The employee burnout cycle

“It’s easier to cure any condition if you catch it early, after all, and that includes burnout. So don’t shrug off early warning signs just because they seem mild,Anon.

In the previous article (see Monday February 4th, edition of the B&FT) I discussed the issue of employee burnout and how it affects organisational productivity. I also mentioned that burnout syndrome does not occur in a vacuum but goes through a process. The current article will look at the stages that leads to burnout. Burnout  is a process and not a single event. Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North identified twelve stages of employee burnout. These are discussed below:

Compulsion to prove oneself: The burnout process usually starts when a person has  ambition for upward mobility. When an individual becomes obsessed with demonstrating worth.  The desire to excel  and show one’s value is not bad in itself. However, when  it borders on obsession it becomes a problem. This is where individuals tend to readily accept any responsibility given them even when they know it is beyond them.

Working harder: This deals with one’s inability to switch off.  In their desire to get noticed by others, especially management, people work extremely hard without finding the need to take a break. Such workers are generally viewed positively by coworkers and superiors. This may lead to the individual believing that he/she is irreplaceable and refuse to let others help with tasks.

Neglecting one’s own needs: The potential for burnout becomes clearer when the individual starts neglecting his/her own needs, eating, sleeping, family, and a lack of social interaction, in favour of working harder and longer hours. The individual often rationalises that these sacrifices are essential to the organisation or for career advancement.

See Also:  In the beginning

Displacement of conflicts: Here, the individual realises that there is something seriously wrong. However, because of his/her view of the world and life, he/she dismisses the problem while attributing it to other causes. The result is the appearance of physiological stress such as increase in depression, hypertension, stomach ulcers, heart disease, fatigue etc. the health problems the individual faces ultimately comes at a cost to the organisation in the form of increase use of sick days, more money spent on healthcare, and worker’s compensation claims also increases.

Revision of values: The burnout process shows clear signs when the individual now begins to see once important things such as friends, family and hobbies as a nuisance. Values are skewed as the individual wraps him/herself in work. In other words, work becomes the only focus and can lead to emotional shut down.

Denial of emerging problems: At this stage, the individual becomes intolerant and denies the problem in favour of explanations. Colleagues are seen as lazy, undisciplined, demanding, and stupid, which is why work often doesn’t get done in the right way or on time. Others are blamed for problems rather than doing self-examination.

Withdrawal: The individual, at this point, attempts to use various means to solve his/her problems including the use of alcohol or drugs.  There is clear evidence that exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy has taken place.

See Also:  Green HR- a brief introduction

Obvious behavioural changes:  The ambitious, excited worker now becomes reclusive and apathetic.  This does not go unnoticed among friends and family who gradually start expressing concern. For this reason, the individual’s self-worth gets progressively lower.

Depersonalisation: At this stage, the individual sees him/herself no longer as someone unique with specific knowledge and talents. Others are no longer perceived as valuable or useful. Life and work become a series of steps to perform, almost like a robot.

Inner emptiness: Inner emptiness occurs when the individual begins to feel empty inside and attempts to fill the emptiness by engaging in other destructive behaviours such as overeating, sex, alcohol addiction, or drugs.

Depression: At this point the individual feels lost and unsure and is often driven by volatile mood swings. The future feels bleak and dark and the behaviour can run the length from agitation to full-on verbal and physical aggression.

Burnout syndrome: This is the final stage of the burnout process which can include total mental and physical collapse. At this stage, the individual is said to be in  stage of “clinical meltdown”, and a potential danger to self and others. At this point medical attention is needed.

As we can see from the cycle,  burnout is not something that should be glossed over in the workplace. The outcome of burnout leads to psychological, physical, behavioural, and communicative outcomes, which, if left unchecked, can  result in total meltdown of the person. The next article will discuss these outcomes.



The writer is a Communication consultant and lecturer


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