Burnout behaves like a ninja: it relies on stealth to pull its victims far along the downward spiral before they are even aware of what’s happening.
I’m not kidding.
Based on decades of intensive research into the burnout experience, none of the people whom I interviewed believed that it was one singular event that immediately led to their burnout. Instead, it was more like the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” before they recognized that what they were feeling was burnout.
They ignored the mild symptoms of emotional, psychological, and physical distress until in manifested into exhaustion, cynicism, and a reduced sense of self.
While the warning signs are often ignored, it might help you to understand the 3 stages that precipitate burnout. If you’re experiencing them over time, you might want to consider that they are urging you to take action to stop your descent into burnout.
If you think about how you felt and engaged in work and life before you burned out, you were probably hopeful, optimistic, and eager to move toward your goals.
But then something happened in the workplace:
- Your boss is a micromanager who constantly questions and criticizes everything that you do.
- Corporate downsizing requires you to do the work of two (or more) full-time employees.
- An economic downturn has tightened budgets, requiring you to “make do” with outdated tech that significantly increased your work hours.
Or perhaps your work habits that previously led to success “suddenly” begin to undermine your performance:
- You were always willing to pitch in – until you felt like you were working nights and weekends when your colleagues were able to take time off.
- You enjoy being an over-achiever – but now you can’t seem to meet the “easiest” of deadlines.
- Your emotional armor to be tough and decisive conflicts with your need to maintain rapport with your colleagues.
Whatever your unique stressors (external or internal), the result is a marked decline in productivity and job satisfaction. The initial feelings of hope have deteriorated into frustration. This is the first stage in the descent into burnout.
If you ignored the initial feelings of frustration – just brushed them off as “business as usual” – you still haven’t addressed its contributing stressors. Your boss continues to micromanage. There’s no foreseeable end to the amount of work on your plate. Budget tightening continues. And your “can do” attitude deteriorates into “don’t want to.”
Frustration eventually builds into anger:
- Your normally calm demeanor has changed into peevishness.
- Your hastily (and often nastily) refuse colleagues’ requests for help.
- You find yourself wanting to scream into a pillow over the perceived injustices in the ways in which you’re being taken advantage of.
This anger is the second stage in the descent into burnout.
As the warning signs in the first two stages continue, you begin to realize that you can’t go on like this any more. To self-protect, you vow to embody a “don’t care” attitude:
- You refuse to give input in meetings (even if you were considered to be the “go to” person for ideas).
- You have trouble making even small decisions – not out of fear of a poor result, but because you really don’t care what happens.
- You’re continuously late, tardy, or absent – in fact, you begin to think that being fired might be the only way out of your misery.
To someone who was an over-achiever or nurturer, this apathy can be terrifying because it is the antithesis of your previous behavior. But apathy is a protective shield against the emotional, psychological, and physical exhaustion that you feel. This apathy is the third and final stage before a full-blown burnout.
The Descent into Burnout Might Be Quick (or Slow)
The descent into burnout can take 6 months OR up to 2 years.
While each person’s combination internal and external stressors are unique in their downward spiral into burnout, I’ve found that this 3-stage process of frustration leading to anger then leading into apathy seems to be universal.
Burned out workers become increasingly disengaged as they move through these stages.
- During the frustration stage, you will probably still be contributing – often even more energetically as you try to resolve the issues or situations that are causing your frustration.
- As you become more angry, you may become more vocal in your opposition to the stressors that you are experiencing – or you might stew quietly (even though your body language is making it very clear that you are NOT pleased).
- Eventually you realize that it’s unhealthy to continuously display your anger or choke it down, but you just don’t have the energy or incentive to make changes – so you continue to come to work (well, physically at least but not necessarily mentally).
Depending on the combination of stressors, you may fly through these stages into a full-blown burnout within 6 months of the initial feelings of frustration. However, if you believe that you have some control over the stressful situation, it might take 2 years before you totally burn out.
No matter how long it takes, a full burnout coincides with feeling disengaged from your job, colleagues, and the workplace. As this disengagement intensifies, it grows into presenteeism or (in post-Covid language) “quiet quitting”: you’re physically at work, but psychologically and emotionally you are just not there.
But even though it took months or years to spiral down through these 3 stages, there is a good chance that you never really noticed how these feelings of frustration, anger, and apathy were interconnected. Whether you call it denial or lack of awareness, this is why I believe that the descent into burnout emulates the actions of a ninja.
Burnout utilizes the stealth of a ninja to pull you into burnout
because it relies on the common practice of misinterpreting
the 3 stages as passing, unconnected emotions –
rather than the 3 stages leading to burnout.
Self-Awareness Is Necessary to Avoid Burnout
While the 3 stages preceding burnout are common, your combination of internal and external stressors is unique. In addition to the external environmental stressors that exist in your workplace and the internal personality traits that make you more susceptible to burnout, there are physical manifestations of stress.
Denial is a major component of the downward spiral to burnout.
No matter how unbearable your emotional responses or how intense the workplace stressors are, it is usually only when the stress manifests itself into physical symptoms that people finally stop to admit that something is wrong.
Sometimes the physical problem is acute that warrants immediate medical attention. In my original research that culminated in the Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B‑DOC), over 15% of my participants developed cancer within 6 months of their burnout.
Fortunately, burnout doesn’t automatically lead to acute physical disease. More often the physical symptoms manifest in chronic, on-going health problems. These are just some of the physical signs of stress and burnout:
- A nagging cold or flu-like symptoms from which you just can’t seem to recover
- A continuum of sleep problems ranging from an inability to fall or stay asleep to narcoleptic napping
- Skin eruptions
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Heart palpitations, high blood pressure
- Anxiety or panic attacks
It’s important to realize that these physical warning signs often start out subtly and are easily ignored. It’s only as you continue along the downward spiral to burnout that they become acute and/or chronic, interfering with your life, your work, and your happiness.
The burnout ninja is easily ignored. The warning signs of burnout are initially subtle, but can and will escalate in intensity, frequency, and even number.
So make it a habit to check-in with yourself regularly. How are things going at work? Is your relationship with your boss supportive? Do you feel a sense of frustration or anger – but can’t specifically identify the cause? Are you sleeping well at night and feeling refreshed when you awaken? And finally, are there any changes in how your body is functioning?
It is only through self-awareness that arises from consistent self-reflection that you can spot the burnout ninja AND take preventative action in the descent into burnout.
Dr. Geri Puleo is the creator of the Burnout During Organizational Change (B-DOC) Model, a research-based solution that defines the descent and recovery of workplace burnout. Her current project is focused on gender differences in workplace burnout. A frequent and popular keynote speaker, her TEDx Talk on Burnout v. PTSD: More Similar Than You Think has been viewed over 600,000 times on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI).
2 thoughts on “The Stealthy Downward Spiral to Burnout”
Dr. Puleo, I read your article “Stealthy Downward Spiral to Burnout”.
Dr. Puleo you HIT THE NAIL OF THE HEAD!!!!
I was a senior level executive in the corporate sector – an international company. Each topic you bring to the fore brought back the time when, without knowing, I was caught up in the Stealthy Downward Spiral. Believe me, you do not awaken one morning and say to yourself – I think I might be burnt out. NO, NO, NO… because your area corporate; you have a job and a commitment to your employer; I am tired and this is just of phase. Burnout doesn’t work that way, you are its captive. However, after a period of time (some times are longer that others) and you begin to take a good hard look at your life/work are how is has or currently affecting you, your family, your well-being, your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual self. You MUST make a DEEP DIVE into YOU. Believe it’s not pretty to be HONEST-TRULY HONEST with yourself. The self inventory will hopefully help you evaluate what you want your life/work to be and begin to make important decisions about you.
For me, I made a choice to leave the international corporate setor. Start the healing process from the Burnout; that process does not happen over night to takes work, hard work, on your part. No one else can do it for you. The good news is: THERE IS LIFE AFTER BURNOUT !!!!
I am very proud to say. I work on my terms and my time. Family is most important to me. They have supported me and stood by me through the Burnout and recovery.
Remember you have only one life to live make it a happy one; you can
PS by the way, it’s been seven (7) years burnout free!!!
Thanks so much for the thoughtful addition to the article – I’m so glad that it resonated AND that you have been burnout free for 7 years!!! Congratulations.