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12 Stages of Burnout

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Clinically Reviewed by:
Lindsey Rae Ackerman, LMFT

Written by:
Alex Salman, MPH on April 26, 2024

Many people think that burnout syndrome begins toward the end of their careers. However, this is not always the case. Burnout can happen at any stage of a career and it can happen to anyone who doesn’t take adequate measures to protect their mental well-being.

It’s important to recognize the 12 stages of burnout and potential warning signs to avoid reaching a point of complete exhaustion and breakdown. These 12 steps below highlight how burnout syndrome might affect workers and what you can do to seek help.

1. The Need to Prove Oneself

The compulsion to prove oneself is probably one of the first stages of burnout. If you have traits such as:

  • Self-doubt
  • Perfectionism
  • Negative self-talk

Sadly, many people with traits of neuroticism don’t realize they are at higher risk of experiencing burnout. It’s important to be aware of your situation and start taking steps to protect yourself from potential burnout.

Individuals in this stage may be driven to prove their worth, often by taking on too many tasks and sacrificing personal time for career advancement. For instance, some may take on extra work or overtime to demonstrate their commitment and loyalty to the company.

The compulsion to prove oneself is a common affliction, but take note of it. If you feel like you are constantly trying to prove yourself, you may be at risk for burnout.

2. Becoming a Workaholic

Many people think “workaholic” is a funny moniker and not a real mental health issue. On the contrary, workaholism is very real, and it can be a serious issue. This is why the second stage of burnout syndrome is becoming a workaholic.

At this point, an individual’s workload may become unmanageable and the person feels compelled to continue working despite fatigue, physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion, and even total mental or physical collapse. They may even experience guilt when taking time off or engaging in leisure activities, feeling as if they should be working instead.

It’s important to understand that toxic productivity can be detrimental and take a toll on your mental and physical health. Therefore, it’s essential to recognize the signs of workaholism and learn how to effectively manage stress and your workload.

3. Neglecting Self-Care and Own Needs

The third stage of burnout syndrome is neglecting self-care and personal needs. This happens when a person has become so overwhelmed that they make little to no effort to take care of themselves or their basic needs.

At this stage, an individual may have become so obsessed with work that they don’t have time for their own needs or own health. When a person can only focus on work and is not spending time on other non-work-related activities, they are exhibiting one of the key stages of burnout.

Neglecting your own needs can be dangerous. For instance, working long hours might lead to various dangerous health conditions such as:

  • Increased risk for heart disease
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Chronic-stress related diseases
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia
  • Physical collapse

If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, you may need medical attention. It’s important to make time for yourself and prioritize self-care. This includes creating a work life balance, having plenty of social interaction, time for leisure activities, and healthy meals. While neglecting your own needs is only the third stage of burnout, it is one of the most serious.

Related: Why Self-Care is Essential for Mental Health

4. Conflicts With Others

Also known as displacement of conflict, this stage of the burnout process involves the gradual process of becoming increasingly intolerant of others and even beginning to feel threatened by others. At this stage, individuals will start to become irritable and display signs of stress such as jittery and anxious behavior.

Engaging in conflicts with others is often the result of feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope. As such, individuals may become defensive as a form of self-preservation. Social interaction may become difficult and a person’s social life may also begin to suffer during this stage.

It can be difficult for people in this stage to recognize that their conflicts with others actually stem from stress at work. For instance, while someone might feel jittery and anxious, they might write this off as a problem with someone else or a particular situation instead of leftover stress from work.

It’s important to recognize the signs of burnout in yourself and your peers, as this can help preserve your personal like and prevent conflicts or misunderstandings.

5. Reevaluating Your Values

While having a career that makes you happy and gives you pride is important, it’s also essential to be mindful of your values and beliefs. The fourth stage of burnout is re-evaluating these values and beliefs to see if they still fit with your current career path.

At this stage, individuals may start to question their purpose or the direction of their family, friends, and other areas of their life. They might then start to question how these values coincide with work. In essence, work becomes their life.

Examples of reevaluating your values include:

  • Putting your family on the back burner to focus on work
  • Making career decisions that override your personal values and beliefs
  • Focusing on short-term gains over long-term effects

It’s important to evaluate your values and make sure they still fit with your life and career. Taking some time to reflect can help you stay on track and make sure your work aligns with your values.

6. Denial of Emerging Problems

This stage is similar to the displacement of conflicts stage, but people in this stage will begin to display signs of intolerance, aggression, and hostility at work or in professional life. You might think your work colleagues are incompetent or totally unaware of the situation. This is one of the most damaging stages of burnout.

At this stage, individuals will deny the emerging problems and may even lash out at their colleagues or supervisors. They might also feel like time is limited and the mounting pressure is due to a lack of time to complete both work and daily life. A person in this stage may begin dreading social interaction. Cynicism and dwindling social attractions are also common at this stage.

7. Withdrawal

During this stage of the burnout process, people might begin to withdraw from friends and family in an effort to escape the stress of work. For instance, instead of going out with friends, they might choose to stay home or not respond to their colleagues’ messages. They may feel relief as they cancel plans, ignore texts, and avoid social contact.

It’s important to remember that social interactions play a key role in maintaining emotional and mental wellness. Without these interactions, individuals are more likely to feel isolated and depressed which can further exacerbate feelings of burnout.

In addition, studies have shown that stress and isolation can also lead to a higher risk of alcohol and substance abuse. People might turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with their feelings of burnout. Therefore, it’s important to maintain connections with friends and family in order to stay emotionally healthy. If you start to notice signs of increasing isolation or even substance abuse, it’s also vital to get help as soon as possible to avoid burnout.

Related: How to Overcome Social Isolation

8. Odd Behavioral Changes

During this stage, friends and family might begin to notice changes in their loved one’s behavior. Behavioral changes can be extremely alarming. Behavioral changes can include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Oversleeping or insomnia
  • Withdrawal from social activities
  • Decreased interest in hobbies
  • Acting out of character

If you or someone you know is exhibiting any of these symptoms, it’s important to seek professional help. Mental health professionals can provide support and resources to help individuals manage their feelings of burnout.

9. Depersonalization

Depersonalization and detachment are often signs of severe anxiety, with individuals feeling removed from their own emotions and thoughts. People may also feel like they are living in an alternate reality, where the world is no longer familiar.

When related to work burnout, people suffering from depersonalization might feel as if they are no longer valuable. They might not see either themselves or others as having any value, leading to negative self-thinking. Depersonalization often stems from feelings of helplessness, guilt, and shame. People might also stop recognizing their own needs as well.

10. Feeling Inner Emptiness

When someone feels inner emptiness, this is often a sign of severe burnout. Those suffering from inner emptiness might feel as if they are an empty shell and no longer have any emotion or purpose in life. Many in this stage might seek other forms of fulfillment since work is no longer satisfying. Such forms of unhealthy coping mechanisms might include risky sex, binge eating, or alcohol and drug abuse.

Related: Are There Different Types of Addiction?

11. Depression

Similar to a feeling of inner emptiness, depression is another common sign of burnout. People in this stage might have difficulty getting out of bed or engaging in activities they once enjoyed. They might also have difficulty concentrating or making decisions. If any of these symptoms are apparent, it’s important to seek professional help from a mental health professional.

If the future feels bleak to you and you’re feeling lost like you’re unsure of where your career is going, this could be a sign of depression and burnout rather than a sign of needing to change professions. Seeking advice from a qualified career coach or therapist can help you explore your options and find the most satisfying career path for you, while also helping treat your depression.

12. Full-Blown Burnout Syndrome

The last stage of burnout has serious consequences, as it can lead to mental or physical collapse. At this point, the person is likely to experience physical exhaustion, mental confusion, and emotional numbness. It’s also common for individuals in this stage to develop various physical illnesses such as cardiac arrhythmia or have their physical ailments exacerbated.

People who have reached full-blown burnout may need to take a break from work and focus on self-care in order to recover. Professional help from a doctor and mental health professionals might be necessary to prevent further damage. Medical attention might also be required for more serious issues of burnout, and burnout therapy is always an option.

Recovery Is Possible

Fortunately, for many, burnout can be managed and even reversed with the proper treatment. Taking time off from work, engaging in self-care activities, and seeking professional help can be a great way to begin on the road toward defining your life without the need for toxic productivity. At Clear Behavioral Health, our virtual mental health program offers a structured and supported environment for clients dealing with burnout. We also offer residential mental health treatment for more serious mental health challenges as well as outpatient mental health programs to provide treatment options that best suit every individual’s unique needs. Our staff of experienced clinicians provides compassionate, evidence-based care to help individuals find the path to mental wellbeing and feel relief. Contact us today for more information.

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