The Four Stages of Burnout

By Mark Gorkin, the "Stress Doc"

Years ago, a magical moment whirled me in a mystical web. I was consumed by the path of "academic flashdancing." I succumbed to the "burnout tango." Now let me not just walk the talk, but deromance the dance: "Burnout is the gradual process by which a person, in response to prolonged stress and physical, mental and emotional strain, detaches from work and other meaningful relationships. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism, confusion...a feeling of being drained, having nothing more to give." Whether at work or school (or even in a marriage), to prevent it you must get it. To provide a framework both for understanding and, hopefully, inoculating against future burnout, let's begin with "The Stress Doc's Vital Lesson of the Four 'R's":

If no matter what you say or what you do, Results, Rewards, Recognition and Relief are not forthcoming, and you can't mean "no" or won't let go...trouble awaits. The groundwork is being laid for apathy, callousness and despair.

Have I captured your attention? Let's examine some of the progressive signs of being caught up in this erosive spiral. Here are "The Four Stages of Burnout":

1. Physical, Mental and Emotional Exhaustion. Maybe you are still holding it together at work (or school). Still, can you relate to this sequence? As soon as you get home, you head for the fridge, get out the Haagen-Dazs or Ben and Jerry's, turn on the tube, collapse on the sofa and you're comatose for the rest of the evening? Doing more with less, having plenty of responsibility but not enough authority, or juggling an unmanageable schedule is taking a toll. (For those grappling with all three stressors...automatically proceed to stage two, if not three.)

Normally, you pride yourself on doing a thorough job, a high quality performance. Now you are looking for shortcuts, if not cutting corners. And this gnaws at your self-esteem. There may even be pangs of guilt. A case of the "brain strain" is developing, accompanied by an energy shortage and feelings of exhaustion. If stress levels continue unabated, you may be ripe for the second stage.

2. Shame and Doubt. Perhaps this scenario is familiar. A supervisor (or professor) asks you to take on a new assignment. You want to...but this voice inside silently screams, "Who are you kidding!" So what's happening? You're not feeling confident about the future; and you're feeling pretty lousy in the present. Not surprisingly, you may even start discounting your past accomplishments. Beware...This is not a logical process; it's a psychological one. Now you wonder if colleagues, friends or family members will detect that something is wrong. While projecting a competent image has been the norm, now this voice inside is relentlessly shouting, "Impostor!" "Impostor."

And then you catch yourself emitting heavy, labored sighs. (When do people often engage in deep, labored breathing or sighing? Other than when calling those 1-900 numbers. When experiencing a deep sense of loss and change perceived as uncontrollable.) Is chronically grappling with a profound sense of vulnerability or uncertainty anyone's favorite state? Certainly not mine. No surprise then that some folks will "progress" to the third phase: "Cynicism and Callousness."

Are you starting to feel I've been looking in your window? Or, as a reader recently emailed: "Have you been a fly on the wall in my house?" Let's not be premature. We still have two more stages to go. And next, we'll check out your "tude."

3. Cynicism and Callousness. In response to that prolonged feeling of insecurity or vulnerability, some folks feel there's only one thing left to do: put on the heavy armor. They develop an ATTITUDE: "Look out for # 1." "Cover your derriere." "No one's getting to me." And, in the short run, the strategy often works. You become sufficiently abrasive or obnoxious, people start avoiding you. But this hard exterior can eventually become a burdensome, self-defeating strategy.

Here's an example. Years ago, I was leading a workshop at a construction industry conference. There was a guy, I'll call him Joe, who was head of a large plumber's union. Now Joe was basically a down to earth, nice guy...who found himself becoming increasingly bitter, with that hard attitude. And it was scaring him! Now granted, Joe was in a position that pulled him in all directions - compelling demands, favors, complaints, bribes! Still, what do you think was Joe's biggest stress trap? That's right, this "good Joe" was such a "nice guy." What can't nice guys and nice gals do? They can't say "no!." Nor are they confident establishing their boundaries. They have difficulty with authority - being one or interacting with one. These nice folks tend to avoid conflict; they don't want to hurt others' feelings. They are not comfortable with anger, or don't know how to express their frustration or displeasure in a focused manner. Their personal mantras are being "fair" and "accommodation" (while feeling deep rejection when other's aren't fair or accommodating).

These accommodators, despite having a full workload plate, when asked to take on new work will just smush their peas and bread into the mashed potatoes and allow others to pile on more stuff. Hey, being a team player doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your integrity or health. There's an option: "Sure I'll help you with this new demand and deadline. But for me to give the assignment the attention it deserves, we'll have to renegotiate my priority list and timelines." (I'm not saying there aren't extra-ordinary and emergency situations. But there is a difference between urgent and important. When everything is urgent, nothing is important!) Setting realistic limits is not a negative reflection on your work ethic or your ability to to go the extra mile. Without boundaries, that mile often morphs into a marathon. Remember, someone once said: "Burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away."

Joe was really worried. He thought he was going through a split personality process - going from Dr. Jekyl into Hiding. I had to reassure him that there wasn't any genetic transformation occurring. Without realizing it, he had been sucked up by the progressive burnout whirlpool.

And there's another reason for paying attention to this process. Burnout doesn't just facilitate a hardening of the psyche. When your stress starts to smolder into frustration and anger; then turns to suspicion and mistrust as you enclose yourself in embattled armor or a crusty shell... This is not just how you harden an attitude, but it's a formula for hardening the arteries, as well. Cardiovascular complications, high blood pressure, even premature heart attacks can ensue. Which is why, usually, I'd rather people hit the fourth stage of burnout, than linger in the third. Of course, "Failure, Helplessness and Crisis" sounds terrible. But consider this: "hitting bottom means there's no more downward spiral." And, if you can reach out, there's no where to go but up. Hold on. One more lap to go.

4. Failure, Helplessness and Crisis. Being caught in a familiar "Catch-22" often signals the final phase: "Damned if you do, damned if you don't." "Damned if you stay, damned if you leave." Your coping structure seems to be coming unglued. Next stop...the psychiatric ward! Probably not, however, the crisis smoke signals are billowing big time. Why is that? Burnout is like trying to race a marathon - full speed, nonstop. Can anyone race 26 miles full speed, nonstop? Of course not. Even Olympic marathon runners must pace themselves. If not, the body parts will break down. And with burnout, over time, the mental apparatus also wears out.

In fact, one reason the fourth stage is so disorienting is that a person's psychological defenses have worn down. Cracks start appearing in the defensive armor. Painful memories and old hurts normally contained by your emotional defenses are leaking through the cracks. A slight or an emotional bump can set off an overly sensitive and personal reaction. Now a mate's occasional, somewhat annoying behavior really irritates as it reminds you of a mannerism of your father. Or, jealousy towards a colleague reeks of sibling rivalry.


Hey, before throwing up your hands, remember...burnout is not for wimps. A lot of other folks would have jumped ship much earlier. Many of you reach the farther stages of burnout because of your tenacity and dedication. You have a strong sense of responsibility and don't like being deterred from reaching your goals. All noble qualities... unless compelled by rigid perfectionism and "there's only one right way" thinking. Then, pursuing your goals takes a back seat to proving others wrong and overcoming humiliation. You are chasing (maybe, also, being chased by) ego-driven egoals. Especially in times of overload, uncertainty and major change, "driven and rigid responsibility" can quickly transform a performance benefit into a personal and professional liability.

Also, these folks are usually not just responsible, they often are quite responsive to others. People lean on them for support. Are you a pillar of strength for those around you? If so, will those dependent upon you be quick to notice when you are feeling shaky? That you may need a shoulder? Often not, as their sense of security is contingent on your always being strong and available. Are you buying into this "superperson" role or hiding behind a heroic mask? Maybe you always had to help mom with (sometimes raise) the other kids. Or you're the emotional sponge in the office, frequently absorbing your colleagues' complaints. Can you hear that screeching, scratching sound? That's the stress knot twisting and turning tighter and tighter about your neck.

On the Edge

No wonder people start jumping out of jobs or school, out of relationships, sometimes just jumping. And for those not into jumping, you may be into swinging by the fourth stage. Mood swinging, that is, between short highs and/or prolonged depressive lows. Okay, the existential question: Is it Miller Time or Prozac Time? From my perspective, it's way too late for the former (though, clearly, many people disagree with me) and a decision on the latter requires expert opinion. But that's exactly the key for transforming a danger into an opportunity. Fourth stage burnout is the crisis point, it's crunch time. Are you ready to step up to the plate and reach out for the help and resources you need? A person recovers and expands his or her strengths and possibilities through a crisis when: 1) getting proper and sufficient support; someone trained in crisis intervention and loss, 2) confronting denial, false hopes, cynicism or helplessness, 3) grieving past and present losses while turning guilt, hurt, anxiety and aggression into focused energy and 4) acquiring and applying skills and technology for turning new problem-solving options into productive attitudes and actions.

My poetic anthem to burnout and beyond:

For the phoenix to rise from the ashes One must know the pain To transform the fire to burning desire.
Four Stages of Burnout. Four Steps For Recovery and Rejuvenation. Any readers care to share how you turned a burnout situation into a transformational experience? Can you say, "Creative Burnout"?
And will you Practice Safe Stress?

>>back to the articles page