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  • Writer's pictureDr Claire Ashley

How do I know if I have burnout?

One of the really sneaky things about burnout is that it is really difficult to consciously recognise it when you’re on the slide into it.

I know this, because I’ve been there. It took just six short months to go from being fully functional at work, and never having had a mental health problem in my life, to being so completely broken that I didn’t recognise who or what I had become.

I knew that there was something wrong during this decline into crisis, but I couldn’t put my finger on what was happening, let alone take definitive action to help myself. There was a huge amount of self blame and denial happening, perpetuated by both internal shame and guilt, which was compounded by huge external pressure to perform and not to show any outward signs of struggle. The irony of dedicating my professional life to caring and healing others in a profession that does not care about my own personal health (and worse, actively harmed my health) is not lost on me.

Worse, I was completely clueless about the risks of relentless workplace stress, and I had no idea that the myriad of awful and overwhelming symptoms I was experiencing had a name. And if a doctor with years of clinical knowledge and experience, with a background in neuroscience, didn’t get this, how can we expect others to know either?

Catching yourself before you hit a burnout crisis will make any recovery process significantly easier and quicker, because if you end up in a burnout crisis, you will need an average of 3.5 months off sick, and recovery will take 1-3 years [1].

Here are the 5 stages of burnout, as first described by Freudenberger:

1. Honeymoon phase

The first stage stage is referred to as the Honeymoon phase, and is characterised by enthusiasm for your work. The Honeymoon stage is particularly relevant to new job roles or undertaking new work tasks and initiatives. At this stage, there are absolutely no signs of burnout, instead, you are full of enthusiasm, commitment, and joy from your work. You are very productive and take on every possible task and opportunity to perform your best. You feel creative, optimistic and full of energy.

Sounds great, right?

However, whilst this stage can feel wonderful, you might take on more than you should in order to prove yourself. The risk in this stage is that if you don’t prevent overworking and adopt strategies to wind down and get rest regularly, this may progress to the next stage before you know it.

2. Onset of Stress

When you start noticing that some days are more stressful than others, you have progressed to the second stage. This stage is characterised by the following:

Lack time for personal needs

Seeing your family and friends less.

Feeling your job is the most important thing in your life

In this stage, you might start to notice the start of physical symptoms, such as headaches, anxiety, change in appetite or high blood pressure (FYI- this is not a comprehensive list), and also psychological symptoms including difficulty focussing and concentrating.

3. Chronic Stress

When your stress levels become frequent and constant you move to the next stage: chronic stress.

In this stage, your problem-solving skills and performance decrease further, and you start feeling you are out of control and powerless. Your productivity decreases, and you might find yourself procrastinating as you experience overwhelm. You might start to feel like you are not performing as well at your job, and with this comes guilt and a sense of failure.

Chronic stress takes a toll on your mental and physical health and further intensifies the symptoms described in stage two. You may find yourself getting ill more frequently. Additionally, you may not seem to regulate your emotions that well anymore. Even small things may make you aggressive, resentful, or sad, and things that in earlier stages you could manage calmly now send you flying off the handle. You may deny the problems and distance yourself from colleagues and social life. In extreme cases to escape the negative emotions, some people may even start to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.

4. Burnout

This stage is burnout itself, where you reach critical exhaustion levels that will make it hard to cope with work demands. The continuous sense of failure and powerlessness eventually leads to the feeling of despair and disillusionment. You don’t see ‘a way out’ of the circumstances and become indifferent towards your work- this sense of apathy is the depersonalisation component of burnout.

Apathy is the key emotion in this model of the stages of burnout.

Burnout is a very physical experience, and this stage is characterised by constant and disproportionate fatigue and other significant physical symptoms. The developed sense of self-doubt and pessimistic outlook on your job and life is pronounced.

5. Habitual Burnout

This stage is when you are unable to recover from burnout, and what you are experiencing becomes habitualised. Attempts to bring yourself back to normal is more challenging than it has ever been, and rest isn’t restorative. Apart from affecting your career, it may reflect in many aspects of your life, including personal relationships. You can lose joy in your hobbies that you once loved, and you may not feel like doing anything. You may always feel sad and depressed. At this point, you are likely to need outside help to start to recover.

The need for intervention is what characterises this particular stage.

If you realise that you are in burnout or habitual burnout, or if you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please stop, take time off work, and seek the help of your doctor or a therapist.

However, if you are not yet in burnout or habitual burnout, the good news is that you have an opportunity to put measures in place NOW to stop full blown burnout.

Part of the reason why I am so excited to build BobbyChat is because what we are building will be everything I desperately needed during that awful phase in my career. Going through burnout was an incredibly lonely and isolating experience, and I felt both internal and external stigma when admitting how much I was struggling. Having someone non-judgemental to offload to, and the opportunity to be taught the skills to take empowered steps to solving my workplace problems would have made such a positive difference to how I felt.

We're inviting you to join us and take empowered steps successfully navigating your workplace challenges. Your conversations are confidential and you can reach out to Bobby for support at any time. Bobby is always on your side*!

[1] Bernier, 1998

* BobbyChat is designed to be a pure self-help chatbot. Our Service does not include the provision of medical care, mental health services or other professional services. Do not use our Service for emergencies. If you think you have a mental health or a medical emergency, please seek professional help.

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