not notice, that is why it is especially important to detect the risk of burnout early and take measures to prevent it from developing further.

Signs and symptoms of burnout include chronic fatigue, insomnia, listlessness, headaches and stomachaches, anger, depersonalization, irritability, depression, and many more.

Below is the adaptation of Robert Veninga’s and James Spradley’s (1981) model of 5 stages of burnout according to Winona State University’s research they are as follows:

1. Honeymoon Phase

The honeymoon phase of burnout is one filled with positivity and optimism. When you begin a new job or start a new business venture you often experience high job satisfaction, a strong commitment to the tasks at hand, high levels of energy, and lots of creativity, even as your job-related stress increases. You want to prove yourself, take on new work, and productivity is through the roof! It’s so easy to be optimistic.

Everything feels fresh and new, you are trying to get familiar with a new job and environment, and get to acquire new skills. There might be a few hiccups here and there, but nothing big. You are creating new relationships with work peers and you bring lots of enthusiasm to work.

While you are still in the honeymoon phase it is important to take proper measures to prevent overworking and to develop positive stress coping strategies, as well as incorporate habits into your routine that allow you to wind down and get rest regularly. By doing so, you can continue in the honeymoon phase indefinitely. Failing to do so, can get you caught in the balancing act as explained below.

Very few employees understand their internal burnout factors and know how to develop those positive coping strategies and very few workplaces understand external factors of burnout well enough to implement burnout prevention policies and norms of engagement. 

People with type A personalities, workaholics, and perfectionists share the compulsion to prove themselves and often lack the awareness that they are on a path to burnout before it becomes too late and they need to take longer sick leave.

Common symptoms include:

  • Job satisfaction
  • Readily accepting responsibility
  • High energy levels
  • Unbridled optimism
  • Strong commitment to the job at hand
  • The compulsion to prove oneself
  • Free-flowing creativity
  • High productivity levels

2. Balancing Act

The second stage of burnout begins with an awareness that something is not quite right — there are more and more days when you feel overloaded. 

Some people start working harder and faster in this phase, answering emails on the weekend, constantly putting in long or extra hours, and being reluctant to take micro rest and/or vacation. 

As a result, you may find your optimism waning, as well as noticing how stress starts affecting you physically, mentally, or emotionally. Examples of that can be losing stuff at work or home, forgetting where you put your keys or leaving home without your laptop, and feeling constantly like you are so busy that your mind can not go to rest in the evening. To cope many start engaging in escapist activities like binge eating, drinking, smoking, or watching TV mindlessly.

Common symptoms include:

  • Job dissatisfaction
  • High blood pressure
  • Inability to focus
  • Irritability
  • Lack of sleep or reduced sleep quality
  • First signs of social withdrawal (lower social interaction than usual)
  • First signs of lower productivity
  • General anxiety
  • Occasional avoidance of decision making
  • Change in appetite or diet
  • General fatigue
  • Forgetfulness
  • First signs of neglecting personal needs 
  • Grinding your teeth at night
  • Occasional headaches
  • Heart palpitations (the feeling of fast beating, pounding heart)

3. Chronic Stress

Now it starts to feel like you are running on an empty tank day in and day out. You come back to work after the weekend and you are already exhausted. Having good and bad days in the balancing act phase now turns into mainly having bad days. 

You start denying things, you are blaming others for the things that are in your control. You might be having more anger and irritation about people at work. Leaders can start to blame their team members for not delivering on certain tasks and responsibilities while the team member is not even aware that is part of their responsibility. 

In this phase, many people start consistently neglecting their need for good and regular sleep, balanced nutrition, and regular movement. Some will unknowingly start to rewrite their own moral code to accommodate their work responsibilities or ambitions. A person’s loved ones, hobbies, and other interests in life are subverted in favor of work, which can become the only focus.

They also lower the energy invested in positive social connections and nurturing relationships. If you’re still making time for a social life, you may notice how the conversation changes from usual topics to blaming others or talking about work troubles. You turn into a person that is hard to be around and you social life begins to shrink until it becomes nonexistent. At this point many start seeking relief in seclusion or embracing escapism through substance abuse.

You may also start experiencing physical illness more often than usual. 

Common symptoms include:

  • Much lower engagement/interest in hobbies
  • Continuously missing work deadlines and/or targets
  • Persistent tiredness in the mornings
  • Reduced immune system leading to physical illness
  • Procrastination at work and at home
  • Missing deadlines at work
  • Resentfulness
  • Social withdrawal from friends and/or family
  • Uptake of escapist activities (escapism is the opposite of mindfulness, and includes activities that help one avoid or evade reality)
  • Anger or aggressive behavior
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Cynical attitude
  • Decreased sexual desire
  • Feeling threatened or panicked
  • Feeling pressured or out of control
  • Increased alcohol/drug/caffeine consumption

4. Burnout

Entering stage four is burnout itself or some call it the crisis stage, where symptoms become critical. Continuing as normal is often not possible in this state as it becomes increasingly difficult to cope – what used to be an easy task now feels like the most grueling one, starting from getting out of bed in the morning. Your mental health is starting to suffer and good coping strategies seem out of reach.

At this stage, people view many other problems in life as if they are all coming from work. Time becomes an even more limited resource. As a consequence of neglecting one’s needs, a process of depersonalization starts, and a person fails to see themselves and others as valuable.

The loss of control kicks in and it often manifests itself in a workforce as overcontrolling. Now your mind and hands are also on other people’s tasks and responsibilities where they shouldn’t be. People experiencing burnout become increasingly intolerant, cynical, and/or aggressive, some even start perceiving coworkers and other collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined.

You might be detaching from life happenings and work-related meetings or social events. You are either not actively participating, not engaged or you don’t show up at all. 

It’s key that you visit a doctor and seek professional intervention at this stage especially as a full burnout syndrome often results in a person’s complete mental and physical collapse which can take several months or in some cases even years to fully recover from.

Common symptoms include:

  • The feeling of inner emptiness results in the development of an escapist mentality (escapism is the opposite of mindfulness, and includes activities that help one avoid or evade reality)
  • Constant obsession over problems at work or in life
  • A pessimistic outlook on work and life
  • Physical symptoms intensify and/or increase (developing chronic illness)
  • Self-doubt and/or developing impostor syndrom
  • Prioritizing social isolation versus engaging in relationships (desire to move away from work or friends/family and be in solitude)
  • Chronic headaches
  • Chronic gastrointestinal problems
  • Chronic stomach or bowel problems
  • Complete neglect of personal needs
  • Desire to “drop out” of society
  • Low sexual desire

5. Habitual Burnout or Enmeshment 

The final stage of burnout is habitual burnout. People reaching this stage will often feel like there is little to nothing left to give

You become numb to many things, like the food you eat, the mood swings you experience, or the hobbies you enjoyed. It has now basically become a habit to neglect your basic human needs, like balanced nutrition, sleep, and sufficient movement. You are unhappy or perhaps even in a self-destructive state.

This means that the symptoms of burnout are so embedded in your life that you are likely to experience significant ongoing mental, physical, or emotional problems.

If a person stays in this state for too long it can turn into a trauma event on its own, and now everything can trigger you and bring you off balance.  

Common symptoms include:

  • Chronic sadness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Chronic mental fatigue
  • Chronic physical fatigue
  • Suicidal ideation

Burnout in almost all cases is entirely preventable. It requires an intentional interest in how people are feeling enabled by robust and easy-to-use burnout detection paired with an evidence-based plan for prevention.

Wellsome helps organizations to detect and prevent burnout right within Slack. We combine science-based assessments with resources to improve resilience. All this follows a strict privacy by design framework.

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