My last blog was dedicated to the topic ‘Resilience as a management responsibility’ and looked at the way in which leaders can strengthen the resilience of their teams. That includes identifying signs of chronic stress or pre-burnout symptoms among their employees and reaching out to them to discuss this. Today, I will explain the main symptoms of the three phases of a pre-burnout, which are very distinctive.
Burnout is a tragic occurrence for the individuals concerned – but it also comes at a high cost to companies. When it happens, employees tend to be away from work for several months and need to be replaced during their absence. The alternative is that other team members have to take on the duties of their absent colleague, meaning that they themselves are placed under greater pressure. People are largely aware of the problem surrounding burnouts today. However, many companies fail to properly recognize the fact that the period leading up to an employee’s burnout also entails considerable costs. That is because the affected employee is no longer able to deliver the same level of performance from a quantitative and qualitative perspective – and this impacts on team morale and client satisfaction and thus also has financial consequences. It is therefore vital to recognize the symptoms of chronic stress or a pre-burnout.
What exactly is burnout? There is no official medical diagnosis. Burnout is not mentioned in the International Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) published by the WHO. For doctors, it is therefore only applicable as an additional diagnosis to another illness. To be pragmatic, I would say: Burnout is a result of high levels of prolonged stress, combined with inefficient coping strategies and a lack of recovery. It is important to be aware that the actual breakdown usually comes at the end of a very long process and – based on my experience of real-life cases – there is often a trigger event (professional or private) that brings the already unstable house of cards crashing down.
Very distinctive phases
A key point about burnout is: There are three phases leading up to a breakdown and they are very distinctive. Phase I can be summarized with the terms ‘Activity and aggression’. The individual concerned works tirelessly and displays an extreme level of commitment to meeting high expectations – although they are frequently ‘only’ his own inflated expectations. He has the feeling of being indispensable and of no longer being able to delegate. This results in the individual reducing his level of social contact and neglecting his own needs. The employee has a growing distrust of others and is intolerant and irritable – a clear warning sign that he is unable to cope.
The affected employee continues striving despite being in a state of exhaustion. He is barely able to recuperate in the evenings, at weekends or during holidays and loses his sense of calm and inner peace. It is no wonder that previously very reliable employees suddenly begin to make more mistakes. This phase can last a long time – in extreme cases, it can span several years. Typically in Phase I, others see the changes before the employee himself even notices them, and when someone tries to talk to him about it, he very often dismisses suggestions that he is suffering from exhaustion.
Deceptive calm after the storm
Phase 2 is very different to Phase 1. I refer to it as ‘Flight and withdrawal’. The individual appears to emanate a sense of calm but is, in fact, simply distancing himself from others and himself. After battling with himself and others, he is now functioning almost mechanically. The employee not only significantly reduces his amount of contact with colleagues and friends but also with clients. He does only the minimum amount of work required – in clear contrast to the pattern of behavior visible in Phase 1. The individual experiences a growing feeling of numbness and bitterness and is often in a state of anxiety. These developments are accompanied by strong physical reactions, such as palpitations, sleep disturbances, and increased perspiration, to name just a few examples. Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that the employee’s ability to perform continues to decline – both in qualitative and quantitative terms.
Phase 3 is ‘Isolation and inertia‘, which is a continuation of Phase 2 but on a more extreme level. Phase 3 is almost always accompanied by depression, which manifests itself in the form of symptoms such as absolute disinterest, loss of hope, extreme exhaustion and a loss of perspective. The sufferer finds himself in a state of paralysis. In Phase 3, individuals often turn to addictive substances to compensate for their feelings of emptiness. However, an ever stronger kick is needed in order to actually feel something. There is an acute risk of a mental and physical breakdown during this phase. In the most serious cases, the individual may have suicidal thoughts.
The sooner the better
It is often only in this phase that sufferers realize they need help. However, if affected employees only seek help at this stage, several months of treatment will be needed and only around 50% of sufferers who experience a breakdown will be able to fully resume work. If this is the person’s second breakdown, this figure is much lower. For managers, it is therefore imperative that they reach out to their employees immediately if they display Phase 1 symptoms – even if this type of discussion is far from easy. That is because the chances of being able to reverse the process are greatest during this period – with benefits for both sides. In my next blog, I will explain how a discussion of this nature should ideally be conducted.
© Claudia Kraaz