What are the 6 stages of burnout according to Maslach?

Burnout describes a condition of chronic stress whereby a person’s physical, mental, and emotional health begin to suffer from exhaustion. While burnout is often used colloquially, its clinical definition outlines a more serious state that can result in grave outcomes, even requiring hospitalisation.

One of the more clinically recognised frameworks are the 6 stages of burnout as described by Christina Maslach, and are outlined in more detail below.

What Are the 6 Stages of Burnout?

As part of an extension of Christinia Maslach’s work in burnout, she is commonly attributed with the six stages of burnout as listed below:

  • Honeymoon Phase: With energy and optimism the individual takes on new tasks
  • Onset of Stress: Eventually the ‘beginners joy’ fades and the experience of stress starts to increase
  • Chronic Stress: With time the pressure mounts and ongoing experiences of stress start to impact the person’s daily life
  • Physical and Emotional Exhaustion: Feeling emotionally drained and without energy
  • Depersonalisation or Cynicism: Developing a negative or cynical attitude towards work and other people
  • Reduced Personal Accomplishment: A decline in the individual’s sense of competence and achievement in their work and personal live

Who Developed the 6 Stages of Burnout?

Burnout was first described by Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s, and since then many researchers and organisations have picked up and developed further on his work. The 6 stages of burnout that we are examining today are part of the work that builds on the research of Christina Maslach.

Who Is Christina Maslach?

A prominent psychologist, Maslach has completed extensive research into occupational burnout and made substantial contributions to our current understanding of human emotional well-being. Primarily associated with Stanford University, Maslach has received numerous awards and honours for her contributions to the fields of psychology and occupational health. Her most notable contribution has been the Maslach Burnout Inventory.

What Is the Maslach Burnout Inventory?

The MBI is a widely utilised assessment tool that uses a series of 25 questions to measure levels of burnout in individuals. People will answer these questions on a scale from ‘never’ or ‘always’ in terms of how often they feel a certain way or hold a certain attitude. Higher scores on emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation, along with lower scores on personal accomplishment for example, would indicate higher levels of burnout. The MBI assesses burnout based on the following three dimensions: Emotional exhaustion; Depersonalisation/Cynicism; and Reduced Personal Accomplishment.

Maslach’s Six Stages of Burnout

Emotional Exhaustion

This describes a central aspect of burnout that refers to the feelings of being emotionally depleted and drained due to work stress. Some examples of statements that measure this include:

  • I feel used up at the end of the workday
  • I feel tired when I get up in the morning and have to face another day on the job
  • Working all day is really a strain for me

‘Emotional exhaustion’ captures the emotional toll that prolonged stress and overwhelming work demands can have on an individual. It’s important to address symptoms of emotional exhaustion in order to prevent negative consequences on your mental, physical and psychological health.

Depersonalisation (Cynicism)

This describes another key dimension of burnout that refers to the development of negative or detached attitudes towards work, colleagues, clients, patients or customers. Some examples of statements that measure this include:

  • I have become less interested in people since I took this job
  • I have become more callous towards people since I took this job
  • I feel I treat some recipients as if they were impersonal objects

‘Depersonalisation’ represents a sense of emotional withdrawal and detachment accompanied with a loss of compassion or empathy within professional interactions. This aspect can be particularly concerning for those working in caring professions such as healthcare, social work or customer service. Addressing these symptoms is essential to preventing aggravation of burnout and preventing behaviour that is not inline with your personal or professional values.

Reduced Personal Accomplishment

Finally, this dimension describes an individual’s perception of their own effectiveness and competence in the workplace. Some examples of statements that measure this include:

  • I don’t feel like my work really makes a difference
  • I feel I’m not making a worthwhile contribution to the lives of others through my work
  • I’m not as productive as I once was

A decline in personal accomplishment can be a big hit to moral for individuals who were previously passionate and motivated in their work. The disillusionment that comes with professional dissatisfaction for these people can create feelings of personal failure and disappointment. Addressing these symptoms on a personal and professional level is important, as is addressing the above symptoms, particularly in order to save the individual from unnecessary suffering and emotional turmoil.

How to Avoid Burnout

It’s crucial to be mindful of your stress levels and to monitor your risk for burnout on an ongoing basis. This is particularly true if you work in a high pressure or high performance environment such as healthcare, athletics, or executive level business. Some of the ways you can keep burnout at bay include:

Maintain a healthy work-life balance

The main trick to maintaining a healthy work-life balance is by managing your time. This does not mean in order to increase your output, but more so to respect the hours in the day that are divided up between ‘work’, ‘personal’, ‘family’, ‘health’ and more. Protect your personal time by not allowing work in the same way that you do the inverse to protect your work time. Beyond the hours in the day, respect the days in the week, and the weeks in the year. Take your weekends and holidays as you are entitled to them. You will find that maintaining a healthy work-life balance in this way will ultimately increase your productivity, energy levels, and performance.

Engage in regular self-care

In airplanes they always say you must put your oxygen mask on first before helping others. It is the same with ensuring that you are taken care of before you can start taking care of others and your work. Protect your basic human needs by making sure that you are eating nutritious food regularly, getting 7-9 hours of good quality sleep every day, and exercising at least 30 minutes every day to protect your physical health. Beyond protecting your body’s wellbeing, you must also protect the wellbeing of your mind. Regular breaks throughout the day to engage in mindful practices such as prayer, meditation, breathing exercises or journaling promotes a healthy mind and soul.

Invest in your interpersonal relationships

Seeking social support and building a strong network around you is key to protecting your long term wellbeing. This does not mean networking in the business sense, but more so investing in your family, intimate relationship, and friendships. While it’s important to dedicate to these relationships, do not forget to practice saying ‘no’ or putting boundaries in place where needed to either. Sometimes our close relationships can become a source of stress for us, and enforcing limits can not only protect your wellbeing, but also the longevity of that relationship as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Do the WHO Use 4 Stages?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognise burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ that is now identifiable under the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). While it cannot be diagnosed, it is identifiable under the four signifiers of: Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, mental distances from work, feelings of negativity or cynicism towards professional duties, and a decrease in work efficiency. As it is not a diagnosable illness, and instead focused on as a phenomena of occupation, this definition can be a little limiting, as burnout from chronic stress related to responsibilities in academic and personal settings can also occur.

Why Does Freudenberger Use 12 Stages?

Freudenberger can be considered the ‘father’ of burnout as we understand it today. He first described it in 1974 whilst researching the impacts of healthcare work on his colleagues. As the concept grew he eventually would build on his ideas and in collaboration with Gail North he developed the 12 stage model of burnout. While this model is by no means outdated, the 6 stage model outlined above is a more recent development and has greatly contributed to the clinical recognition of burnout as a chronic condition as described above.

Burnout is a term that has received an increasing amount of attention since the 1970s, and in today’s climate more and more professionals are becoming aware of the risks. As a condition it affects not only professional performance, but every domain of an individual’s life. From the perspective of the 6 stages of burnout, we can begin to understand not only how serious of a risk burnout is, but also how we can begin to prevent and recover from it.

Clinically Reviewed By

Brittany Hunt

Brittany Hunt is an internationally experienced clinician, specialised in treating addictions and co-occurring disorders. Having worked in the public and private sector, she utilises holistic and evidence-based approaches designed to empower the patients in their recovery journeys. A graduate of The University of Auckland, she has a Bachelor of Health Sciences majoring in Mental Health and Addictions, a diploma in Psychology and Counselling and a Post-Graduate degree in Health Sciences, majoring in Addictions. She is a fully registered practitioner under the Drug and Alcohol Association of Aotearoa New Zealand (DAPAANZ).

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