The 4 Stages of Burnout, and How to Turn Them to Your Advantage The first three are worrying but remediable, the last job-ending, but there are valuable lessons in all stages of work exhaustion.
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Pretty much all of us have experienced it: the dawning realization that our favorite time is when we are asleep. That, my friends, is a sure sign of burnout, defined by the
World Health Organization as a phenomenon caused by chronic stress at work, and cites four key indicating signs: Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; mental distancing from a job; feeling of negativity or cynicism towards professional duties; and a decrease in work efficacy.
The resulting picture does not look great: A person may suddenly not care about their work, are negative or skeptical about new tasks… and simply don't exude enthusiasm. But it's important to understand that this behavior is completely logical; the body is simply fighting for its survival and has no other means of escaping a bad situation. Everything that requires extra energy gets cut off, principally work, and until strength is restored, nothing will change.
As the CEO and founder of Smartbrain.io, which outsources 15,000-plus IT specialists to other companies, I can speak with some authority here. Their work is my livelihood, and if they constantly burn out, clients will refuse to work with me. Also, I will not hide the fact that over the past 20 years I have also faced burnout several times — notably when I was a programmer and when I first tried to develop a business. In the end, I established a few rules for myself, which I now practice broadly. Which one to apply depends on what stage you are in: the stronger the burnout, the more decisive the action that needs to be taken.
Stage 1: "Work is going great!"
This one's a little tricky to spot — and sounds far more like an asset than a warning sign — but if you are a huge fan of your work, so much so that you want to devote every minute to it, other areas of life begin to feel the pressure. There's no time for family, friends, sports… everything is superseded by work. Your body can hold out like this for perhaps a year or two (if you are young), but in the end, this is a direct path to burnout. I actually had this happen to me a few times.
• Balance your life: This means finding enough time for family, friends, hobbies, sports and other recreation. Understand that they are vitally important… vitally needed — otherwise, life feels (and is) hollow.
• Surround yourself with a support network: And this includes your professional community, because colleagues can be a powerful support system: you can discuss a particularly difficult case, ask for advice or simply groan when you are tired and feel like you want to curl up into a ball.
• Learn to slow the pace: If you are used to rushing headlong and constantly focusing on better performance, there will be a reckoning — a time when reality checks in. You cannot surpass yourself every month, and financial progress is simply not as important and valuable as emotional progress.
Remember, in the Nordic countries (ranked among the uppermost in the World Happiness Index), it's considered abnormal to stay even a few hours extra at work, and vacations are both frequent and mandatory. Maybe they've got a point.
Stage 2: Fatigue
Here, exhaustion has gradually built up… a stage also evidenced by growing irritation. For example: in previous days you might have been indifferent to a colleague habitually tapping a pen on the table, but now it has become extremely annoying.
• Learn to relax: It's critical to organize your rest, and to ensure that it is full-fledged rest, not just diversions like housework, self-development courses or training in the gym. It is beyond vital to, every day, provide yourself time for recuperation that isn't simply sleep, but mental rest.
• Build boundaries: Draw a firm line between work and personal life, which includes a resolution to be unavailable to colleagues and clients during certain outside-of-working hours (tough, I know). It's also helpful to organize work in such a way as to not constantly take on urgent tasks/put out fires.
• Delegate: For just about any leader, this is a matter of survival — both for that person and the company. Such a manager/executive does not want things to devolve into the next stage.
Stage 3: Exhaustion
Here, all the symptoms the WHO warned about are manifested: you don't want anything, work feels hostile… efficiency falls. Your body is desperately trying to convey the message, "I need to rest, urgently!" Continue working past this point, and the body will say, "If you don't want it the good way, I will make it the bad way," then switches on "disease" mode. A very real depression may ensure, or suddenly your back hurts so much that sitting in a chair becomes impossible. Stomach problems may arise, a temperature and headache appear… mental distress is capable of having its way with the body in innumerable ways.
In my experience, only a full vacation, perhaps as long as three months, can be of help here: a space to fully relax without even thinking about work. Why so long? The body cannot be fooled. Working overtime is like a loan, one with a fair amount of debt with interest. The good news is, if you enjoy your job, it's possible to fully recover and return.
Stage 4: The end
And finally, there's this: the stage of irreversible exhaustion, a feeling of such diastase for work that no rest will save the situation. The body has associated a workplace with being actively antagonistic to mind and health.
Predictably, the only way out is to change jobs. You might even have to change or thoroughly rethink the field you work in. That's how people suddenly become painters, or switch from programming to trucking, even when they are paid six times less (real story). That's why it's so important to understand the seriousness of the issue, and to not let it descend to this stage.
What can professional burnout teach us?
Living through any of these stages is an opportunity to get to know your limitations, as well as opportunities, and to learn to better regulate life and take care of ourselves. And in some cases, it's a chance to find an activity (including new job) that you really enjoy.
A few key takeaways:
• To listen to our emotions, feelings and thoughts: A task is annoying to you, but why? Fatigue has arisen, so what can you do right now to rest? Negative thoughts are not a sign of weakness. Be attuned to them and how they can necessitate a change in work habits.
• To invest time in all areas of life: Hours spent on rest and spiritually/personally dimensional pursuits are not wasted. And when at work, it's vital to do so at a comfortable pace.
• To maintain health: No one wants their body to enter illness mode, and timely rest is one of the surest ways of strengthening the immune system.
• To work more efficiently: I think Bill Gates once said that he will always pick a lazy person for a difficult job because they will find an easy way to get it done. Burnout encourages the search for easier (and often more efficient) methodology.
• To realize what's really important: What kind of work do you truly like? What do you value in life? Burnout is a good teacher.
Most of all, I embrace the idea that you don't have to drive yourself to burnout in order to realize what's mind and body restorative. To produce positive change, we just need to be in tune with ourselves, and to embrace the old saying, "We do not live to work, we work to live".