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What is a Burnout? Let’s Stop Glorifying Overworking

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Learn the five phases of a burnout

By Lindsey Paoli | @lindsey_paoli

Meet therapist, coach and founder of Fundamental Health Lindsey Paoli, MFT-Intern.

Burnout is a term we’ve been hearing a lot more in recent years, but especially during 2020 as just about everyone who was able to keep working, did so under far more stressful circumstances than normal.  

What is a Burnout?

The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by psychiatrist Herbert Freudenberger to describe overworked volunteers in mental health clinics. The term was used again by the mental health community in the 1980s by social psychologist Christina Maslach to describe clinicians who had lost their concern and ability to think positively about clients (YIKES! I will say that there was a HUGE emphasis on education about burnout and prevention in my own graduate program).

Despite its history with mental health professionals, it does not only impact the mental health or even just the medical community. Research has actually shown that the average professional has experienced career burnout by age 32, and that’s in any field! But students, stay-at-home moms, entrepreneurs and anyone who works under stressful conditions are susceptible to burnout. 

The 5 Phases of a Burnout

Burnout has been described as the result of chronic workplace stress that is unable to be resolved. This stress can be categorized into three dimensions: exhaustion or energy depletion, feelings of negativity or cynicism toward job and reduced professional efficacy. One experiences burnout slowly, going through five distinct stages when it is not addressed early and preventatively with healthy coping skills:  

  • The Honeymoon Phase: Defined by an excitement and commitment to the job at hand. This is usually a phase of healthy stress, free flowing energy, creativity and optimism, and an eagerness to accept responsibility. 

  • The Onset of Stress: Anxiety begins as one realizes that some days are harder than others; irritability, lack of focus, forgetfulness and a de-prioritization of personal needs set in.

  • Chronic Stress: Stress becomes regular and motivation wanes; apathy, exhaustion, and physical illness become regular, deadlines become missed and procrastination may set in at work and at home.

  • Burnout: Symptoms become critical and intervention becomes necessary as one is consistently exceeding thresholds of stress tolerance; physical symptoms such as headaches and digestive issues become chronic, there is a complete neglect of personal needs, one seeks isolation and may desire to “drop out” of society. 

  • Habitual Burnout: Burnout symptoms become so embedded in your life that there is likely significant ongoing mental, physical, and emotional crises; fatigue and pain become chronic and depression is common.

Does any of this hit a little too close to home to you? It wouldn’t surprise me. Burnout feels so important for me to create awareness and education about because in our “Hustle Hard,” “Rise and Grind,” “You Can Sleep When You Die” culture, it is not talked about nearly enough.

Although burnout is not actually a diagnosable medical condition, I could likely label every single one of my clients with being in phases 2 and above at any given time. This is important to note considering I specialize in anxiety and depression, which are the two most highly diagnosed mental illnesses in our country currently. 

Preventative Work is Key

Preventative maintenance is crucial when working to combat burnout. If, in phase 1, you can be mindful of prioritizing your personal needs, practice the MIND fundamentals, and set healthy boundaries with coworkers and bosses, then toxic stress becomes avoidable. 

If you are in any of the other stages, you can still mitigate burnout but just note it may be harder to create lasting change and you may want to seek support. The most researched and valid assessment for burnout is the Maslach Burnout Inventory, but it is costly and must be administered by a professional. But if you’re curious where you stand in the Burnout Cycle, I’ve found this free online test for you to take! 

Read: MINDful Minute: Allergies Take a Toll on Your Mental Health

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