“State of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life”
The term “burnout” was coined by german-born psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s. It was something that the psychologist felt that was needed to understand the work-related stress symptoms better to the broader audience.
Together with his colleague Gail North, they came up with a list of 12 phases of burnout, which you can see in the image below.
Having gone through severe burnout myself, it took me the better part of a couple of years to understand what was happening, and even then, I couldn’t put the puzzle pieces together alone.
In a Gallup study about burnout, almost 1/3 of all employees who answered the survey are always or very often feeling burnt out. These numbers have been rising year-over-year and still keep doing so.
I think it’s important to talk about this topic. And having gone through it myself, I think I can offer some valuable insights that have helped me over the years and how I managed to dig myself out of that hole.
12 stages of burnout
Stage 1 — The Compulsion to Prove Oneself
How often do you feel like you’re being watched on the job? There are obviously expectations for employees as the company has hired you to do a job. So naturally, they want to know that the job is being done in the proper manner.
But there is a big difference whether you feel like you’re constantly under pressure. You don’t feel comfortable. Your brain feels like it’s constantly under a threat.
In the end, our monkey brains are not that different from our ancestors. You have a feeling that something is wrong, but your brain can’t make the distinction between a real, life-threatening situation or work-related stress so it has to prepare for the worst.
Being constantly under stress has a cumulative impact on your body. When you’re not relaxed, your brain and body do not work as it’s “supposed” to. Your brain focuses resources on more vital parts of your body. Right now you’re under a threat and finishing this work-related task is not high on the priority list.
Stage 2 — Working Harder
You start feeling the pressure. Your brain is under constant stress. You’re always late. Nothing gets done. You feel like you’re in some sort of brain fog.
So, naturally, you put more effort into it. You try harder to get the things done that you have issues with. The normal tasks you never before had any problems with.
When your brain is focused on the threats surrounding you, writing reports may suddenly become very difficult. You just can’t focus. Your mind keeps wondering.
In my mind, these first 2 steps are critical to understand. This is the tipping point where things start to go in the wrong direction if you’re not aware of what’s going on.
Being under stress for short periods of time is ok. Your mind and body will recuperate from it. But more often than not what we do is we start pumping more and more resources to compensate for our tiredness and exhaustion.
We find ways to become more efficient instead of resting, which is what we really need.
Stage 3 — Neglecting Needs
Neglecting your own needs to compensate for what needs to be done. When you feel like your own efficiency is getting lower at work, you easily start skipping lunches, working late, etc. Whatever to get the job done.
We are so focused on the task at hand because it’s so tangible. “I need to get this report done by tomorrow or…”.
Meanwhile, your brain is yelling at you that something is wrong. This isn’t normal. Your body needs more fuel, sleep, rest, and relaxation. But it gets ignored.
I think this is mostly due to a lack of understanding and external pressure. It’s not very cool to let others down, right? What sort of colleague am I if everyone else gets their job done but I can’t? How would they see me? Do they think I’m just lazy? What if I get fired?
No time to think about that now, we have a report to finish.
From my personal experience for this stage: I remember noticing being really tired at some point, so I started googling what was wrong with me. Of course, the typical advices popped up first, exercising more, eating healthier, and getting enough sleep.
So I started getting very particular about my life in some aspects, which probably caused me more stress. I become obsessed with how every successful entrepreneur spends their time.
I started waking up very early, exercising before work at 6 am, optimizing my time usage, and putting more effort into reading and listening to audiobooks. Instead of just relaxing and taking some time off, which is what I really needed.
But feeling the pressure from everyone else, I thought that I couldn’t do that, and I just need to push through it. I ignored what my brain and body were telling me because I was more afraid of how I would feel letting everyone else down.
Stage 4 — Displacement of Conflicts
“I’m doing all I can here! I worked late every night of the week and weekends to get things done while you were just out having fun with your friends!”
Many of us probably have felt the same. At some point, when you’re putting that much extra effort into doing something, while everyone else is doing the smart thing and not overextending, it might feel unfair.
Why should you need to work that much harder than the rest?
We as humans are very poor at judging things outside of our own circle of existence. We are by nature, very self-centric. More often than not, it might be difficult, if not impossible to see how much actual results we get from our work.
In the end, does it matter if you spent the whole day or 10 minutes writing the report, as long as it’s done in a well enough manner? We often focus on the amount of work we put in, not the end result. While you’re exhausted both physically and mentally, your input might just not be worth the same as it used to be.
Having to work for longer to get the same thing done that you used to be able to do in a shorter timeframe is not anyone else’s fault in the end.
Stage 5 — Revision of Values
“Since we started neglecting our own needs, why not go all the way? The work needs to get done, so it might as well be me doing everything and everyone else can go fuck themselves”
Something like this was my own inner monologue at some point. At some point, when you can’t see the forest from the trees anymore, you just have tunnel vision.
Nothing else matters but the task at hand. You’re falling deeper and deeper into the pit of despair and self-loathing. You don’t have time for friends, family, or other loved ones. You’re committed to making this thing work and you will do it no matter the cost.
Stage 6 — Denial of Emerging Problems
The fear of losing your face is a real thing. A few years ago, my body and mind as under constant duress. I didn’t really sleep, I was so tired and stressed constantly that I was barely a human anymore.
But if you asked me, everything was perfect. The business was going well. Money was pouring in from everywhere. Projects were progressing well and on time. Had so many new leads for new clients.
It’s not like I was lying. But rather, I was so in denial that I couldn’t really even know what the truth was myself. I feel like it’s sort of expected in the business world to just gloat about your success, even though every entrepreneur knows that 90% of the time it’s just failure and just trying to make it.
This leads up back to Stage 1 and why it’s relevant. Whenever you feel like you’re under external pressure. You want to look good in other people’s eyes, it’s so easy to say that everything is going well because you don’t want to appear weak.
But when you’re at peace with yourself, you don’t feel the need to exaggerate your successes and diminish your failures.
Stage 7 — Withdrawal
Focusing on more and more work doesn’t really allow you to meet your friends anymore. And not that you really even want to. They wouldn’t understand what you’re going through anyways so why even bother?
It’s so easy to be alone in self-pity. To become bitter about how unfair everything seems. And you’re just so tired anyways.
Stage 8 — Odd Behavioral Changes
We’ve probably all been in a situation where we can tell that someone close to us is not ok. You can’t tell what, but you can just tell that something is bothering them.
This can cause a lot of anxiety to the people around you. Sudden changes in behavior are not typical and as social creatures, we take that as a signal of something being out of the normal. It may cause distrust or in the worst case, even fear toward the person we know.
Stage 9 — Depersonalization
The feeling of being detached. Does anything even matter anymore? You’re in a place of total self-loathing and misery. Nothing feels like it makes a difference. You don’t like you add any value nor does anyone else.
Stage 10 — Inner Emptiness
As nothing feels like anything anymore, you often try and find some ways to make yourself feel alive. This can often be seen as substance abuse. The constant need to fuel yourself with something external just to keep you going.
Whatever to make you feel something.
Stage 11 — Depression
Depression is a pretty well-known symptom already, so I don’t feel the need to delve too deep into it. But I think the key thing here is to understand that the 2 are related and not taking care of yourself and overworking will eventually lead to depression.
In a work setting this might manifest itself as not being able to see a way forward when it comes to your work.
Personal note: I’ve always been a very ambitious dreamer. But at some point, I feel like I just lost all my dreams. I remember being able to “see” these visions and future scenarios in my mind and suddenly they were all gone.
The fuel that kept me going had simply run out.
Stage 12 — Burnout Syndrome — Total Collapse
Total loss of capability do virtually anything. You find yourself staring at the walls trying to come up with a reason to get out of bed.
How to identify?
First of all, this is not medical advice. Always go see a professional. I can’t stress this enough. Close google and get an appointment. Give a good middle finger to all the stigma that’s related to mental health and always prioritize your own well-being.
I’ve used this metaphor often: there’s a reason why they tell you to put on the air mask on yourself first in a plane accident. You are no good to anyone if you can’t even help yourself.
Be aware — investigate
Reading about the topic is always good. There is a vast literature nowadays out there. Being aware can help you notice the symptoms earlier.
Also understanding the mechanics of the brain has helped me immensely. Understanding the pattern of how dopamine drives us to do things and after a certain process that dopamine is converted into adrenaline, which keeps us making things and after a while conditions our brain to release these positive chemicals when we know we’re doing things that are good for our health.
Same with understanding things like stress, fear, and anxiety.
Listen to yourself and your instincts
I know it’s a bit of a cliche and it’s really difficult to notice the changes at the moment. But if and when you notice something is wrong. Don’t wait a long time and try to figure out what it is, but rather go find someone who knows about mental health early on.
I already said it once, but here we are again. I can’t stress how important it is to find help in the early stage. Taking a little time off early is so much better than taking years off later. And also, some people might never be able to recuperate if they let it go too far.
Do not gamble with your health.
Make a conscious effort to ask yourself how you’re doing
It’s very easy to forget yourself in the moment. But make a conscious effort to think about how you feel. Maybe put a reminder on your calendar to put aside some time monthly to think about your well-being.
Just literally ask yourself “how do I feel?”.
Taking care of yourself physically and mentally is the best cure. Something I’ve learned over the years is how drastic impact your overall health has on your brain.
Learn to exercise, relax and rest. And do not neglect these over long periods of time, no matter how much pressure you might feel to get something done.
Separate work and free time
A big reason why burnout is becoming more and more common is the fact that the line between work and free time has diminished a lot since the time we went to a farm early in the morning and worked till the evening doing physical labor.
Now we’re constantly being bombarded by information and our brain doesn’t know what to do with it. We have multiple WhatsApp groups, and other messengers. Your work email might be on your personal computer and phone.
You get queries late at night about some work-related thing. Learn to control the flow of information to what’s relevant in the moment. When you’re working, sure, be reachable in whichever channels you need to be. But when you get off work. Make sure you’re not spending your free time worrying about it.
Separate your emails and other messaging. Get a work phone which you can just close in your free time. Keep your work computer and personal one separated. Have a separate office you work in etc.
Our current work culture is so filled with rush. Being busy feels like a status symbol. The busier you are, the more you are worth.
One thing I’ve often said about being busy is: if you’re busy, you’re just not managing your time properly.
Being in a rush or being busy is not good. It’s when your brain is under constant stress to perform something in less time than you needed. That is not when you do your best work, nor is it good for you in any way.
I recently listened to an audiobook by the Finnish ex-special forces operator Harri Gustafsberg. The book had a quote in it that stuck with me.
“When we’re in a hurry, nobody is in a rush”. It’s a bit clunky translation, I know, but the essence of it is that when you’re in a situation where you’re working under time pressure, that’s when you need to take your time and be calm.
Making mistakes is more costly than taking a deep breath and assessing the situation properly before choosing how to act.
It’s also less stressful. Taking a deep breath calms you down. That’s when your brain knows everything is fine and it allocates the resources for you to do what’s necessary instead of focusing all the effort on survival.
A little bit of stress is good. It gets the blood pumping and gives you adrenaline. But it’s important to learn and being able to differentiate when that’s needed in a job surrounding.
If you’re making a presentation, you probably want to feel the adrenaline and just let yourself loose and perform what you know best. But when you’re having a casual meeting with people you’re working with just spitballing new ideas, wouldn’t it be preferable to be relaxed?
When you’re at work you should always feel relaxed. If you’re not, then something is likely wrong and you should see what’s causing it. Maybe your supervisor is giving you pressure to perform better?
Maybe you’re just anxious because you don’t know how well you’re doing. Is someone in your team annoying you? Do you feel like you’re not being compensated enough for the work you’re doing? Do you feel like you’re putting in a disproportionate amount of work compared to everyone else?
All of these are factors that might make your brain think it’s under some sort of threat. You just don’t feel ok, and that’s ok. But try to figure out what’s causing that little feeling of unease before it gets too far.
Give yourself time to rest and recover. Accept that you might need to tone it down a little sometimes and you can’t just go full steam ahead always.