Burnout syndrome is more common than you think: are you missing the signs?

24 July 2016

The first photo is me in early December 2014; the second, end of January 2015. Granted, the second photo was taken professionally, but I remember the week the one on the left was taken. I was at my absolute lowest. Even my morning showers exhausted me—I literally feared I was going to die!

So, how did I bounce back from burnout? Let’s first dive into what burnout syndrome actually is.

What is burnout syndrome?

The term “burnout syndrome” was coined in the early 1970s by psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenberger. He defined the syndrome as a “state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life.”[1]

Freudenberger observed that people suffering from burnout presented with the following common symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Frustration
  • Depression
  • Mood fluctuations
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating

In addition to these mental symptoms, he also observed physical ailments such as backaches and digestive disorders.[1]

Twelve phases of burnout

Burnout syndrome does not develop overnight, but instead, gradually over time. Freudenberger and his colleague Gail North split burnout into 12 phases. According to Freudenberger and North, these phases are not necessarily experienced in order. In addition, sufferers of burnout may not experience each phase: many skip certain phases; others find themselves in several at the same time. Furthermore, the time spent in each phase varies from person to person. The 12 phases are as follows:[1]

Phase 1: A compulsion to prove oneself
  • Excessive ambition
  • Grim determination and compulsion
  • Deep need to prove to colleagues (and oneself) that they are doing excellent work
Phase 2: Working harder
  • High personal expectations
  • Takes on more work
  • Obsessed with handling everything oneself
  • Notions of irreplaceability
Phase 3: Neglecting one’s needs
  • No time for play or socialising
  • Places less importance on sleeping, eating, and seeing friends and family
  • Justifies these sacrifices as proof of heroic performance
Phase 4: Displacement of conflicts
  • Knows something is not right but cannot see the sources of their problems
  • To deal with the root causes of their distress is seen as threatening
  • Often the first physical symptoms appear during this phase
Phase 5: Revision of values
  • Perceptions change due to isolation, conflict avoidance, and denial of basic physical needs
  • Friends or hobbies are dismissed
  • The job is their only measure of self-worth
  • Becomes increasingly emotionally blunted
Phase 6: Denial of emerging problems
  • Develops an intolerance for certain people and situations
  • Perceives colleagues as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined
  • Social situations feel almost unbearable
  • Becomes cynical and aggressive
  • Views their problems as caused by time pressure and their workload
Phase 7: Withdrawal
  • Social isolation
  • Feels a sense of hopelessness or lack direction
  • Works obsessively “by the book”
  • May seek release through drugs or alcohol
Phase 8: Obvious behavioural changes
  • Their behavioural changes become obvious to friends and family
  • Becomes fearful, shy, and apathetic
  • Feels increasingly worthless
Phase 9: Depersonalisation

  • Loses contact with themselves
  • Sees neither oneself nor others as valuable
  • No longer perceives their own needs
  • Life becomes a series of mechanical functions
Phase 10: Inner emptiness
  • To overcome the feeling of inner emptiness, they desperately seek activity
  • Exaggerated sexuality, overeating, and drug or alcohol use emerge
  • Views leisure time as dead time
Phase 11: Depression
  • Any of the symptoms of depression, from agitation to apathy, may manifest
  • Indifference, hopelessness, exhaustion
  • Believes the future holds nothing for them
  • Life loses meaning
Phase 12: Burnout syndrome
  • Many have suicidal thoughts to escape their situation
  • Suffers total mental and physical collapse

My personal experience with the phases of burnout

It was only recently I came across these 12 phases of burnout. It was then I realised I had been in a number of them for much of my career.

My desire to prove myself was a definite compulsion from the start (phase 1). I had high personal expectations and pushed myself hard for fear of doing a less-than-excellent job (phase 2). Consequently, I suffered tremendous anxiety. I was constantly worried that my boss or workmates would find fault with my work.

As time went on, while devoting all my energy to my job, I had no energy for friends and hobbies (phase 5). I also stopped socialising with my workmates after work (phase 7).

I became extremely intolerant (phase 6) and would on occasion get so upset with certain workmates that I would have to escape to the ladies’ room to have a cry. In my least proud moment—one of sheer frustration—I actually hit a male colleague on the leg!

My physical health eventually began to suffer (phase 4). I had always struggled with fatigue, but this had worsened. Digestive problems emerged, becoming so bad that I was forced to take time off. This of course increased my anxiety even more. I felt I was irreplaceable (phase 2) and that if I missed even one day of work I was letting the team down. As a result, I would return too soon, and yes, it wasn’t long before I fell sick again.

Exhaustion (phase 11) set in, and I felt less than productive. I was foggy in the head, which lead to feelings of worthlessness (phase 8) and hopelessness (phase 11). I felt empty inside. No longer feeling I had value, I suffered bouts of depression.

When I was at my lowest, the fear of complete collapse (phase 12)—and possible death!—was very real.

Out the other side

Unfortunately, changing jobs doesn’t necessarily mean your body will bounce back. When I left my full-time job in the IT industry in 2010, I thought my health would improve. I was, however, so run down that it was years before I recovered.

How did I eventually do it? In 2015, discovered what my body needed. By making changes to my nutrition and lifestyle, I was able to take control of my health. Almost immediately, my energy levels improved, I regained mental clarity, and my anxiety disappeared.

UPDATE NOVEMBER 2019: In 2018, due to my changing hormones with the approach of menopause, my anxiety attacks returned. I have made further tweaks to my diet and learned skills that have reduced both the frequency and intensity of those attacks by 95% and am confident they are almost behind me.

Does any of the above sound like you?

You may relate to some of what I went through. Or, your experience may be completely different. Whatever the case, I can help you get your life back. I now help others overcome burnout so they too can once again enjoy life with increased energy, mental clarity, and productivity. Click here to find out about my retreats.


  1. Kraft U. Burned out. Scientific American Mind. June/July 2006:28–33.


About Tira

About Tira

Tira Cole is a nutritionist, wellness coach, researcher and educator. Compassionate and nurturing by nature, her mission is to help as many women as possible work with their body's innate wisdom to live a healthful and empowered life.

Find out about her upcoming retreats here.