So many young people suffer from low-grade burnout– a feeling of being totally overwhelmed with a To-Do list or work obligations that never seem to end. Often, this feeling is accompanied by a sense that you will never escape this feeling. This is because anxiety, stress, and burnout are all related– fix your anxiety, and burnout goes away. But what people less often realize is that feeling blue or depressed might not be a sign of depression: it could be that you’re just experiencing burnout.
In a Scientific American article from June 2006, Ulrich Kraft highlights what can colloquially be referred to as the 12 Stages of Burnout, as outlined by psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North. We’ve summarized them, below:
The 12 Stages of Burnout
The Compulsion to Prove Oneself
People with the compulsion to prove themselves demonstrate their worth obsessively. They are not the best at setting boundaries because they’re always willing to go above and beyond, which makes them particularly vulnerable to demanding bosses who don’t like hearing “no”.
Some people are afflicted with an inability to stop working. For example, answering emails on the weekend, constantly putting in long or extra hours, and/or reluctance to take a vacation. (This, however, doesn’t make anyone more productive: studies show that productivity plummets after 50 hours of work.)
There’s a joke in med school circles that the circumstances necessary to becoming a doctor are NOT conducive to health: erratic sleeping, disrupted eating, little time for fitness and recreation, and/or a lack of social interaction. People experiencing burnout consistently neglect these same needs.
Displacement of Conflicts
Avoidance behavior: person dismisses their problems and may feel threatened, panicky, or jittery.
Revision of Values
Rewriting one’s own moral code to accommodate work ambitions. Person’s family, hobbies, and friends are subverted in favor of work, which becomes the only focus.
Denial of Emerging Problems
Person becomes increasingly intolerant, cynical, and/or aggressive, perceiving collaborators as “stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined.” Person views problems in life as stemming from work, and views time as an extremely limited resource.
Person’s social life begins to feel small or nonexistent. They seek relief in seclusion or embrace escapism through alcohol or drugs.
Odd Behavioral Changes
Person undergoes obvious behavioral changes that concern friends and family.
Person fails to see themselves or others as valuable; this is accompanied by a failure to acknowledge themselves or others’ needs.
“Inner Emptiness” is a lonely and extreme sign of impending burnout, defined by a feeling of numbness or “emptiness,” which some may seek to overcome with binge activities like overeating, drug or alcohol abuse, obsessive masturbation or sexual activity.
One of the tell-tale signs of forthcoming burnout: person suddenly feels lost and unsure, exhausted, with a bleak worldview, and no enthusiasm for the future.
Full Burnout Syndrome often results in a person’s complete mental and physical collapse. At this stage, seek medical attention.
How To Recover From Burnout
If you read this list and thought, “Oh my god, that’s me!” you’re not alone. According to the American Institute of Stress, 40% of all working people report that their job is “very” or “extremely” stressful (conditions that would put them at risk for burnout).
According to numbers reported in 2017, 153 million people in the United States are employed. This means that over 61 million people are at risk of “burning out” at any given moment in the U.S. alone. To me, this implies an unsustainable work economy– to say nothing about quality of life and what it takes to maintain employment in the current state of our union.
These conditions have also laid the groundwork for why the mindfulness movement has taken off in the United States.
If you’re already experiencing full-blown burnout, seek medical attention from your Primary Care Doctor or Psychologist, who can refer you to the appropriate specialist or direct you towards a tailored and appropriate course of action. Once you reach full burnout, it’s important that you take some time to recover. Consider taking a vacation or spending time with family. Then ease your way back in.
Otherwise, if you are not yet quite past your tipping point, the below proactive measures can help you recover from burnout and prevent you from lapsing into it in the first place:
Multitasking does not make you more efficient. It makes you more scatter-brained and less present– and therefore, less productive at work. Studies show that multitasking also increases your risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s, and cognitive decline at an older age.
Additional studies also show that the brain truly can’t perform two tasks efficiently at the same time. Sure, you might check two items off your To-Do list, but you won’t necessarily do them well or in a conscious way. This, in turn, makes time seem like it is passing by at an even faster rate. Want to feel like you have more hours in your day? Do one thing at a time.
Many cognitive behavior therapists recommend that overachievers stop making To-Do lists, because To-Do lists tend to hold overachievers hostage. We feel guilty when we don’t accomplish everything on our Daily To-Do lists, and this can contribute to a perpetual feeling of “being behind,” which leads us to overcompensate.
Moreover, making To-Do lists can act as an artificial stressor that you are imposing on yourself. Instead, try writing a To-Do list that consists only of the things that you absolutely have to accomplish each day. The bare minimum. This will hold you accountable to your most essential deadlines without making you feel overwhelmed. This is also a good strategy for people who work from home, where there are many distractions.
Also: clean your workspace. Throw out, donate, recycle, or sell any useless clutter that makes your home or office visually messy. Messy office, messy mind.
As a culture, we’re using too many apps designed to save us time. In reality, these apps are complicating our lives, shortening our attention span, and making us restless. To get your focus back, try eliminating daytime use of tools and triggers built on the economy of time optimization, like Slack, Push Notifications, e-mail alerts, and chat apps. They only serve as a distraction.
If you can’t avoid Slack completely, Fast Company offers some advice on how to make this known “productivity killer” slightly less distracting.
Address Your Underlying Issues
Do you have ADD? Body issues? Resentment towards a coworker? Are you worried about money? Do you feel undervalued? A number of psychological issues can increase your likelihood of experiencing burnout. Because personal issues impact our ability to do our best work, addressing underlying emotional needs often improves our ability to compartmentalize and cope with stress at work. Speaking to a therapist can help. If you can’t see someone in person or can’t afford to, try an online therapy service like Talkspace. (Even Michael Phelps uses it.)
Practice Mindfulness and Take It Seriously
There are a lot of misconceptions about what “mindfulness” and meditation really are, but several meta-analyses conclude that mindfulness is associated with decreased anxiety, depression, and pain. Bringing awareness and curiosity to your worry loops helps dissolve them, and a great way to do this is to practice short meditations on a daily basis. Think of it as “exercise” for your brain.
As we wrote in our Comprehensive Guide to Anxiety Relief, “meditation is a proven effective treatment for anxiety, but you really have to do it in those moments when you AREN’T anxious to experience the benefit, because when your thoughts are already spiraling your brain is not going to calm itself enough to meditate.” The goal is to build up mental fitness so that your mind is less likely to drift into anxious thought patterns later on.
The Headspace App, Calm, The Meditation Minis Podcast, and Insight Timer are all great apps for those new to meditation. Make it your goal to do a short guided meditation once a day, like before you go to bed.
Related: The 6 Best Free Meditation Apps.
Reject Open Concept Offices
Studies show that offices with open floor plans are considerably less productive than those with private offices. The reason? People, quite literally, need boundaries to do their best work. Instead of encouraging spontaneous interaction and creative collaboration as they were once thought to do, open-plan offices end up being totally silent. They also discourage interaction because no one wants to talk loudly and distract those doing silent work nearby. So, instead of encouraging collaboration for all, the result is productivity for none. If you inhabit a co-working space and have the option to reserve a private room when you really need to focus, do it.
Do Not Disturb
Consider switching your phone to “Do Not Disturb” mode during the workday. This setting will mute all phone calls, text messages, and push notifications so that you won’t get a “ding” or see the red notification until you actually pick up your phone to look at it. This can work wonders for people struggling with EDBS– Easily Distractible Brain Syndrome. Most people report significant improvements in their ability to focus when they make this change.
Ask Yourself Honest Questions
How do you want to spend your days? Why are you doing this work? What motivates you to post about your social life online? These are just a few of the questions you could ask yourself on a daily basis to bring purpose back into your actions.
Often, our misplaced emotions lead us to do things that are suboptimal for our own health and happiness. We take on more work because we want to get ahead, but this in turn makes us less productive. We procrastinate because we’re uninspired, and this in turn creates more stress. Sometimes you need a night in, or you need to take a day off just to do your laundry, go to the gym, and get a haircut. That is okay, and not a “waste” of a vacation day.
In fact, a well-timed vacation day will often do more good than a weeklong vacation. You don’t even necessarily need to take more vacation: you just need smarter, better-timed vacations. (Ideally, following periods of extended stress.)
Ask For Help
Ask a partner, parent, sibling, friend, spouse, or someone else close to you to help keep you accountable to taking a break. Allow people to do things for you when they offer, or outright ask them if they don’t. So often, we are afraid of “being a burden” on other people that we often miss opportunities to use our own resources.
Your wife can call you out when you’re answering emails after hours. Your friend can agree to meet you at the gym and they will know if you don’t show up. Ask your husband to run an errand for you if you really don’t have time. These people love you and are here to help you, so use them.
Asking for help can be hard, and women are often worse at it than men. In the workplace as in relationships, women tend to compensate for men when it comes to “picking up the slack” (sorry, fellas). According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women spend on average twice as many hours as men doing household activities like preparing food and drink, laundry, and cleaning. And yet women are increasingly working as many workplace hours as men, which adds to this unfair burden.
Regardless of which gender you fall into, most of us benefit from learning to set our own boundaries.
Whenever you feel compelled to take on another task that you seemingly don’t have time for, ask yourself, once again: How do I want to spend my days? When framed in these terms, the answer is often simpler than we might think.
Still feeling frazzled? Try making our Stress-Busting Turmeric Popcorn.