5 Burnout Symptoms That Sneak Up on You Over Time

Are you suffering from the early symptoms of job burnout without realizing it? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

New psychological research sheds light on the 12 stages of burnout—and I’ll recommend 5 of the sneakiest symptoms to watch out for.

Burnout Symptoms: The Path to Job Burnout Syndrome

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated with the latest research and information.

Western culture, especially American culture, honors the burnout lifestyle. Burnouts are rewarded for staying late, putting in extra hours, and sleeping at the office. No project is too stupid or ineffective or pointless for the wannabe burnout.

Burnouts will throw good hours after bad to prove they will do anything for the corporate paycheck.

Salary slavery encourages work for work’s sake. After all, if the company does not have to pay you overtime, there is every incentive for your manager or your boss to ask more and more of you. They know that you can’t fit everything into a forty hour work week, so you have to work more during your off-hours. The only upper limit to salary slavery is the point where you fall over from exhaustion.

You are not a burnout. You value your time because you know it is the most important nonrenewable resource you have. Your time is worth something to you. You will not willingly go down the road of burnout syndrome.

The 12 Stages of Burnout

For three years, Charlie Hoehn worked as special projects director for Tim Ferriss (the mind behind The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body, among other things). To support Ferriss’s many projects, Hoehn became a fantastic juggler of priorities and an expert in complex operations—all things high achievers like us can understand and appreciate.

But it wasn’t until the making and launch of Tim Ferriss’s latest tome, The 4-Hour Chef, that Hoehn finally cracked.

In his own words:

I was addicted to my work. You see, I liked to think of myself as busy and important, so I tethered myself to the Internet seven days a week. I communicated with everyone through screens. I spent all day long sitting indoors. I drank coffee all week, and drank alcohol all weekend. I only stopped working when I was sleeping. And then I stopped sleeping.

I just couldn’t stop myself from working all the time. I wanted to be indispensable, the best in the world at running operations. It didn’t matter what else was going on in my life or if I started feeling sick; work was everything to me. Practically everyone I met in the tech scene behaved the same way.

Hoehn’s account of his brush with burnout syndrome is harrowing and worth reading in full on Tim Ferriss’s website. By his own account, Hoehn was clearly experiencing the first stages of burnout.

According to the productivity blog 99u Workbook, psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North have divided the process of job burnout into 12 distinct phases. As outlined in Scientific American, the twelve stages are:

  1. The Compulsion to Prove Oneself; demonstrating worth obsessively; tends to hit the best employees, those with enthusiasm who accept responsibility readily.
  2. Working Harder; an inability to switch off.
  3. Neglecting Their Needs; erratic sleeping, eating disrupted, lack of social interaction.
  4. Displacement of Conflicts; problems are dismissed, we may feel threatened, panicky and jittery.
  5. Revision of Values; values are skewed, friends and family dismissed, hobbies seen as irrelevant, work is only focus.
  6. Denial of Emerging Problems; intolerance, perceiving collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined, social contacts harder; cynicism, aggression; problems are viewed as caused by time pressure and work, not because of life changes.
  7. Withdrawal; social life small or non-existent, need to feel relief from stress, alcohol/drugs.
  8. Odd Behavioural Changes; changes in behaviour obvious, friends and family concerned.
  9. Depersonalization; seeing neither self nor others as valuable, and no longer perceive own needs.
  10. Inner Emptiness; feeling empty inside and to overcome this, look for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs; activities are often exaggerated.
  11. Depression; feeling lost and unsure, exhausted, future feels bleak and dark.
  12. Burnout Syndrome; can include total mental and physical collapse; time for full medical attention.

Each of these stages probably deserves its own article. But I want to draw your attention to three overarching sequences in the twelve stages of burnout.

  • Skewed priorities. I’d say phases 1 through 5 are all about misplaced priorities. Work becomes more important than your physical and mental health. The priorities of your employer, the urge to use and abuse you as a salary slave, quite ironically become your priorities too.
  • Anti-social behavior. The number 6 through 8 stages are characterized by increasing anti-social tendencies. Acting belligerent with family and friends (at least the ones who don’t deserve it) and coworkers. This sequence emerges from the combination of exhaustion and physical deprivation the pre-burnout experiences in the first stages.
  • Serious mental distress. Loss of personal integrity wears harder on us than we expect. After selling away your values in step one and antagonizing everyone who could possibly help you in step two, the last step (stages 9-12) are about complete personality collapse. This is burnout at its most serious.

I think many of us have found ourselves in the first sequence of the burnout process, and some unlucky ones have even made it to the second sequence. But thankfully, most of us recognize the symptoms before making it all the way to the end of the twelve stages of burnout.

Remember that you can always opt out. Each stage mentioned above implicates the person who is experiencing burnout. Charlie Hoehn understood this implicitly, but still couldn’t stop himself from burning out.

Burnout isn’t something that just happens to you—it’s a process that you participate in. Click to tweet

Remembering that can be the difference between getting your life back on track and ending up in the emergency room.

The 5 Burnout Symptoms to Watch Out For in Yourself

The moment you start to see these burnout symptoms in your life, that’s the signal to stop what you’re doing, reflect, and pivot.

1. Burnouts lose effectiveness. Burnouts throw man-hours at a problem, not their brains or creativity. Burnouts spend forty-five minutes chasing down a problem that could be resolved with a five minute phone call. Burnouts know they are not being compensated for their ingenuity. They are being compensated for brute force. Burnouts know they have to be in the office ten hours a day, every day, so there is no incentive to work smarter. Burnouts can’t leave early anyway.

2. Burnouts create problems for others. Burnouts run on adrenaline, like a junkie. In order to sustain the rush of endorphins, they must create eleventh hour problems. Constantly. Burnouts are an anxious group and they will create multiple crises because they failed to think through what they are actually doing.

3. Burnouts make others feel bad for not being burnouts like them. Anyone who actually works the hours they were hired to work are made to feel lazy or inadequate by the burnout crowd. Inevitably, the burnout culture affects everyone in the office. Failing health, well-being, mood, and morale quickly follow.

4. Burnouts are constantly tired. This affects morale but it also affects decision-making. Guess what, you can’t make good decisions after eight or nine hours of tiring mental work, not even judges trying criminal parole hearings. Willpower is a finite resource in your body like energy or attention. It cannot last forever just because you want it to.

5. Burnouts eventually burn out. This is why they are called burnouts. Sure, while they are working they seem superhuman. They make heroic efforts to fix problems (mostly ones that they caused, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt). Burnouts, however, cannot sustain the pace that they set. Eventually, they will topple over from poor health or sheer exhaustion.

I knew a senior director who had multiple heart attacks before the age of forty. He was a burnout. You’d think after that kind of shock to his system that he would reevaluate his life. But instead he went right back to the same workplace and same schedule that put him in the hospital!

Burnout Is a Preventable Disease

Burnout symptoms are insidious. They creep up on you over time. You notice when the people around you are on the path to burnout. But it can be incredibly difficult to notice these burnout symptoms in yourself.

Recognizing when you’re throwing hours away on a task isn’t easy. But it’s a skill that can literally save your life, so invest in yourself and learn how to beat burnout.

Photo Credit: TK_Presse via Compfight cc

A version of this article first appeared on May 9, 2012

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