12 Stages of Burnout and what you can do About it

Stop before you hit the point of diminishing returns, says Rakesh Shukla

Burnout / noun / meaning physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.

I just came back from taking time off, for the first time in five years.  Though I would have liked it to be, it was not in a far off place with friends or family, or time alone contemplating about life with a daiquiri in hand on a beach. I don’t yet have the luxury of that time yet (you can read here why).

I am certainly no proponent of the theory of being a ‘workaholic’ and not taking time off from work. All the years I was working for an employer I made sure I was home on time and had the occasional vacation to wind down; hanging around working ‘late’ at the office when I while away the whole day at coffee breaks is not for me.

But what if you can’t? What if there are times and situations when you are sucked into it work without an end in sight, and no matter what you throw at it, the gap on what is required and what you put in widens? You may well be poised for burnout. Ironically it hits the most assiduous amongst us early — those who accept responsibility readily.

Someone working 12-hour workdays seven days a week but finds a way to relax likely has no problems with burnout. They’re working hard and that’s the state you should be in.

On my return, I chanced on this article titled Burned Out By Ulrich Kraft published in The Scientific American (you can read in PDF here). It gives 12 stages of burnout and I could see it immediately that it mirrored my own experience.

  1. The compulsion to prove oneself: Demonstrating worth obsessively
  2. Working harder: An inability to switch off
  3. Neglecting needs: Erratic sleeping, eating disrupted, and lack of social interaction
  4. Displacement of conflicts: Problems are dismissed; we may feel threatened, panicky, and jittery
  5. Revision of values: Values are skewed, friends and family dismissed, hobbies seen as irrelevant; work is the only focus
  6. Denial of emerging problems: Intolerance, perceiving collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined, social contacts harder, cynicism, aggression, problems are viewed as caused by time pressure and work, not because of life changes
  7. Withdrawal: Social life is small or nonexistent, need to feel relief from stress, alcohol/drugs
  8. Odd behavioral changes: Changes in behaviour are obvious; friends and family grow concerned
  9. Depersonalisation: Seeing neither self nor others as valuable, and no longer perceive their own needs
  10. Inner emptiness: Feeling empty inside and to overcome this, look for activities such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs; activities are often exaggerated.
  11. Depression: Feeling lost, unsure and exhausted; future feels bleak and dar
  12. Burnout syndrome: Can include total mental and physical collapse; time for full medical attention.

To my mind, ‘depersonalisation’ is the red-line. Beyond that lies substance abuse and the classic symptoms of someone struggling with debilitating stress (read here on how to identify and address it). Having lived on that 1 to 12 continuum for the better part of 3-4 years, I can tell you four things that you can do to help yourself immediately.

  1. Discipline: It seems like the advice from a generation ago, but it is the simplest way of snapping out of that state. The discipline of getting up and doing what must be done makes for half the sense of purpose and well-being. Start with getting up early, to begin with.
  2. Breaking down tasks: Looking at the problem in its entirety keeps making it appear large and you keep alternate between throwing more time at it and freezing in front of it. Break it down and attack a smaller chunk. It causes you to feel better and focus on the next chunk.
  3. Taking time off social media: (A) It sucks away your productive time into what looks like work but is not (B) Subliminally you focus on what is the ‘reality’ you are being shown — fabulous vacations, great social lives and perfect families. The truth is almost certainly that most aspects of their lives suck. Now get back to yours.
  4. Exercise: It’s the one thing that will change everything in terms of your mental well-being. Walking around for an hour is not exercise. Sweating it out for just 10 minutes so you can’t stand is. Focus on pushing yourself for a shorter time. Every day.

I will share later here on how to put it to practice, and in my talks if I do one near you.

Stronger with RAKESH SHUKLA is a framework for developing unparalleled mental and physical toughness. It is based on Rakesh’s life, and has helped drive two ‘comebacks’.

Rakesh Shukla slept on railway platforms on his way to creating a world-leading technology company — 
TWB_, which is the choice of over 40 Fortune 500 tech customers worldwide including Microsoft, Boeing, Airbus, Intel, and others. However, at 43, he lost everything within a year. Alone and friendless, he spent the next five years repaying over INR 20 crore of debt and taxes, while building back his company and reputation, and creating and funding VOSD — world’s largest dog sanctuary and rescue.

Rakesh Shukla has suffered heart disease since he was seven years old, had had two heart attacks by the time he was 30, suffers from brain diseases, has broken his back and his kidneys are failing. Towards the end of this five-year period, Rakesh weighed 88 kg and very unfit. Today, at 48 years, he can lift well over 100 kg above his head, run a 10-minute mile, do 2,000 push-ups, and 250 pull-ups. He has never been to a gym, been on a diet, had a trainer, or taken any supplements.

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