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The 12 stages of workplace burnout

How to define and understand employee burnout

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How to define workplace burnoutBurnout and chronic workplace stressThe 12 stages of workplace burnout

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  • Burnout is an emotional exhaustion caused by chronic stress in the workplace — it's about our psychological relationship with work, including how much control we feel we have, whether we feel like we're progressing, or whether we feel recognised and cared for.
  • Herbert Freudenberger coined the term 'burnout' in the 1970s and outlined 12 stages of burnout that people go through if it's not addressed, resulting in a physical and mental breaking point.
  • It's important to catch workplace burnout at an early stage and take steps to manage stress before it progresses.
  • To catch the signs of employee burnout early, employers should look for signs of disengagement among their team, pay attention to changes in behaviour, have regular check-ins, and any signs are spotted, address the issue quickly.

Dozens and dozens of people slumped over their keyboards are writing to a Spill therapist about burnout at work each month. Not breezily (as they might joke about it on their eighth Zoom call of the day) but in earnest, sounding — heartbreakingly — like they can't go on anymore.

But they do go on. They keep showing up. They drag themselves to their showers, log onto their Zoom calls, and they do what they do slower and with less care, snapping at colleagues and testing their bosses' nerves with relentless negativity. And it’s not something that only affects a few people: a mental health survey by Spill and CharlieHR found that 79% of U.K. employees felt close to burning out in the last year. What’s going on here?

What is workplace burnout?

Let’s start by defining what employee burnout is (and isn’t). Our definition of workplace burnout is taken from the latest version of the International Classification of Diseases, which is the World Health Organisation’s glossary of every physical and psychological ailment out there:

💡 “Burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

There are three parts of this definition that are worth exploring further: ‘syndrome’, ‘chronic workplace stress’ and ‘not successfully managed’. Firstly, it’s worth noting the fact that burnout is defined as a syndrome — a new definition in the latest version of the ICD — but is still specifically “not classified as a medical condition”, to use the WHO’s own words. A syndrome differs from a disease or a disorder (the two primary types of medical condition) in the following ways:

  • A syndrome is a collection of symptoms that may or may not be linked to a specific cause. Fever is a syndrome, for example: it's comprised of sweating, a high body temperature, feeling tired, and aching limbs — but it could have many different causes.
  • A disease is a collection of unique symptoms that we know the specific health-related cause of: "mechanism A causes symptoms B". In Parkinson's disease, for example, losing more neurons than usual in deep parts of the brain causes a set of symptoms including tremors and rigidity. With diseases, there's a clear process of diagnosis and treatment. Dementia is another example of a disease: clear symptoms that can be tested for, and a clear understanding of the causes behind it.
  • A disorder is a disturbance in the regular functioning (or 'order') of bodily or mental processes, which sometimes occur as a result of diseases. Arrhythmia, for example, is a disruption to the heartbeat's normal pattern: it often occurs as a result of having cardiovascular disease, but it's not a disease itself as it doesn't always have the same symptoms and a set treatment process. Clinical depression is classified as a disorder.

Why is workplace burnout not an official medical condition?

This could change in the future, but at the moment it’s hard to classify it as one when it doesn’t seem to have specific health-related causes and instead seems to depend purely on what a person is going through. (For example, clinical depressive disorder is characterised as a medical condition, as its causes span everything from personality traits to family history to post-pregnancy to stressful life events to an underactive thyroid.) To dive into more detail on what’s driving it, read about the 6 leading causes of burnout.

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Chronic workplace stress vs burnout

There’s a reason we keep describing it here as workplace burnout: because it has to stem from work. As the WHO says, “burnout refers specifically to the phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life”. This means that an employee can’t burn out from having a newborn, or running a marathon, or being in a stressful relationship. Those things can exacerbate burnout, or make it more likely to turn into something else, but they can’t be its specific cause. Burnout is fundamentally about work. 

The third takeout from the definition is that burnout is about workplace stress that “has not been successfully managed”. This is a really interesting distinction: burnout seems to be more about how we interpret, subjectively experience and manage work stress rather than the objective amount we go through. It’s about our psychological relationship with work — how much control we feel like we have, whether we feel like we’re progressing, whether we feel recognised and cared for — as much as it’s about our actual workload. In fact, one reasonable hypothesis — that employee burnout is more common in the modern world because people work longer hours — is not only untrue, but seems to be inverted: burnout is more common in the modern world despite the fact that we work, on average, far fewer hours per week than people did a hundred years ago.

A graph showing that in the last 100 years, the number of hours a person works each week has almost halved
The average number of hours a person works each week has dropped in the last 100 years (source: Our World in Data)

If we have a strong and healthy relationship with our work, on the other hand, we’re actually capable of withstanding pretty severe stressors — ambitious deadlines, angry stakeholders, projects with a low chance of success — without risking the deterioration of our mental health. Burnout is about our psychological relationship with work, and how we psychologically manage the obstacles that come our way.

Give your employees have access to qualified therapists to help them overcome burnout, or anything else affecting their mental health.

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The 12 stages of workplace burnout

Now that we’ve defined what employee burnout is, we need to understand what it feels like. Workplace burnout typically progresses through several stages. While the specific symptoms and experiences may vary from person to person, Herbert Freudenberger (the psychologist who coined the term in the 1970s) outlined twelve stages of burnout that people often go through if it’s not addressed.

1. You feel there is a strong need to prove yourself

This is all about excessive drive or ambition, having expectations that are unrealistically high, or feeling like an impostor.

2. You push yourself to work harder and harder

In order to try and meet these high expectations and prove yourself, you keep working more.

3. You begin to neglect your own needs more

Basic needs like sleep, exercise, nutrition and social relationships all get cast aside as work takes over.

4. You are conflicted and blame others or the situation

You feel panicky and jittery; stress levels are blamed on colleagues, bosses, the expectations of the industry…

5. You change your values to focus on work more

Like a gambler upping their stake, you double down by making work even more core to your identity.

6. You deny the problems that come up due to work stress

You avoid taking responsibility, which would be emotionally painful, and so choose to say that nothing’s wrong.

7. You withdraw from your family and friends

You start to avoid or dread social interaction; you stop responding to messages; you become less present and less involved.

8. Your behaviour changes, which upsets your family and friends

Maybe you snap more, maybe you withdraw and sulk, or maybe you are prone to deep bouts of sadness.

9. You stop feeling like yourself

This is called ‘depersonalisation’ and is a commonly experienced part of severe burnout, where you find it hard to relate to people.

10. You feel empty and numb

Your self-worth drops and you feel like you aren’t being useful, leading to more withdrawal and perhaps unhealthy coping mechanisms.

11. You feel depressed

You feel incredibly tired even when doing simple tasks, the future starts to feel bleak and dark.

12. You reach mental and physical breaking point

Perhaps you are unable to keep working or feel like you’re going to collapse. 

How to catch burnout at an early stage

It's important to recognise the signs of workplace burnout and take steps to manage stress before it progresses to a more severe stage. What should employers realistically aim to do, therefore, to help prevent and manage employee burnout? Here are some strategies you can use to catch signs of employee burnout early:

  1. Look for signs of disengagement: Employees who are burned out may struggle to engage fully with their work. They may seem uninterested or show a lack of enthusiasm, start missing deadlines, and their productivity and motivation may decrease.
  2. Pay attention to changes in behaviour: Even subtle changes in behaviour could indicate that someone is struggling. If an employee who is always on time suddenly starts coming in late or taking long breaks, it could be a sign that something's not quite right. Likewise if someone who is normally outgoing and sociable becomes withdrawn or unusually quiet, it could be a red flag.
  3. Have regular check-ins: Regular check-ins with your team can help you to identify signs of burnout early. Ask them on a weekly basis if possible how they're feeling about their workload, if they're feeling stressed or frustrated by anything, and if they need any extra support or guidance.
  4. Address the issue quickly: If you notice any signs that might indicate burnout, have a conversation with the employee as soon as possible to offer support and resources, and work together to create a plan to address the issue.

The easiest way to keep an eye on your whole team's wellbeing and ensure that no-one slips through the cracks, is to have an automated mental health support system in place to catch signs of employee burnout as soon as they happen (like Spill's safety net tool) — at stage 4 rather than stage 11, for example — and a recovery plan to help employees break out of the cycle altogether. Or better yet, a workplace counselling solution to take care of burnout recovery for your team altogether.

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Download our burnout causes questionnaire

Use our free burnout questionnaire to narrow down the biggest risks for burnout in your team, and frame a discussion with your employees.

Use Spill's spot-and-treat system to proactively measure your team's mood and act on early signs of burnout.

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