A recent talk with a friend got me thinking about the causes, symptoms, and consequences of burnout: for months, I’ve been noticing her to be melancholic, tired, often negative about the amount of her work, unrealistic deadlines, her colleagues and bosses, and her future at the position and the company. She is overwhelmed with work, with more and more expectations from her boss and herself, to the extent that she works until late at home and spends her free time on research connected to her job, all of it interfering with her relationships. The circle seems closed, as this is her passion and her dream career, but the working conditions, hours, and salary don’t quite hit the healthy work-life balance. Before giving out advice on burnout to her or anyone else experiencing the draining, helpless, self-doubting emotions connected to one’s work, I wanted to research what burnout means, how one can cope and get out of it, and how long it takes to recover from burnout. Here is what I found out.
What Is Burnout?
Over the past few years, burnout has become a buzzword – used to describe everything, from how we feel at the end of a hard work day to how we feel managing the never-ending house chores. With the economic crisis that hit at the end of the 2000s, the term burnout was used to describe the feelings that resulted from growing demands in the workplace, making it harder to distinguish burnout from other mental disorders such as depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, work-related stress, and similar mental conditions.
World Health Organization classifies burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”, “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is characterized by a lack of energy and exhaustion, pessimistic and cynical feelings about one’s job, and reduced efficacy at work. WHO points out that burnout is exclusively connected to the workplace and should not refer to experiences in other areas of life.
According to Mental Health UK, 1 in 5 UK workers cannot manage the stress and pressure at work. According to a Deloitte survey on 1000 US full-time professionals, 77% claim to have experienced burnout in their current jobs, owing to lack of support or recognition from their bosses, unrealistic deadlines, and working long hours and/or on the weekends.
Common Signs of Burnout
Burnout can manifest through emotional and physical symptoms: feeling overwhelmed, helpless, alone, self-doubting, with a cynical or negative outlook and thoughts about the future. In the workplace, this can result in procrastination, loss of motivation, inability to follow deadlines or simply getting things done in a usually realistic timeframe, problems with solving everyday tasks, and irritability towards colleagues or customers. Physical symptoms might include constant tiredness and fatigue, headaches, intestinal issues such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, trouble sleeping, and changes in appetite.
How Long Does Burnout Last?
It depends on the severity of one’s emotional and physical exhaustion and the situation causing burnout, but an average recovery time could last from a few months to a few years. What can help in a faster recovery is acknowledging a problem and deciding to resolve it, and a support system such as family, friends, financial stability, etc.
12 Stages of Burnout
Burnout was first described by psychologist and psychotherapist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974, who described being burned out as “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources” in the workplace. According to Freudenberger, personality factors can predispose a person to be susceptible to burnout, “the dedicated and committed” being the ones most likely to burn out. Additionally, for him, burnout was more likely to occur in positions requiring emotional work, empathy, and personal involvement, such as in the healthcare sector, social work, or education.
Freudenberger described 12 stages of burnout:
Stage 1. The compulsion to prove oneself: at this stage, the thought of being unable to complete all tasks is challenging, and one tries to perform all the tasks perfectly.
Stage 2. Working harder: perfectionism from the first stage intensifies as the person affected tries to do everything independently and as fast as possible.
Stage 3. Neglecting one’s needs: sufferers start describing themselves as “workaholics” as if working overtime was something positive. They neglect their health through, for example, lack of sleep and start making uncharacteristic mistakes at work.
Stage 4. Displacement of conflicts and needs: in this stage, insomnia or psychosomatic symptoms may occur, as well as conflicts (with a partner or a family member). The mistakes at work continue and become more frequent, like running late or forgetting appointments.
Stage 5. Revision of values: family, friends, hobbies, and personal time become inferior to work.
Stage 6. Denial of emerging problems: in this stage, a person becomes more isolated, cynical, and aggressive in tone, physical symptoms become more intense, and performance at work keeps declining.
Stage 7. Withdrawal: sufferers dismiss any criticism and feel hopeless, disoriented, and exhausted. In the workplace, they manage to perform only the necessary tasks.
Stage 8. Odd behavioral changes: sufferers become indifferent and, at the same time, very sensitive and suspicious in contact with others, perceiving everything as an attack. The job now feels like a burden.
Stage 9. Depersonalization: a person no longer feels like oneself; life seems meaningless, and they feel they only have to function. One may even start neglecting personal hygiene.
Stage 10. Inner emptiness: one starts to feel empty and anxious and may experience panic attacks.
Stage 11. Depression: a sufferer becomes self-loathing, disheartened, and completely drained. At this stage, suicidal thoughts may appear.
Stage 12. Complete burnout: in the final stage, a sufferer experiences a mental breakdown accompanied by physical illness. One needs to seek professional help immediately.
Recovering From Burnout
1. Admit you have a problem. Burnout recovery starts with acknowledging you’re burned out and thinking about why you feel burned out: is it the amount of work unmanageable for one person, are your boss and your colleagues unsupportive, do you have to work overtime at home, with no time for yourself, do you lack resources for work? Do you need a short (or a long) break? Is it possible?
2. Make time for your health by trying to set boundaries. Your body and mind need rest for normal functioning, and working to the extent of physical and emotional exhaustion won’t bring better results at work (they can, however, eventually lead to poor performance at work). If you’re not getting enough sleep, don’t nourish your body, and don’t exercise, it will take a toll on your body. Set aside time for rest and hobbies: going to sleep at a regular time, a 20-minute walk, preparing yourself a light dinner, watching your favorite movie, meditating, listening to a playlist that makes you feel good, or reading a book for even half an hour can positively influence your mental health.
3. For once, try distancing yourself from the stressor. If you haven’t reached the stage of complete burnout where you need to seek medical help, taking a day or a week for yourself might be a good start to recovery. In some cases, distancing yourself might mean taking a leave of absence from work or even considering changing your job.
4. Seek help. Turning to other people- such as family, friends, colleagues, or professionals for support might be tremendously helpful in healing from burnout. Helping can come in various forms, from simply listening to you to lending a hand with some of your responsibilities. If you don’t receive support from your family, friends, or colleagues, inform a therapist about it. There is also a possibility of joining a support group.
5. Be compassionate to yourself. Being compassionate doesn’t only refer to your relationship with other people but extends to your relationship with yourself as well. Admitting that it’s okay not being able to cope with extreme amounts of work during an extended period, stepping back to see if there’s a way to solve the problem, improve your situation, or change your attitude towards it is an essential step in burnout recovery. Setting boundaries for yourself and others is also important to maintain a healthy life-work balance. Many people find it hard not to fulfill other people’s expectations, especially at work. At this point, remember that saying yes to your team at work sometimes means depleting someone else’s time and attention (such as family or friends).
6. Don’t ever hesitate to seek medical help. If you find it hard to handle the situation by yourself, or even with the support of your close ones, turning to a professional is the best thing to do. They are trained to treat and help in specific situations, even when you feel that not much can be done in terms of circumstances you find yourself in. A professional can offer methods and strategies to cope with stress, set boundaries, and restore your life-work balance.