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How to Recognize the Stages of Burnout (& What to Do About It)
Have you ever fantasized about leaving your job, felt like you were simply going through the motions at work, or felt too exhausted by work to engage in other parts of your life? These feelings are attributable to a common but preventable condition called burnout.
Employee burnout is driven by many complex factors, and the result is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion along with a loss of personal identity that has you feeling completely fed up with your job. Left unaddressed, burnout can have a profound negative impact on your health and wellness.
In this article, we'll discuss the causes and signs of burnout, as well as how to resolve it for yourself or your employees.
How Common Is Employee Burnout?
Burnout is incredibly common among workers of all professions. According to one survey conducted by Deloitte, 77% of people have experienced some level of burnout at their current job, with 51% experiencing it more than once. (1)
What Causes Burnout?
Burnout has roots in many different potential causes. (2) It may be caused by dysfunctional work environments with limited support from management, along with unrealistic or unclear job expectations and performance goals. Feeling a lack of control in your work environment or performing monotonous tasks can also lead to burnout. Additionally, many professionals attribute burnout to a poor work-life balance due to long working hours, a physically or mentally demanding work environment, and limited time off.
What Are the Signs of Burnout?
Like other forms of stress, burnout can manifest different symptoms in different people. (3) While burnout is not a specific medical diagnosis, it can affect a person’s mental and physical wellness. It is typically characterized by:
- Lack of motivation
- Decreased productivity and lower quality of work
- Difficulty managing workplace conflicts
- Cynical attitude
- Neglecting personal care
- Difficulty sleeping
- Feeling of going through the motions at work
- Unexplained physical symptoms like frequent headaches or stomach upset
How to Recognize the 12 Stages of Burnout
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s more complex than you might think. In fact, psychologist Herbert Freudenberger has defined 12 distinctive stages of burnout. (4)
- Increased Ambition – Burnout actually begins with a boost in ambition towards your work, but this easily reaches a toxic level because of a compulsion to consistently prove yourself. You may take on more tasks or let other team members add more responsibilities to your plate.
- Working Longer Hours – As you feel more like you need to prove your worth at work, you blur the boundaries between work life and home life — answering calls and emails after work hours, regularly working overtime, etc.
- Neglecting Personal Needs – With an increasing need to tackle more and more responsibilities, you may begin to put the needs of your job above your personal care needs. You might work out less, skip meals, spend less time with family, and adopt an irregular sleep schedule.
- Problem Displacement – At this stage, you might feel like something is off, but you're too overwhelmed to find a solution, so you instead buckle down and redouble your efforts on work.
- Value Revisions – You become fully absorbed by your job, basing your entire self-worth on workplace accomplishments and productivity.
- Denial – At this stage, you may begin to become more cynical and lose empathy, expecting more from others around you and perceiving yourself as more hardworking than your colleagues. You may start to experience resentment towards others at work and at home.
- Withdrawal – Now you’re focused almost exclusively on work, pulling back from your social life, family, and relationships.
- External Impact – Others around you grow concerned about your attitude towards work, which is having a clear impact on your personal relationships.
- Depersonalization – You feel detached from yourself and begin simply going through the motions of your daily life. Your enthusiasm for work and productivity have dipped, and you feel negative or indifferent towards your work.
- Internal Impact – You begin daydreaming about quitting or moving, feeling like your efforts are all for nothing. You may lean into unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol or junk food to numb your negative feelings.
- Depression – You feel physically and mentally exhausted. Work feels meaningless, and each day blurs into the last.
- Full Burnout Syndrome – Full Burnout Syndrome is a serious problem that can lead to complete mental and physical breakdown of your body. You may need extended time away from work and professional medical attention to recover.
How Do You Get Out of a Burnout Spiral?
As soon as you recognize the common symptoms of burnout or identify a specific stage of burnout that you (or your employees) have reached, it is important to take steps to restore the feeling of fulfillment at work.
There are some short-term fixes you can implement for yourself, such as prioritizing personal care activities like exercise and healthy eating. Additionally, you can practice mindfulness meditation to reset your mindset and manage your immediate stress and anxiety.
But it’s also important to address the root causes of burnout to deal with them effectively in the long-term. Noémie Le Pertel explains in the Harvard Business Review why it's essential to know the cause and type of burnout you (or your employees) are experiencing:
Identifying the type of burnout your employee is experiencing is crucial for creating solutions. For instance, investing in an employee’s development can help counter feelings of cynicism about whether their organization really values them. (5)
In some cases, you can proactively address burnout by communicating with your employer (or employees) and exploring potential solutions. But burnout can also be a sign that it’s time to move on to another company or even pivot to a different field of work. If your company is not willing to provide solutions and support for managing burnout, the spiral will likely continue.
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- Deloitte, Burnout Survey https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/about-deloitte/us-about-deloitte-burnout-survey-infographic.pdf
- Mayo Clinic Staff, Job Burnout: How to Spot It and Take Action https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642
- Pierre Raymond, The 10 Warning Signs of Employee Burnout and How to Handle It https://www.entrepreneur.com/leadership/the-10-warning-signs-of-employee-burnout-and-how-to-handle/432513
- Melody Wilding, Am I Burned Out? How to Recognize the 12 Stages of Burnout https://www.forbes.com/sites/melodywilding/2023/02/21/am-i-burned-out-how-to-recognize-the-12-stages-of-burnout/?sh=6f82d68157bb
- Noémie Le Pertel, When Your Employees Tell You They’re Burned Out https://hbr.org/2023/05/when-your-employee-tells-you-theyre-burned-out