12 Stages of Burnout and 5 Ways to Avoid It

Reka Forgach

September 1, 2021

Mental health. It’s the secret bogeyman of Silicon Valley, hot spot of high-achievers in positions far more likely to make them vulnerable to stress, burnout, and anxiety. But regardless of the prevalence of burnout, the topic is often swept under the rug, ignored or denied, in the name of growth.

In May 2020, Techstars took the stage and called out the realities of burnout, dedicating a 4-part documentary series to the topic. Key Techstars leaders tell their stories and introduce a professional perspective on coping with mental health. 

Besides the vulnerability of the video participants, what’s remarkable about this series is its novelty. There are so few founders willing to come forward and talk about their stories, even with massive examples like Elon Musk, Joel Gascoigne founder of Buffer, Rand Fishkin founder of Moz have come forward with their own struggles. It seems like founders only feel like they have permission to open up once they’ve made it big.

Regardless of where you are in your entrepreneurial journey or your mental hygiene, understanding the signs and symptoms of burnout may be the difference between growing a successful business, or damaging your health in the long-term.

A head of greyish sculpture looking out of the window.
Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash.


12 stages of burnout

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term ‘burnout’ in the '70s, to describe the severe stress conditions that lead to physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. In his analysis, he identified twelve stages of burnout progression to explain the phenomenon. These are:

  1. Excessive drive or ambition (feeling an obsessive compulsion to prove yourself) 
  2. Pushing yourself to work harder
  3. Neglecting to care for yourself (minimizing sleep, eating badly, etc.)
  4. Displacing conflicts (dismissing real problems in life, sweeping them under the rug)
  5. No time for non-work related needs (like socializing or recharging your batteries)
  6. Denying that there are any problems arising from our own behavior, and blaming things on our teammates or work
  7. Withdrawing from social life, maintaining very little social contact with the outside world
  8. Exhibiting behavioral changes that are obvious to both friends and family
  9. Depersonalizing, and feeling like neither you nor others are valuable
  10. Feeling empty inside
  11.  Feeling depressed, exhausted, and disheartened towards the future
  12. Experiencing burnout, collapsing both mentally and physically

Not the brightest picture, but one that’s good to be familiar with nonetheless. So where exactly does job burnout stem from?

Burnout is largely a consequence of stressful periods. When you spend too much time in a hyper-stressful space it can lead to burnout. Hyper-stressful environments are those that include all, or at least a few of the following: a lot of uncertainty, few rewards in return for massive work demands, a lack of independence, and heaps of emotional pressure. 

Does any of this sound familiar?

The stress capacity for every person is different, which means some people can survive in overtly stressful situations for months, while some burn out after a few weeks or less. 

What’s more, for many people – especially startup founders – a feeling of hyper stress can cater to their attraction to adrenaline and perfectionism.

A drawing of two hands painted in different bright colours against the colourful geometric background.
Illustration by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash.


Stop the madness: 5 ways to avoid burnout

If you or someone you know are experiencing some of the symptoms above, here are a few steps and mindset shifts to take to sidestep full burnout and get yourself back on track.

1. Review your options. If you’re overwhelmed at work or in life and you feel like you’re starting to lose control - get back in the driver’s seat. Discuss your overload concerns with a co-founder, mentor or manager if the issue is with your team, or re-evaluate your home life with your partner, family or friends. Revise your goals and prioritize them into a manageable timeline, sidelining non-urgent tasks.

2. Find support. If you’re a founder stuck in a tight spot and feeling the pressure squeeze, it might be time to consider teaming up with a co-founder or finding a mentor to support you through difficult decisions. Strong local or online startup communities also provide founders with much-needed problem-solving help and validation when you’re wading through the Trough of Sorrow.

3. Take time off. Even if it’s 10 minutes per day at first - let’s be real, startup schedules are hectic - find an impactful way to hit a reset button and reorganize your priorities. Being in your body through exercises such as meditation or tai chi can brighten your energy and reframe your perspective on the urgency of your to-dos.

4. Exercise and sleep. Physical activity and an ample amount of sleep not only restores your health, but also makes you more resilient and focused in your day-to-day. Ask yourself if your team and company are better served with you in half-zombie mode, plugging through work, or when you’re on the ball, sharp and decisive.

5. Practice mindfulness. The simple act of focusing on your breath and grounding yourself in the present moment without interpretation or judgment is powerful. It strengthens your powers of discernment and concentration, and allows you to evaluate challenges with a more open mind.

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