The phenomenon of burnout is becoming all too common. Mental Health UK has recently published a study* showing that 9 in 10 UK adults experienced high or extreme stress in the past year. However, the same study showed nearly half (49%) say their employer doesn’t have a plan in place to spot the signs of chronic stress and prevent burnout in employees.

The journey to burnout begins subtly, often mistaken for temporary stress or a bad week. As it progresses, the signs become more pronounced. So, how do we recognise the early signs? How can we take action? What can we do to get out of this modern-day malaise?

In this article, we are going to dive into what burnout is and how it manifests and affects us based on the 12 stages of burnout. Let’s dive in.

What is burnout?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO)burnout is defined in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as

“a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:
• feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
• increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
• 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.”

Although WHO has dubbed stress as the health epidemic of the 21st century*, burnout is not classified as a medical condition.

In simpler terms, burnout occurs when the demands placed on an individual far exceed their capacity to cope. For example, if you have too many tasks on your plate, you may start to feel overwhelmed and unable to focus, leading to a drop in productivity and a sense of failure, despite your best efforts.

Whilst it is predominantly discussed in the context of the workplace, burnout can also affect various aspects of life, including personal relationships and overall well-being.

What are the signs of burnout?

Burnout manifests through a variety of physical, emotional, and behavioural symptoms, often resulting from prolonged exposure to stress.

Over time, the accumulation of daily pressures can take a toll on our well-being, often without us realising it. The gradual onset of burnout can be subtle and difficult to detect; however, the effects can be far-reaching, impacting our ability to perform at work and engage in fulfilling activities outside of work. We need to self-observe, take note of any signs of burnout, and take steps to address them before they become overwhelming. Here’s how burnout typically manifests.

Physical symptoms of burnout

  • Chronic fatigue: An overwhelming sense of tiredness or energy depletion, even after rest.
  • Insomnia: Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, despite feeling exhausted.
  • Frequent illnesses: A weakened immune system leading to increased susceptibility to colds, flu, and other infections.
  • Headaches and muscle pain: Unexplained physical health symptoms, including headaches, backaches, and muscle tension.
  • Changes in appetite: Significant changes in eating habits, which could include loss of appetite or overeating.

Emotional symptoms of burnout

  • Increased cynicism: A negative, cynical attitude towards work and the people involved, often extending to other areas of life.
  • Detachment: A feeling of detachment or alienation from work, colleagues, and even from personal relationships.
  • Loss of enjoyment: Activities that were once pleasurable no longer bring joy, both at work and in personal life.
  • Lack of accomplishment: Feelings of ineffectiveness and a lack of achievement or satisfaction in one’s achievements.
  • Depression: In severe cases, burnout can lead to feelings of hopelessness, sadness, or depression.

Behavioural symptoms of burnout

  • Withdrawal from responsibilities: Avoiding work tasks, calling in sick frequently, or coming in late and leaving early.
  • Isolation: Withdrawing from social contacts and activities, leading to reduced social interaction.
  • Procrastination: An increased tendency to procrastinate, leading to decreased productivity and avoiding work tasks.
  • Use of coping mechanisms: Increased use of unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as alcohol, drugs, or excessive engagement in television, internet surfing, or other escapist activities.
  • Irritability: Increased irritability or short temper, especially in situations that wouldn’t normally provoke such a response.

The 12 Stages of Burnout

The term “burnout” was coined in 1974 by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who later worked with psychologist Gail North and developed the 12 stages of burnout in 1992. Their model laid the groundwork for how we assess, address, and understand burnout. It outlines a progression of symptoms that can lead to burnout, particularly in high-stress professions.

Stage 1 – Compulsion to prove oneself

At this initial stage, individuals may attempt to establish themselves by demonstrating their worth and capability, often taking on high workloads to prove their value. This can lead to setting unrealistic goals and overcommitting.

Stage 2 – Working harder

In an effort to meet the high expectations they’ve set for themselves, individuals begin to work harder and increasingly longer hours. They may become obsessed with and only focus on work to the exclusion of other aspects of life.

Stage 3 – Neglecting own needs

As work takes precedence, self-care starts to fall by the wayside. People might skip meals, reduce their sleep, and abandon social and recreational activities, leading to a neglect of physical and emotional needs.

Stage 4 – Displacement of conflicts

At this stage, individuals may start to experience conflict between their personal needs and work demands but may not recognise or confront these issues. Instead, they might dismiss or ignore them, leading to unresolved internal conflicts.

Stage 5 – Revision of values

Values begin to shift, with work becoming the sole or primary focus. Values related to personal life, like family and hobbies, are downgraded or lost. Personal identity increasingly becomes tied to work performance and achievements.

Stage 6 – Denial of emerging problems

Individuals might start to deny that the problems they’re experiencing are significant, often blaming external factors for any stress or difficulties they’re facing. There might be a tendency to become intolerant or dismissive of others.

Stage 7 – Withdrawal

As the strain continues, individuals may withdraw from social contacts and activities, leading to isolation. This can manifest as avoiding social gatherings, relying on substances like alcohol or drugs for relief, or using escapism as a coping mechanism.

Stage 8 – Behavioural change

Changes in behaviour become noticeable to others at this stage. The individual’s behaviour may become odd or uncharacteristic, leading to strained personal and professional relationships.

Stage 9 – Depersonalisation

There’s a loss of connection and detachment from oneself and others. Individuals might start to see themselves and others as objects or functions rather than people, leading to a lack of empathy and diminished personal connections.

Stage 10 – Inner emptiness

Individuals may experience feelings of emptiness or anxiety, which they might try to overcome through heightened activity or, conversely, through escapism activities such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs.

Stage 11 – Depression

This stage is characterised by feelings of hopelessness, exhaustion, and indifference. The individual may feel lost, unsure of their purpose, and uncertain about the future, leading to depressive symptoms.

Stage 12 – Burnout syndrome

The culmination of the preceding stages leads to burnout syndrome, where individuals feel overwhelmed by the demands on them and unable to cope. This can result in a significant mental, physical, and emotional breakdown, requiring professional intervention to recover.

Not everyone will experience all these stages or follow this sequence exactly.

Individual experiences of burnout can vary widely, and interventions can be effective at various points along this continuum to prevent the progression to full burnout syndrome.

How to recover from burnout?

Although, at times, it can feel like there is no light at the end of the tunnel, you can recover from burnout. However, it is going to take more than a spa day or a week off. Just as burnout slowly builds up over time, so too does its recovery demands time and effort.

Acknowledge the problem

Acknowledging is the first step towards seeking balance and recovery. While this might sound like a no-brainer, it can be extremely difficult for some people, such as perfectionists and high-functioning individuals, as accepting it may feel like admitting defeat. It is easy to fall into the trap of perceiving burnout as a reflection of yourself – your own incompetence or weakness. When, in fact, it is NOT.

When you acknowledge and accept that what you are experiencing is burnout, you give yourself permission to prioritise self-care and seek support, despite a facade of competence and success.

Practise self-care

This encompasses regular exercise, adequate sleep, and a balanced diet, all of which are fundamental to supporting the body’s resilience and ability to cope with stress. Practices such as meditation, yoga, and mindfulness also contribute to reducing stress and enhancing emotional regulation.

Reconnect with old hobbies that once brought you joy, and be intentional about engaging in ones you know are “good” for you. The key is to approach these hobbies without pressure for perfection or productivity, but rather with the intention of enjoying the process and allowing yourself a mental break. For example, while sports can be excellent for physical health and stress relief, entering into competitive environments can reinforce the very pressures and stresses you are trying to recover from.

What’s more, if you are entitled to statutory leave entitlement or annual leave (which is a legal right in many jurisdictions), do not feel afraid or guilty about taking this time off. Utilising your holiday entitlement allows for a complete mental and physical break from work. This is your opportunity to recharge, pursue personal interests, and spend quality time with loved ones. Embracing this time away from work can lead to improved productivity and a healthier work-life balance upon your return.

Apart from passive self-care above, it is equally – or perhaps even more – important to practise active self-care, such as practising gratitude and self-compassion. Practising gratitude can shift your focus from stressors to appreciating the good in your life, fostering a sense of well-being. Similarly, self-compassion involves treating yourself with kindness and understanding during tough times, acknowledging that challenges are part of the human experience.

Active self-care encourages a gentle and forgiving attitude towards yourself, rather than succumbing to self-criticism or unrealistic expectations. Incorporating these practices into daily life can significantly enhance resilience against stress and contribute to a more balanced and fulfilling recovery from burnout.

Set clear boundaries

At the heart of burnout is often a disproportionate allocation of time, which, to put it simpler, is when you favour work demands over those of other life aspects.

When work and personal life boundaries are not clearly defined, work tasks and responsibilities can encroach on personal time, leading to extended work hours, constant connectivity, and the inability to fully disengage from work-related thoughts or activities – all of which contribute to burnout.

It is imperative to define clear limits around work hours and responsibilities. For example, you might decide to stop checking and answering emails after hours and dedicate weekends solely to personal time. Try not to eat your lunch at your desk and step away from your workspace to rest and nourish yourself properly. Schedule regular shorter breaks during the workday and use this time for short walks or mindfulness exercises. Most importantly, learn to say no to excessive demands. Communicating these limits to colleagues and sticking to them helps reinforce these boundaries.

In some cases, making changes within one’s professional life might be necessary. This could mean seeking roles with a better fit, renegotiating job responsibilities, or even changing career paths if the current one is a major source of stress.

Invest in interpersonal relationships

Sharing feelings and experiences with friends, family, or support groups can alleviate the sense of isolation that often comes with burnout. In fact, 71% of adults in the UK agreed that having a supportive network of family or friends outside of work has helped to alleviate stress and prevent burnout.

Having a strong support network can provide emotional comfort and practical help during recovery. This involves intentional efforts to nurture connections, from scheduling regular catch-ups with friends and family and joining community groups or clubs aligned with your interests to actively participating in support groups, either in person or online.

Take time to repair the relationships you have withdrawn from during burnout by reaching out and expressing your situation. Honest communication can rebuild understanding and trust – it shows your willingness to reconnect. Apologise if necessary and propose ways to make amends, like planning quality time together or engaging in shared activities. This effort not only mends relationships but also strengthens your support system, making it an invaluable part of your recovery and resilience against future stress.

Seek professional help

In more severe cases of burnout, seeking professional support is often the best course of action. Mental health professionals, such as therapists or counsellors, can provide tailored strategies to manage the symptoms of burnout. They can offer coping mechanisms, therapeutic interventions, and sometimes medication, if necessary, to address underlying issues such as anxiety or depression.

Professional support can facilitate a more structured recovery process, helping individuals understand their burnout triggers and develop healthier work-life boundaries and stress management techniques.

Burnout recovery is not linear

Recovery from burnout is a personal process and can take time. Be patient with yourself and make adjustments as needed. Remember, it’s important to address not only the symptoms of burnout but also the root causes to achieve a lasting recovery.

ChangingPoint’s science-backed 1:1 leadership and executive coaching can help you rediscover your passions, align your work with your values, and, ultimately, regain a sense of control and fulfilment in your life. Reach out today to explore how we can be a pivotal part of your journey back to balance and well-being in times of change and uncertainty.

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Written by Jayne Ruff

Jayne Ruff, Occupational Psychologist & Managing Director at ChangingPoint. To find out more about how ChangingPoint can help you align minds to transform your business, get in touch.

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