Burnout syndrome is more common than you think

24 July 2016

The first photo is me in early December 2014; the second, end of January 2015. Granted, the second photo was taken professionally, but I remember the week the one on the left was taken. I was at my absolute lowest. Even my morning showers exhausted me—I literally feared I was going to die!

So, how did I bounce back from burnout? Let’s first dive into what burnout syndrome actually is.

What is burnout syndrome?

The term “burnout syndrome” was coined in the early 1970s by psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenberger. He defined the syndrome as a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.”[1]

Freudenberger observed that people suffering from burnout presented with the following common symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Frustration
  • Depression
  • Mood fluctuations
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating

In addition to these mental symptoms, he also observed physical ailments such as backaches and digestive disorders.[1]

Twelve phases of burnout

Burnout syndrome does not develop overnight, but instead, gradually over time. Freudenberger and his colleague Gail North split burnout into 12 phases. According to Freudenberger and North, these phases are not necessarily experienced in order. In addition, sufferers of burnout may not experience each phase: many skip certain phases; others find themselves in several at the same time. Furthermore, the time spent in each phase varies from person to person. The 12 phases are as follows:[1]

Phase 1: A compulsion to prove oneself

  • Excessive ambition
  • Grim determination and compulsion
  • Deep need to prove to colleagues (and oneself) that they are doing excellent work

Phase 2: Working harder

  • High personal expectations
  • Takes on more work
  • Obsessed with handling everything oneself
  • Notions of irreplaceability

Phase 3: Neglecting one’s needs

  • No time for play or socialising
  • Places less importance on sleeping, eating, and seeing friends and family
  • Justifies these sacrifices as proof of heroic performance

Phase 4: Displacement of conflicts

  • Knows something is not right but cannot see the sources of their problems
  • To deal with the root causes of their distress is seen as threatening
  • Often the first physical symptoms appear during this phase

Phase 5: Revision of values

  • Perceptions change due to isolation, conflict avoidance, and denial of basic physical needs
  • Friends or hobbies are dismissed
  • The job is their only measure of self-worth
  • Becomes increasingly emotionally blunted

Phase 6: Denial of emerging problems

  • Develops an intolerance for certain people and situations
  • Perceives colleagues as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined
  • Social situations feel almost unbearable
  • Becomes cynical and aggressive
  • Views their problems as caused by time pressure and their workload

Phase 7: Withdrawal

  • Social isolation
  • Feels a sense of hopelessness or lack direction
  • Works obsessively “by the book”
  • May seek release through drugs or alcohol

Phase 8: Obvious behavioural changes

  • Their behavioural changes become obvious to friends and family
  • Becomes fearful, shy, and apathetic
  • Feels increasingly worthless

Phase 9: Depersonalisation

  • Loses contact with themselves
  • Sees neither oneself nor others as valuable
  • No longer perceives their own needs
  • Life becomes a series of mechanical functions

Phase 10: Inner emptiness

  • To overcome the feeling of inner emptiness, they desperately seek activity
  • Exaggerated sexuality, overeating, and drug or alcohol use emerge
  • Views leisure time as dead time

Phase 11: Depression

  • Any of the symptoms of depression, from agitation to apathy, may manifest
  • Indifference, hopelessness, exhaustion
  • Believes the future holds nothing for them
  • Life loses meaning

Phase 12: Burnout syndrome

  • Many have suicidal thoughts to escape their situation
  • Suffers total mental and physical collapse

My personal experience with the phases of burnout

It was only recently I came across these 12 phases of burnout. It was then I realised I had been in a number of them for much of my career.

My desire to prove myself was a definite compulsion from the start (phase 1). I had high personal expectations and pushed myself hard for fear of doing a less-than-excellent job (phase 2). Consequently, I suffered tremendous anxiety. I was constantly worried that my boss or workmates would find fault with my work.

As time went on, while devoting all my energy to my job, I had no energy for friends and hobbies (phase 5). I also stopped socialising with my workmates after work (phase 7).

I became extremely intolerant (phase 6) and would on occasion get so upset with certain workmates that I would have to escape to the ladies’ room to have a cry. In my least proud moment—one of sheer frustration—I actually hit a male colleague on the leg!

My physical health eventually began to suffer (phase 4). I had always struggled with fatigue, but this had worsened. Digestive problems emerged, becoming so bad that I was forced to take time off. This of course increased my anxiety even more. I felt I was irreplaceable (phase 2) and that if I missed even one day of work I was letting the team down. As a result, I would return too soon, and yes, it wasn’t long before I fell sick again.

Exhaustion (phase 11) set in, and I felt less than productive. I was foggy in the head, which lead to feelings of worthlessness (phase 8) and hopelessness (phase 11). I felt empty inside. No longer feeling I had value, I suffered bouts of depression.

When I was at my lowest, the fear of complete collapse (phase 12)—and possible death!—was very real.

Out the other side

Unfortunately, changing jobs doesn’t necessarily mean your body will bounce back. When I left my full-time job in the IT industry in 2010, I thought my health would improve. I was, however, so run down that it was years before I recovered.

How did I eventually do it? In 2015, discovered what my body needed. By making changes to my nutrition and lifestyle, I was able to take control of my health. Almost immediately, my energy levels improved, I regained mental clarity, and my anxiety disappeared.

Does any of the above sound like you?

UPDATE AUGUST 2023: In 2018, due to my changing hormones with the approach of menopause, my anxiety attacks returned. I have been on the carnivore diet now since 1 October 2019 and have not had severe anxiety or a panic attack since!

 

Reference

  1. Kraft U. Burned out. Scientific American Mind. June/July 2006:28–33.

 

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About Tira

Tira Cole is a nutritionist, researcher and educator. Her passion is meat-based nutrition and support of farming.

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