The onset of burnout is a bit like the story of the frog and boiling water: Put a frog in a pot of boiling water it will immediately jump out. Put a frog in cold water and then gradually turn up the temperature and it gets used to increasing heat and dies.
This is the fourth of a six-part series of articles on Burnout. Future installments will discuss why resilience in some circles has become a dirty word and what that has to do with creating burnout and most importantly, how to help employees recover from burnout.
Burnout often comes on in the following five predictable stages:
Stage 1: THE HONEYMOON PHASE
Nothing bothers this newly hired employee. He or she enthusiastically says YES to just about every assignment and may even be considered a rising star in the organization. It’s ironic that a person with a burning desire to succeed may be the one at the greatest risk for burning out. And yet, it makes perfect sense:
This person has come to your organization with raised expectations and high hopes and is more than willing to work hard to please his or her supervisor by taking on any challenge. In the honeymoon phase, it’s full steam ahead with no concern or attempt to maintain work-life balance because, for the moment, it truly is NOT an issue.
Notice that stress may be present in this phase, but it has little or no negative effect on the worker. Why? Wellness and mental well-being are oftentimes a balancing act: The body can run on borrowed energy and even on fumes with little or no downside, but only for so long.
In the honeymoon phase, this person doesn’t even notice his or her own stress symptoms. Plus, the person who burns out tends to be a sprinter and not a marathoner, so in this phase, there is truly no problem with borrowing whatever energy is required to start out of the gate at a fast pace.
Stage 2: OUT OF BALANCE
Here’s where the worker begins to notice his or her own stress symptoms. It could be a tension headache that comes on every afternoon at work (but for some strange reason doesn’t occur on weekends). It could be occasional bouts of sleeplessness before important work-related events, or it could be an occasional digestive tract issue that just happens to coincide with semi-annual evaluation meetings this employee has with his or her boss.
In addition to tension headaches, sleeplessness and digestive tract issues, symptoms of stress in this stage may include migraine headaches, anxiousness, anger episodes, sadness, eating too much, eating too little, hives and other occasional allergic reactions, not to mention diarrhea, muscle tension and feeling nauseous.
A person in this phase, can learn to recognize these stress symptoms, connect the dots between their symptoms of stress and their sources of stress and hopefully make changes so that they don’t progress to the next phase.
Stage 3: ON OVERLOAD
Here’s where a person starts to really pay attention to their symptoms of stress, because they are unable NOT to. They are working their way up to a stress-related disorder. In this stage, the worker may be experiencing, chronic pain as the result of migraine headaches, back pain, shoulder pain or joint pain. Hans Selye, who is considered the grandfather of the stress concept, once compared the effect of unrelenting stress on the body as being roughly the same as aging (prematurely).
If the person hasn’t taken any precautions in phase 2 to lower their stress outside of work, by finding methods for reducing it like exercise, meditation or yoga, everything is going to start adding up here in this phase, setting the stage for burnout.
Stage 4: BURNOUT
In this phase you have a worker, who once cared deeply about his or her organization, who now cares very little about anything. They say teachers who get to phase three, can revive themselves with a summer vacation. They say that universities and non-profit organizations who offer workers a sabbatical can help these workers reset their systems and thus avoid burnout.
But for those who wind up in this phase, while they no longer care about being the best in their field and may be on their way to suffering from various health problems associated with chronic stress, they are not beyond hope. They may be drinking too much, eating too much, in pain, depressed, anxious or just apathetic, but they haven’t quite reached the final stage of anhedonia which is what happens next. In other words, this worker can be revived with appropriate care and treatment (which we will discuss in the final installment).
Stage 5: BEYOND BURNOUT
This person has lapsed into any one or more of the following chronic problems: Alcoholism, insomnia, untreatable depression, suicidal ideation and hopelessness which sometimes collectively is referred to as anhedonia or the inability to feel pleasure. And while the employees in all the previous stages back to phase 2 could be helped by some counseling, this person simply can’t go on without it.
In our next installment we’ll touch on why resilience is rapidly becoming a dirty word and what that has to do with creating burnout and in our final installment, we’ll look at how an organization (or an individual) can bring an employee (or themselves) back from phases 2-4. Those employees who reach phase 5 will need the help of an outside counselor or an Employee Assistance Professional and that EAP is probably going to suggest weeks or even months at an inpatient treatment center.