12 Stages of Burnout and How to Avoid It

women at work talking to counselor

Adobe Stock / Monkey Business

AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis4.87k
Journalist & travel blogger

Is burnout the same as depression? The answer is no; burnout and depression are not synonymous. But burnout can certainly lead to depression, and that's why you have to be careful of it.

Burnout is a relatively new word that was first coined in 1974. In his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement, Herbert Freudenberger, originally defined burnout as: “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results."
Burnout is, in short, your reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress. It's characterized by three main factors: exhaustion, cynicism (which refers to less identification with the job), as well as feelings of lessened professional ability. You don't feel like you can do your job to your best ability anymore, nor do you necessarily feel like it even if you could, because you're so burned out.

But how are you supposed to know if you're burning yourself out before it's too late and you've, in fact, hit rock bottom? Often, we don't know we're burned out until we've already gotten there ourselves. Fortunately for you, science has determined 12 stages of burnout, so you can identify them — and, as such, halt the downward spiral in its tracks.

What are the signs of burnout?

There are 12 stages of burnout, according to research published in a Scientific American article. The 12-stage model to follow was developed by psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North.

1. You feel the compulsion to prove yourself.

You feel it's necessary to obsessively demonstrate your worth. You're always wanting to prove yourself and your skills to your colleagues, employers and even to yourself. In other words, you never feel good enough and always feel like you can be doing more and better and faster.

2. You find yourself working harder with an inability to switch off.

You find yourself working late nights and early mornings all the time. You're not working a lot because it's the holiday season or because you took a vacation and now need to catch up. You're just always in a permanent work mode, and you have trouble switching off. 

3. You're suddenly neglecting your own needs.

All of a sudden, you realize that you've been neglecting your own needs. You've said goodbye to caring for or about yourself, so you stop sleeping enough, you don't eat healthily, you lack social interaction and more. Forget about doing things for yourself like journaling, taking baths, spending time with your loved ones (or with yourself!), reading or relaxing.

4. You start displacing conflicts.

You start dismissing your problems because you can no longer face confrontation. Simply, it makes you feel threatened and panicky. So, instead of dealing with things, you pretend like your conflicts don't exist.

5. You find yourself revisioning your values.

You realize that you've strayed from your value so, instead of getting back on track, you try to revision your values instead. While friends and family were once equally important to you, as well as your hobbies, work is now your only focus.

6. Suddenly, you're in denial of emerging problems.

Again, like displacing your present problems, you neglect to acknowledge your impending problems. You become aggressive and cynical, and you deny the real reasons why you're that way, instead blaming it on work pressure.

7. You start experiencing withdrawal.

You don't partake in your social life anymore; it's become rather small or, worse, nonexistent.

8. You witness odd behavioral changes within yourself.

You even start noticing obvious changes in your own behavior, to the point that your friends and family are growing increasingly concerned. You're likely to deny these changes when speaking with your concerned loved ones, but you know the truth deep down.

9. Depersonalization hits you hard.

You start seeing neither yourself nor others as valuable. You start to feel worthless — and like all of your efforts, all of this hard work you're putting in, are worthless in the grand scheme of things.

10. You start to feel an inner emptiness out of nowhere.

Beyond depersonalization, you start feeling empty on the inside. To overcome this, you look towards potentially toxic activities to fulfill you, such as overeating, sex, alcohol or drugs. You start indulging in activities like these regularly.

11. You start to experience depression.

Depression hits you like a brick wall. You begin feeling lost and unsure. You're exhausted all the time. Your future feels bleak and dark. You feel hopeless and stop caring about the things in life about which you normally care so much.

12. Finally, you've gone all the way, and you officially have burnout syndrome.

At last, you have a total mental and physical break. You need full medical attention because you've officially burned yourself out.

How do you deal with burn out?

If you're experiencing burn out, you're not alone. In fact, according to a Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees,  23 percent reported feeling burned out at work "very often" or "always," while another 44 percent reported feeling burned out "sometimes."
Not everyone who experiences burn out goes through the full 12 stages of it and ends up having to seek medical attention. If you catch the feeling of burning out early, you can do your best to prevent it. Here's how to stop yourself from burning out.

1. Take time for yourself.

Take time for yourself, as work-life balance is key. While taking time away from work might actually stress you out more in the moment, it can actually massively help you in the long run. And there are several self-care activities in which you can indulge that neither cost a lot of money nor take a lot of time. Sometimes, all you have to do is dedicate a few hours each day to working out, eating right, journaling, meditating, going for walks, reading or relaxing in another way. Unwinding will you help you to come back to work recharged and ready to tackle the day ahead.

2. Remember (and reiterate) your values.

If you feel like you're losing sight of your values, write them down somewhere that you can see them every single morning — on your fridge, on a note by your bedside table, on your desk bulletin board. Always remember what's been unwaveringly important to you thus far, and remember that this probably isn't going to change because, well, they haven't your whole life. Of course, it's fine if your values change over time, but don't let them change because of external circumstances, not because you decided to change them. If your friends and family have been constants in your life, make sure it stays that way. Put your values down on paper and revisit them whenever you feel like you're forgetting what's important to you.

3. Set short-term and long-term goals

Instead of feeling like you have to achieve one major long-term goal, set shorter-term goals for yourself. This way, you can keep yourself motivated by checking off mini goals along the way. This is helpful, too, in feeling like you're actually making progress and working toward that long-term goal. Otherwise, you may start feeling like your efforts are getting you nowhere or that you're moving too slowly or that you're not enough and so on. And these are all cynical feelings that are a surefire way to lead you to feeling totally burned out.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.