Burnout is a chronic condition caused by excessive exposure to stress that creates a physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. There have been many different frameworks that attempt to explore how burnout develops and how you can spot the warning signs.
One of the more popular frameworks to view the progression of burnout are the 12 stages of burnout that will be explored in detail below.
Burnout is a chronic condition that develops over a long period of time. As such, you may start to notice your behaviour and perspectives developing. See an outline below with more details on each of the stages later:
Burnout was first described in 1974 by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger whilst researching the effects working in a free clinic for addiction was having on his colleagues.
He described a state of emotional and physical exhaustion, of which healthcare workers were particularly vulnerable due to the emotionally taxing and demanding nature of their work. However, as the concept of burnout grew, it was eventually picked up and applied to other trades and fields of work.
Freudenberger built on his ideas and in collaboration with Gail North developed the 12 stage model of burnout as described below.
In 1981 psychologist Christina Maslach developed her own Maslach Burnout Inventory in order to objectively and clinically assess levels of burnout in individuals. Her ongoing work and research into the field advanced our current understanding of burnout and its impact on professional individuals.
This includes her development of her own six stages of burnout. Since its initial description many organisations and researchers have continued to build on these founding works, as evidenced in the World Health Organisation’s 4 stages of burnout and their formal recognition of burnout as a mental health disorder.
This describes a seemingly positive drive to perform well at work. While high achievers most often display this trait, any person who feels an excessive drive to perform well can be vulnerable to experiencing a compulsive sense of ambition.
This can either be through working extra or unpaid time, taking on more tasks than they can deliver on, answering emails on the weekends, or not taking their vacation. The individual pushes themselves to do more, increase their output and be available as much as possible.
In order to meet the self-imposed demands of the above conditions, the individual may start to neglect needs such as eating, sleeping, bathing, exercising, time with family or friends and more. Their personal needs come second, or even third, to their work.
The individual will start to avoid admittance of the burnout, whilst starting to acknowledge that they are becoming overwhelmed. Instead of looking internally to see what they could do differently or considering what changes could be made, they become anxious and threatened.
An individual will change or alter their personal values in order to better meet their work obligations and ambitions. Their work and success becomes their only focus and what is important to them.
The individual starts to become frustrated, intolerant, and aggressive towards others in their workplace, having little patience for perceived failures. The focus of ‘blame’ is on work, with time becoming increasingly rare and precious.
The individual pulls away from family and friends, focusing increasingly on work and isolating themselves from others. This can be a dangerous stage as substance based escapes such as alcohol and drugs become increasingly tempting.
At this point family and friends may start to notice and become increasingly concerned regarding personality changes in the burnout individual. You may even start to fail to adhere to personal responsibilities.
The individual starts to detach from themselves and from others on an emotional level. They fail to see themselves or their relationships and valuable and start to make it through each day on ‘autopilot’.
The individual has started to feel increasingly empty inside, with all sense of motivation, ambition, or drive gone. At this stage individuals are very vulnerable to the use of addictive behaviours or substances in order to cope with the stress, or even simply to ‘feel something’.
Here this term is used colloquially as opposed to a clinical form of depression (though this may follow if the individual does not seek professional help). A person may feel completely exhausted emotionally, mentally, and physically. There is a complete lack of enthusiasm or passion for life.
At this stage the individual is at risk of complete physical and mental breakout. Medical attention is immediately required, and many find that they now need to take an extended leave from their work in order to adequately recover. Clinic Les Alpes is one such facility that can offer treatment at this stage. If you, or a loved one, are approaching this stage, please reach out for more information.
It’s essential when avoiding burnout to prioritise self-care, work-life balance, and interpersonal relationships. Some of the ways you can avoid or help mitigate burnout include:
WHO outlines burnout as a condition caused by chronic stress, and cites four key signals: Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, mental distances from work, feelings of negativity or cynicism towards professional duties, and a decrease in work efficiency. This definition can be a little limiting however, as it focuses heavily on burnout experienced at work, when chronic stress from responsibilities can also occur in academic and personal settings.
An alternative model of burnout designed by Christina Maslach looks at a reduced 6 stages: Honeymoon phase, Onset of Stress, Chronic Stress, Physical and Emotional Exhaustion, Depersonalisation or Cynicism, Reduced Personal Accomplishment. In this model more emphasis is placed on the individual than their relationships, however the same progression can be seen in terms of a gradual and chronic decline.
The final stage of burnout in all models and frameworks describes a stage where the chronic stress has reached a critical state in terms of overwhelming the individual’s global capacity for coping. It is at this stage where people start to experience physical and psychological breakdowns that may be so severe as to mimic strokes, manic episodes, or heart attacks. At this stage it is crucial to stop exposure to the source of stress (usually work) for a prolonged period of time in order to re-establish balance and holistic wellbeing.
The 12 stages of burnout outline how a seemingly good intentioned person can gradually slide into a condition of chronic stress and emotional, physical, and psychological distress. It’s so important to stay mindful of ourselves and our loved ones, and to make attempts to intervene early to ensure that one does not reach the final stages of burnout. At any one of the 12 stages of burnout, it’s highly encouraged to seek professional help to protect yourself and ensure you stay on a pathway of wellbeing and self-care.