The 12 Phases of Burnout

Psychologist Dr Mimi Goess-Saurau explains the 12 phases of occupational burnout.

Burnout was a term first coined by Herbert Freudenberger in 1974. Occupational burnout is characterized by exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, feelings of ineffectiveness, and can also have the dimension of frustration or cynicism, and as a result efficacy within the workplace is diminished.  Burnout can look and feel very similar to Depression.

So how does burnout start? And how can you recognise it and stop it from happening to you?  The following are the phases and some questions to ask yourself;

1. The compulsion to prove your worth

Compulsion is defined as ‘an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way.’  Do you stay late at work even when everyone has left? Even when your friends have been texting you for the past hour to join them? Is it all so that you can prove to yourself or your boss that you do actually belong in the job that you were hired to do?  Have you tried and failed to not do that one extra task that no-one really expects you to do?

2. Working harder

Are your expectations of yourself set far higher than anyone else that is in your same position?  Have you ever said ‘no’ to anything that you have been asked to do at work even though you have already taken on more than anyone else?  Do you have a work/fun balance?  Do you have weekends or a day off where you do no work whatsoever?  Do you feel you need to make yourself irreplaceable at work?

3. Neglecting your needs.

When was the last time you called your parents?  Have friends stopped asking you out because they know you will say no anyway?  Do you have time set aside in your week that is just yours? Do you go to the gym and workout? What does your self-care look like?

4. Displacement of Conflicts

Have you ever caught yourself wondering why you are doing all of this?  Do you catch yourself missing your friends and the fun you used to have with them?  Unsure of why you are feeling slightly empty despite all the headway you have made in your career?  Have you noticed that you are getting more headaches, feeling more exhausted and unsure why, feeling disproportionately angry at others?  It’s in this stage that the first physical symptoms occur. You are becoming aware that you aren’t that happy but you are unsure what the cause is.

5. Revision of Values

Has your job become your solitary focus? Do you make any time for anyone outside of work?  What does your diet and exercise look like?  How is your life at home?  When was the last time you laughed, went to see a movie, danced or sang for no reason?  If the answers to these questions are making you feel uncomfortable then your primary value system may have become your work. If you aren’t feeling anything at all recently that is the major symptom of this phase- emotional numbness.

6. Denial of Emerging Problems

Have you become intolerant of any social function?  Do you avoid other people?  Feeling angry and acting aggressive with others? Blaming all your feelings and behaviours on the pressure of work?

7. Withdrawal

Have the minimal social interactions you did have completely disappeared? Have you increased your alcohol and drug use, as they are your only release? Are you feeling the loss of hope? Where are you headed?

8. Obvious Behavioural Changes

Think of the person you were in your early 20s, do you recognise who you are?  Are you happy with how you are behaving?  Have the people around you started to make comments? D0 you get very different reactions from people than you used to get?

9. Depersonalisation

Does your life have value?  Do other people have value?  Has everything just become a series of mechanical functions? Are you just putting one foot in front of the other because you do not know what else to do?

10. Inner Emptiness

Do you feel empty? What is it all worth?  Are you overeating? Over-exercising? Having excessive sex, just to feel something…anything?

11. Depression

Feeling depressed? Feeling Lonely? Feeling burnout? Have you lost or gained a significant amount of weight? Feeling like there is no hope?  Feeling completely indifferent about your life? Any feelings of suicidality? Are you exhausted all the time even if you get plenty of sleep? What meaning does life hold for you? Feeling guilty for no reason? Can’t sleep? Can’t get enough sleep? Have you lost interest in everything that you used to enjoy?

12. Burnout Syndrome

At this stage you really need immediate medical attention! Physically and emotional exhaustion has taken its toll.   

If you recognise yourself in any of these phases you don’t need to get to phase 12 before you reevaluate your life and take action.  If you find that you can’t do it on your own, ask someone for help. Let people into the struggle, you are not the first person to go through this and you don’t need to do it in isolation.  Talking to a therapist can be a helpful first step to find new ways of thinking about work, and developing healthier coping strategies to deal with the stress.  

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