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The 6 Stages of Burnout - Where are you or your employees?

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

Firstly many of you may be asking ‘what is burnout?’. We hear the phrase bandied about when people say things like, ‘You’ll burn yourself out if you keep going at that rate’ or ‘be careful you don’t burn yourself out’. This just seems to conjure up images of very busy people, which takes us to guess that this is something that is workplace related. It is! 63% of people from recent research have said to be feeling burned out in the workplace. Well, burnout originates from the workplace and since the 1970’s the medical community have argued how to really define it. 

The challenge really comes from the fact that they were reluctant to call it a mental illness, condition or disease and placing emphasis only that it is recognised as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, not something that puts emphasis on the person being the cause. 

63% is a pretty high number of people suffering a ‘phenomenon’ if you ask me?! 

That’s not to say I don’t agree with the classification, I do. It’s just that for 63% of employees to be experiencing this kind of ‘phenomenon’ makes it a lot more common. So since the 1970’s it indicates the level of burnout has got progressively worse and people have become more aware of its effects. 

This classification itself does protect people from taking responsibility for a mentally challenging situation when it is work related. This I applaud, because due to exposure to high levels of stress that lead to burnout (the reasons for which I will talk about a little later) most times it can’t be anything but work related. 

Symptoms of burnout include: 

  • Depleted Energy

  • Detachment to your relationships with others

  • Demotivation and detachment from your work

  • Lower productivity

  • Lower resistance to illness

  • Pessimistic outlook on work or life

  • Physical mental and emotional exhaustion

  • Time away from work

These can all also lead to anxiety disorders and or mood disorders such as depression when effects are prolonged. 

We all know what it’s like to start a new job and the early excitement and desire to prove ourselves is strong, so for the first few months everything is rosy, even though we are running at the rate of 100mph, then gradually things start to change. Most of the time is because of the environment. We can say this due to a survey conducted by Gallup that asked over 7500 people about workplace mental health and found that there were 5 top reasons for burnout these were:

  1. Unfair treatment at work - ‘I’ll never forget a time where I worked with someone who used to ask me if I wanted them to read slower in meetings, when I asked why, they told me ‘well you are blonde and a woman’. I felt awful. I was young and they were the store manager. I thought ‘who am I to turn to?’. So unfair and downright awful behaviour. 

  2. Unmanageable workload - Many of us have had roles where we just don’t know where the hours will come from to complete the tasks. I remember working in the travel industry and we would go in come Jan 1st to be inundated with enquiries that made 14 hour days for 6 days a week the norm at least until March. The difference was that each year we knew that that was peak and that it wouldn’t last. Imagine the effects of that for a full 12 months. 

  3. Lack of role clarity - I remember working in a service based sales environment, with a new team. I asked them to make a list of all the expectations they believed they had within their role. This person had been working for someone else for a while and didn’t even list ‘hit targets or KPIs’ they had deemed that not to be part of their role as a service based sales executive. Remember this is the burden of knowledge. Just because you know what you expect does not mean your team does. Clarify or ask them to tell you what they understand by it. 

  4. Lack of communication or support from their manager - Oh yes! I wish these 5 reasons had percentages as I’m sure this one will be at the top. I have had managers say things in the past such as ‘process comes first not people’ or ‘I don’t have the time to speak to them as much as they need’. Wow, leaders listen up! When you agree to manage and lead people they come first. You create the environment. 

  5. Unreasonable time pressure - Being fair this could be by the company although we also put ourselves under time pressure by thinking we can do things faster than we can. If you think it will take a week at least multiply it by 1.5 to give yourself a realistic time. If others are putting unreasonable time pressure on you, negotiate a new timeline, you aren’t saying no just pushing back on the urgency to be realistic.

Looking at this list makes it quite clear that it is a responsibility that lies heavily with the employer with 4 of the 5 points - I believe that number 5 can also be down to how a person communicates their time and what they commit to. 

So these are the reasons so what does burnout look like and how can we identify it. Being the creator of The Canary Concept - 8 Key Principles for Improving Workplace Mental Health, I have decided to depict the 6 stages of burnout as a story of a canary going into a coal mine. My drawing of the stages is nothing short of horrendous, so I look forward to creating a digital version to share at some point, although the analogy I feel is pretty good. So here they are:

Stage 1 - Above the Pit

Here the canary is above ground and not near the prospect of the coal mine, happy, motivated, there is sunlight. Imagine this is the stage where you start a new job, are happy, challenged positively, still are working a lot, only sleeping a few hours a night although eager to prove yourself and do your best in all areas. You tell yourself even though there is a lot of work you tell yourself you are living the dream and that it will all be worth it. 

Stage 2 - The Cage 

The Canary is now in the cage and also the cage of the mine shaft which acts like the elevator. The light starts to get dimer although above ground can still be seen. After running around in circles for the last few months, you start to resent what you are doing. Your relationship with your manager isn’t great, they have said some unfair comments or haven't really given you the support needed and the cracks are starting to show in your clear different personality styles, you are frustrated with clients and potentially your colleagues. Although you are afraid to speak up for fear of losing your job and needing the money or career progression. You feel trapped. 

Stage 3 - The Mine Shaft 

The canary is further down the pit and ground is no longer visible. It is the start of the mine shaft. You’ve started to think you’ve been ‘shafted’ - excuse the pun.. You start to think about when you were above ground and the happy times, recognising that something is happening to you. You wake up exhausted everyday and not happy, feeling pessimistic about the future. You may also start to deny feeling ‘stressed’ and brush it off telling yourself you’re fine although you are also withdrawing from others and the normal routine of life. Your health is starting to deteriorate with sickness, due to not having time or energy to eat properly, exercise or make time for self-care. This is creating chronic stress. Your body is in a constant state of fight or flight. 

Stage 4 - The Coal Mine

The canary is now in the deep dark coal mine. They can no longer see any light and start to feel extremely down. For you panic also set’s in, thoughts of escaping life start, wanting to run away from home life, friends, work. The fantasy of quitting recurring and phoning in sick starts to happen more frequently. You’re hardly eating or eating too much. You are in poor shape, hair, skin, physical fitness and start not caring still putting work above other things. You're making mistakes, forgetting things. Have no enthusiasm and are hoping people won’t notice. You’ve started drinking more, it’s almost every day.You may have taken up smoking or recreational drugs, you could be having suicidal thoughts or intrusive thoughts. You are in crisis. If there isn’t help now there could be serious consequences. 

Stage 5 - The Gas Leak

This stage is fatal for the canary and one of the reason’s it was taken into the mines all those years ago. To protect against a gas leak as the canaries would stop singing and sadly die first before the miners. So imagine this stage of burnout as the disaster area, the fatal stage. You’ve hit the wall. The end of the line. There can be no more. Crying is constant, you are emotionally and physically broken on the verge of breakdown, heart attacks may occur or you even attempt suicide. This stage will be the consequential stage. The ‘suddenly’ moment after all the ‘gradual’ missed placed steps. This stage is rock bottom and you are most likely to end up in hospital with a serious condition or at worst losing your life. 

If you are one of the few that manage to turn it around from here, you will reach,  

Stage 6 - Rescue and Recovery

The canary is rescued from the mine and manages to escape the fatal gas leak not without dust, scars and emotional damage (I know it it highly unlikely that a canary would escape a gas leak in a mine so it's just hypothetical, there is much more chance of a human being rescued though). Serious intervention has taken place in your life. This may happen on long term sick leave from the workplace or you finally left your job that was causing you so much stress.  

I hope that from reading this you are able to maybe identify patterns with yourself, employees, friends or family members. Ask for help, seriously. You are not your work! Make self care your priority. If intervention happens between stages 3 or 4 the outlook can be great. I would urge managers and leaders to look to put preventative measures in place. Having a mental health and well being programme will help as well as being trained in workplace mental health.  

Essential people skills are not a luxury, they are a necessity to workplace mental health. The canary concept workplace mental health training from the modern mind group guarantees that once the 8 key principles are mastered, you will have happier healthier teams. 

Contact the Modern Mind Group for business consultancy on mental health or to sign up for workplace mental health training.


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