Michael (1) was a top-ranking executive in a hefty tech multinational. He had built a reputation for wrangling colossal budgets like a hotshot cowboy, flashing a grin while getting impossible contracts signed. The Board reminisced about his past triumphs but had been less than impressed after he took over the Sales Department two years ago. His boss loved Michael’s track record, and was hoping a coaching programme would make the complaints about his tumultuous antics go away and his numbers bounce back up.
He arrived ashen-lipped, white-knuckled and glaze-eyed to his first session with me. He was impatient, hoping I could fast-track his “training” so that he could power through the next quarter, making up for his slow start in the fiscal year. He had recently lost two of his three key team members, which meant he now had to “waste time” finding and onboarding replacements. He rarely saw his kids, delegating family life to his wife while he took care of business. He would often wake up at 3am to fret over upcoming negotiations or whatever, and since he was up, he would get the emails out of the way so he could gear up his agenda for that day. “I can sleep when I’m dead,” he said, then paused awkwardly. “I’m sorry…” he added, “what were we talking about?”
This is the point where blaring sirens and flashing lights go off in my brain as coaching clients like Michael dissolve into Burnout, unaware of their demise. Having been there myself, I’ve made it my mission to bring their careers and their lives from Burnout to Sizzle.
So what does Burnout look like, anyway?
Burnout begins as blind allegiance to output as a sign of productivity (and ultimately of their own self-worth) that will lead to emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and diminished professional competence (2). We tend to assume that it requires trying harder or outworking others, which may get you short-term results but is physiologically unsustainable (3). It obliterates your relationships and your family life, maims businesses as well. The World Economic Forum estimates Burnout’s global price tag at a jaw-dropping $322 billion (4).
Knowing the signs to look out for is the first step in stopping Burnout in its tracks. Take a look at the list below (5) and see where you stand.
The Slippery Slope Of Burnout
STAGE 1: THE HONEYMOON
- Strong ambition and enthusiasm towards a challenge or a new project.
- Creativity, energy and productivity are elevated.
- When you don’t see the results you were hoping for (which, let’s face it, is quite common), you double down to get it done.
- A compulsion to prove yourself, which looks like determination and bravery.
STAGE 2: STRESS CREEPS IN
- You start neglecting your needs. Work comes before eating, sleeping and socializing.
- The first physical symptoms manifest as headaches, insomnia, heart palpitations, and grinding your teeth, among others.
- Anxiety sets in.
- You become irritable.
- You’re aware there’s a problem, but start blaming it on others.
STAGE 3: CHRONIC STRESS
- Work turns into your one and only priority.
- Dealing with other people becomes a burden, so you start isolating yourself to avoid conflict and obstacles to getting work done.
- Sleep quality takes a downturn.
- You start becoming sarcastic, intolerant, and aggressive.
- You forget things, and can’t really focus on the tasks at hand.
- Job satisfaction breaks down.
STAGE 4: BURNOUT
- You find yourself doing everything you can to minimise contact with friends and family.
- There’s a sense of hopelessness, which you might compensate with hits of “destructive experiences,” such as risky behaviours, increased drug/alcohol consumption or compulsive sexual activity.
- You become increasingly fatigued, ill, or both.
- Performance declines. Targets and deadlines are missed.
- People try to reach out to you, commenting on how you have changed, but they can’t get through to you.
- You feel panicked, pressured, out of control.
- You develop chronic stomach, bowel and neurological problems.
STAGE 5: ACUTE BURNOUT
- Depersonalisation creeps in. Life turns into a series of mechanical actions with no hope, purpose or plan for the future.
- You have a sense of inner emptiness.
- Depression sets in. You feel chronically fatigued (physically and mentally), endlessly sad, hopeless, indifferent, and may have suicidal thoughts.
- Full burnout syndrome, which affects your mental integrity, immune system and organs. There is real and present danger here, and a hospital visit is mandatory.
Burnout is a tricky thing to get out of, because the person spiralling into it is often unaware or in denial, and most factors that contribute to it are symptoms of toxic organisational practices that sprout from dysfunctional workplace cultures. In other words, it’s often not you, it’s them (6).
But there is a way out.
If you suspect you may be circling the vortex of Burnout, the first thing you need to do is signal to your leadership that the way things are done is damaging you and the business. You need help from the organisation. You can also reach out to a qualified coach to give you some breathing space and start healing from the lunacy of Burnout. The sooner you act, the more quickly you can bring sanity, tranquillity, productivity and joy back to your life.
- Names and other details have been changed to preserve anonymity. Character may be based on one or more case studies.
- Nuallalong, 2012.
- Friedman, 2015.
- World Economic Forum, in Bruce, 2019.
- Based on the work of Friedman & North (in Stillman, 2020) and Veninga & Spradley (1981).
- Maslach, in Khazan, 2021.