Twelve Phases of Burnout


Every year, reported numbers of stress and burnout rise. Because airline jobs rank among the most stressful jobs in the United States, there is value for us to recognize the signs. Stress, in itself, can be helpful – it sets one in motion, makes one smarter, more alert, faster and it can help improve performance. However, too much, and continuous, stress is unhealthy and can lead to detrimental outcomes including health issues, depression, and burnout. People who are confronted with burnout often do not realize it – until it is too late. 

Burnout and what exactly causes its symptoms are not exactly clear. It is not an acknowledged disease and everyone has their own interpretation. These facts do not make it less real but do make it difficult to effectively help those who suffer with it. Medical guidelines state that someone with burnout has been mentally and physically exhausted for at least six months. Symptoms can include trouble sleeping, emotional instability, excessive worry, anxiety, nervous feelings, concentration problems, and forgetfulness. Physical problems, such as headaches, abdominal pain and palpitations can occur as well. 

Understanding stress is extremely complicated. How someone copes with stress is specific to the individual, e.g., where one performs well under pressure, another becomes mired. The individual’s character, genetics, and sociological aspects are all factors that can determine how someone experiences and responds to stress. 

Researchers have defined 12 distinct phases of burnout. Understand that this is not a linear progression toward burnout, and you can occupy more than one phase at a time. This is to help you identify your situation so that you can remediate if you feel you are on a path toward burnout.

The 12 phases are:  

1. An obsessive need to prove yourself. The extreme urge to prove yourself and desire to make people proud is an important component that can add stress and hint at future burnout. 

2. Working harder and harder. Stopping work becomes difficult and you take on more responsibilities. 

3. Ignoring personal needs and neglecting yourself. Work is becoming more important and other important needs such as sleep, healthy eating and maintaining a social life are ignored.

4. A conflict-avoiding attitude. The result of repressing conflict can propel one into a constant feeling of panic and threat which can lead to sleeping disorders and nervousness. 

5. Changing priorities. Work is most important leaving less time for friends, family, and hobbies. Self-worth is linked to work.

6. Problem denial. Problems are considered a consequence of the workload, nothing else. Often, this presents itself through a harsh and cynical attitude towards others. 

7. Social isolation. There is no longer a close connection to friends and family, colleagues are discouraged from working with you. Often, substance abuse is part of this phase. 

8. Behavior change. People are noticing a change in your behavior and start to worry. Often, the resultant behavior is more cynical, harsh and unreachable. 

9. Depersonalization. You view yourself and others as worthless. Performing in the workplace becomes difficult and you no longer understand what you need. 

10. Inner emptiness. You feel empty inside. Excessive exercise, sexual contact, alcohol or drugs can be distractions to compensate for this empty feeling. 

11. Depression. You feel lost and completely exhausted. You have a hard time identifying a way out.

12. Burnout. In this stage, you have mentally and physically collapsed. Professional help is necessary. 

Do you recognize yourself in one or more of these 12 phases? Talk to your spouse, family, or friends about what is going on and look for professional help before it is too late. Do not ignore the signals and contact a doctor, a therapist or counselor. There is always help once you recognize that it is needed. 

SOURCEAero Crew News, March 2020
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Reini Thijssen is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHCA) and certified life coach specializing in working with aerospace professionals. She has been a writer for Aero Crew News since 2019 and covers various topics related to aviation concerning life- and career changes, relationships, and overall mental health. Reini is in private practice at Emerald Mental Health. She offers online mental health support to adult individuals and couples coping with a wide range of challenges such as anxiety, burnout, grief, and stress. For more information and questions, contact


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