Identifying burnout – symptoms and steps to recovery

February 8, 2024
6 min read

Preventing & Recovering from Burnout in Sustainability Series - Part 2

In part two of our burnout mini series following a recent workshop with Colwyn Elder, we’re exploring some of the key signs of burnout and some tips and tools for addressing them.

What are the stages of burnout?

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger identified 12 stages of burnout, which can be helpful as a guide - although it’s important to note that these may not follow in this exact order or level of intensity.

Stage 1 - The compulsion to prove yourself

At this stage, you can get caught up in trying to perform every task to perfection, and you might suffer from a fear of failure. This can start to cause an erosion of personal boundaries, as you’re seen as always willing to go above and beyond at work. Certain types of people who are very driven or performance oriented are more likely to feel this way, and therefore can be more prone to burnout.

Stage 2 - Working harder

This is when some people struggle to stop working - such as answering emails out of hours, regularly putting in long or extra hours, or being hesitant to take holidays. Plenty of studies have shown that this actually has an adverse effect on productivity, and taking the vacation time that you are owed has many benefits for wellbeing.

Stage 3 - Neglecting needs

This is the point where people start neglecting their own needs in favour of work duties. This might mean resting and sleeping less, disrupted and unhealthy eating, not making time for fitness and recreation, or reduced social interaction. There’s a tendency at this stage to describe overwork in a positive light, for example talking about having a great work ethic or being a ‘workaholic’.

Stage 4 - Displacement of conflicts

Problems are dismissed, and you may start to feel threatened, panicky or jittery. This is also where insomnia and headaches might start to occur, and conflicts might arise with those around you.

Stage 5 - Revision of values

Previously held values around friends, family and hobbies may fall into the background, with work ambitions coming to the fore and becoming your only focus.

Stage 6 - Denial of emerging problems

At this stage you may start isolating yourself by becoming more cynical, bitter or even aggressive - perceiving collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding or undisciplined. Any problems which arise are seen as only stemming from time pressure and work, and time is seen as an extremely limited resource.

Stage 7 - Withdrawal

Here your social life may begin to feel small or nonexistent. You might be dismissive, feel disoriented and hopeless, and have little energy. It may seem tempting to seclude yourself or embrace escapism through alcohol or drugs.

Stage 8 - Odd behavioural changes

People start to undergo clear behavioural changes that concern their friends and family. You might feel indifferent, yet reactive and defensive if you feel attacked. The job becomes a burden.

Stage 9 - Depersonalisation

At this stage, you may fail to see yourself or others as valuable, and struggle to perceive your own or others’ needs. Life can begin to feel meaningless, and you may feel that you’re just managing to function.

Stage 10 - Inner emptiness

You may be feeling numb or empty, useless, or anxious. Some people experience panic attacks at this stage, and many turn to binging or obsessive activities of various types.

Stage 11 - Depression

Feeling lost and unsure, exhausted, and developing a despondent worldview with little enthusiasm for the future, which might feel bleak and dark.

Stage 12 - Burnout syndrome

This is effectively a complete mental and physical collapse. This is an emergency situation which requires immediate medical or professional support.

Burnout signs to look out for

Physical symptoms which can occur include:

  • Insomnia 
  • Physical exhaustion
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent illness

Emotional signs to look for include:

  • Helplessness 
  • Cynicism
  • Sense of failure
  • Decreased satisfaction
  • Feeling detached or alone in the world
  • Loss of motivation

Behavioural changes to keep an eye on are:

  • Reduced performance
  • Withdrawal or isolation
  • Procrastination
  • Outbursts
  • Using substances to cope

How to better support yourself through burnout

Taking a holistic approach to addressing burnout can be very effective. Colwyn took us through an ancient model called Panchamaya Kosha, which tracks neatly with the suggestions from Dr Emily Nagoski, who did extensive research on stress for her recent book ‘Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle’:

  1. Move your body. Any physical activity can signal to the nervous system that it’s safe to relax. Get the heart pumping and the body knows instinctively how to flush the system. Choose an activity you enjoy and lose yourself in it.
  2. Breathe with awareness. Intentional inhaling and exhaling creates calm, both physiologically and emotionally, especially when the ‘out’ breath is longer than the ‘in’ breath. 
  3. Interact positively with another person. Positive social interaction helps us feel like we belong, and belonging = safety. If the body feels safe it can let go of stress.
  4. Laugh out loud. Laughter not only helps us bond with others, but it actually helps us regulate emotion and release any tension. Watch or read something funny or comforting.
  5. Love with touch. Prolonged physical touch: a 20-second hug (or 6-second kiss) releases oxytocin. 
  6. Have a good cry. The act of crying releases hormones that help to balance stress levels, whereas repressive coping strategies can have negative health effects.
  7. Express yourself creatively. Engage in the act of expressing, designing, or innovating. Anything which helps you feel empowered to move through your emotions counts. The process, not the product, is the goal.

A 3-minute reset

As mentioned above, breathwork has a number of benefits at moments of overwhelm. It can reduce stress and anxiety, improve mental clarity, increase energy levels, improve sleep onset and quality, and enhance overall wellbeing.

One effective exercise to regulate your central nervous system is called the box breath. Here’s how you do it:

  • Inhale for 4 seconds
  • Hold for 4 seconds
  • Exhale for 4 seconds
  • Hold for 4 second
  • (Repeat this cycle 6-10 times)

Doing this encourages a balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic activation, promoting a sense of calm and focus - and having tried this exercise during the workshop, we were all genuinely surprised at how quickly we felt a real sense of calm. 

Check back soon for the third and final instalment of this series, where we’ll dig into how we can create more supportive workplaces to prevent burnout at the source.

You can watch a video recording of the full workshop here.

Colwyn Elder is a veteran sustainability strategist and yoga specialist. Having run two careers as parallel tracks for over 20 years, she is increasingly looking to the intersection of sustainability and wellbeing, both from an individual and a collective perspective, as given the great entanglement between human health and the health of the planet, the correlations are many and meaningful.

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