More than exhaustion - the development of a burnout

The higher you climb, the further you can fall. A burnout doesn’t happen over night or within a couple of weeks. Why a burnout often starts with something „really great“ and why not every exhaustion equals a burnout.

Go here, if you want to read this article in German.

What does burnout mean?

I am about to have a burnout“ – who hasn’t said or heard this before? Even though, or probably because, there is still no clear official definition of what constitutes a burnout and if and how it differs from other diagnosis (first and foremost depression), I strongly believe that people use the term „burnout“ far too often and often in the wrong way. It’s important to understand its differentiation from normal exhaustion. Even though everybody talks about burnout, and you’d think the last thing this world needs is yet another article about it, there are many misconceptions which can lead to people not getting help in time.

The burnout syndrome describes the state of total psychological and physical exhaustion at the end of a long journey. It’s not necessarily the result of too much work and merely the exhaustion of one’s resources. Burnout starts much sooner – and paradoxically often with high levels of motivation and expectation.

Phase 0 – Anticipation

A new job, a new marriage, a baby, a new city. The start of a new life chapter often comes with a lot of energy, hope and zest for action. Even before the new chapter starts, you create images in our mind that describe an ideal scenario. And those images make you feel good which is why you are really looking forward to what’s to come.

Phase 1 – The Spring

The new chapter officially starts. The first days and weeks are usually fine, but it’s very easy to underestimate the energy required and spent. Adapting to a new situation is a heavy pull on our resources. And even if everything is truly great, there is usually a Low after some weeks.

Excursion Nr. 1 (especially to all employers out there):

Cyclical performance curves of 8-12 weeks are totally normal. Even in „regular mode“ we go through phases where we are more attentive and productive, and there are phases when that just isn’t the case. To reach the same level of performance during those times, we need to dig deeper into our energy reserves. In the short term, that’s ok, in the longterm it’s not. Because while in theory we need more and more to refill those reserves, in practice we never actually do it! Again: Bringing constant levels of performance is resource-heavy. Phases for regeneration during which we don’t reach those levels are perfectly normal and extremely important to recharge the batteries.

Phase 2 – Reality Check

After that first low you never really reach that High from the beginning again. That’s the same at work and with love. Reality kicks in and all of a sudden you notice things that are at odds with those ideal scenario images in your mind. That’s the beginning of the conflict between your own (intrinsic) needs and the outer (extrinsic) world.

Excursion Nr. 2: 

The best definition for stress I have come across so far is this: „Stress is the subjective assessment, that ones resources are not sufficient to master a certain situation“. That means: not every situation is stressful for everybody. It’s about the negotiation between „the inside“ and „the outside“, not about the amount of work as such. And: something is missing, otherwise that negotiation would not be a problem.

So, stress has started to emerge, caused by a conflict between our intrinsic needs and the extrinsic demands. And what we need is actually pretty simple:

Excursion Nr. 3: 

Watching small children can be super cute and also very interesting as we can learn a lot about human needs. Aside from sleep and food, kids need:

  • feeling safe and snug
  • human attention and affection
  • room to explore and create, and
  • the possibility to develop and express their own individuality

Those needs don’t really change much over the course of a lifetime. Growing up and becoming „socialised“ means that they get pressed into forms that require adaptation and compromise – otherwise society wouldn’t work. But that also means that something gets suppressed.

Adult humans also need opportunities for development and creation as well as recognition and feedback for their work. That makes an environment safe. If that’s not provided, the gap between intrinsic and extrinsic widens and most people rather sacrifice their needs than the context they are in. They adapt and suppress even more those deeply rooted necessities. And often they don’t see that the context contributes a lot to that gap.

An unhealthy environment (and a burnout-booster) mostly shows the following characteristics: No room for creation and decision making, no possibilities for development, no constructive feedback. This can mean that we constantly have to surrender our own schedules and priorities to somebody else’s, that we produce results but nobody sees and values them, or worse, somebody claims them as their own. Or that we want to execute a decision but we keep being ignored. This leads to a loss of our sense of impact and our trust in our abilities and judgement. Naturally that also brings our motivation levels way down which usually take our productivity in tow with them. And to keep reaching those usual levels of high productivity, we have to dig deeper and deeper into our reserves, in order to „keep functioning“.

Especially when expectations were very high in the beginning, or when the situation doesn’t look that bad from the outside, it’s hard to admit that situation to ourselves. Doubting our own values shakes our trust in our judgement even more which can lead to the first sense of crisis.

And that’s the critical moment. If you manage to act here, you can save yourself. If positive changes can be made at this moment, you can avert a continuous negative development.

Attention employers!

This moment often happens at the end of a probation period! Hence an open discussion is so important at that time as it determines the ongoing relationship.

Adaptive difficulties in the first weeks / months are totally normal. To enter a new situation also means dealing with unknown unknowns – on both sides. Or, no matter how many books about babies you can feasibly read, no book will tell you how YOU will feel. We are far too unique for that!

Phase 3 – Denial

If you don’t act in this stressful situation, you are at risk of triggering this development: You work more and more and you go beyond your personal boundaries. Your energy reserves get emptier and you continue ignoring your needs with even more determination. Head- and backaches or lack of sleep are being ignored and „cured“ with pills. In fact these are signals from your body and cries for help! Friendships, relationships and hobbies are being undernourished. You become a robot and you keep draining the few resources you have left.

Others escape into themselves and activate the „denial mode“. Simply marking time replaces any form of constructive work. Both modes (over-doing and denial) make you distance yourself from yourself more and more and you start to neglect yourself. To fill the nagging emptiness and the emotional hunger, to quieten the nagging thoughts, many start to compensate with food, alcohol, drugs, sport, sex, or even more work. All those things (except for hard drugs) are fine within a certain limit, but not when they are being abused.

Phase 4 – Withdrawal

Your thinking gets narrower and you focus entirely on the negative. If you still have social contacts at that point, you risk loosing them too – no friendship can take excessive amounts of complaining without a scratch. Friends often walk away and you withdraw yourself even further, convinced that nobody understands you or can help you.

Empty resources, an increasingly unhealthy lifestyle, feeling of loneliness and a growing sense of indifference can often lead to suicidal thoughts.

Phase 5 – Breakdown

Not everybody feels the crash as such. Mostly those who have maintained a manic and artificially active overdrive-mode beforehand – because the difference between yesterday and today is staggering. Those who have been in denial mode before also may not even be able to leave their bed at all, but this then looks like a gradual development, and not like a loud and dramatic crash.

The result is the same: A damaged, exhausted human with no sense of purpose, who is so far detached from himself that he does not even know any more who he is and who blames himself for everything. And depending on how far the damage has proceeded, he might not even be able to ask for help. The crisis has reached its peak and professional help is required.

Learning to spot the warning signals

These are „classic burnout phases“ that usually take months or years. Of course it doesn’t always happen exactly like this and above all, it does not just happen in the context of work. Young mums, pensioners, singles in a new city – any new situation that starts with high expectations has the potential to develop into something disastrous. Aside from the described decline of your health and parts of your personality, relationships can be ruined, bank accounts can be wiped or other damages can happen that may only barely or never be able to be corrected.

A burnout is an identity crisis, that often starts when expectations are set too high. The final total exhaustion is only the socially accepted signal that something isn’t or hasn’t been right for a while. But burnout is more than exhaustion – something you can also feel if you’ve worked nonstop towards a deadline for 3 weeks or if you’ve helped 5 friends move house on consecutive weekends. Burnout starts earlier and goes deeper. If you are still able to pull the emergency break and to actively do things that are good for you, you are luckily still some steps away from a burnout.

But no matter where you are on the scale. When things happen that don’t feel good – pay attention. Sadness, loss of motivation, belly ache or sleeping problems all happen for a good reason. Thoughts like „I don’t think anybody cares“ or „If I just keep pushing through, it will be fine“ can be warning signals that something really isn’t right.

When you openly confront and question those signals, you give yourself a really good chance to act and to look for help.


Picture: Tyler McRobert via