Burnout is a condition in which an aggregated level of stress occurs in a person that result in erratic, irrational, or in some cases, dangerous behavior. Causes of burnout are numerous. It can include stressful professional and personal circumstances, health issues, insecurities, or psychological and personality disorders.

Burnout can be a common cause of conflict in communities. Those suffering from burnout can often take out their stress on others, thus causing conflict scenarios. Fortunately, knowing the symptoms of burnout can help community leaders to identify these issues and handle them as appropriate.

This page provides general guidance, but should not be misconstrued as medical and psychological guidance. If in doubt, please seek guidance from a medical professional.


Burnout is a problem that affects all walks of life, all people, and all professions. As such, it is a problem that affects all communities, and yours is no different. Burnout refers to long-term exhaustion that typically causes lack of interest and focus. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to spot and prevent in your community.

Burnout appears as a series of often subtle changes in personality, perspective, values, and behavior in the sufferer. As these changes progress, it can be difficult to identify that members are suffering from burnout. Unfortunately, burnout often is misdiagnosed as irrationality, short temperament, unusual and strange behavior, or lack of tolerance.

Burnout Stages

While it is difficult to identify categorically, fortunately there is some compelling research that was first published in the June/July 2006 issue of Scientific American in an article called Burned Out. It presented the findings of two psychologists, Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North, and their Burnout Cycle. The cycle is composed of 12 phases that outline the progressively serious steps that are part of burnout.

These steps don’t necessarily happen in a sequential order (it can vary from person to person), and some sufferers will skip some of the steps whereas others will dwell longer on them. These steps offer an interesting list of warning signs for potential burnout victims.

1. A compulsion to prove oneself

Often burnout is triggered by an obsessive commitment to prove yourself. This desire is founded in demonstrating to your colleagues and particularly yourself that you can knock the ball out of the park.

2. Working harder

To knock the aforementioned ball out of the aforementioned park, hard work is needed. This is manifested in long days, longer nights, and an inability to switch off results.

3. Neglecting one’s own needs

In this stage, simple pleasures such as sleeping, eating, socializing with friends, and watching TB are seen as just that: pleasures, and as such, a distraction from work.

4. Displacement of conflicts

In this stage, you don’t really understand the problems that you have. If they lead to discomfort or even panic, the victim dismisses the impressions because they feel threatening.

5. Revision of values

In this phase, the obsession and focus of work means that traditional values such as friends or hobbies are dismissed, rejected, and pushed aside. Here your only evaluation of success is being good at your job.

6. Denial of emerging problems

In this phase, cynicism, intolerance, and aggression raise their ugly heads. Colleagues are dismissed as idiots. Your increasing problems are blamed on lack of time, incompetent coworkers, and unfair workloads.

7. Withdrawal

You reduce your social interaction and contacts to a minimum and dial up your work to 11. You may start relieving the stress by boozing more often during the week or possibly even resorting to drugs. Whatever your choice of substance, you appear to be indulging in it a little more than usual—and dangerously so.

8. Obvious behavioral changes

Your strange and erratic behavior is obvious to your friends, family, and colleagues. You are not yourself, and your nearest and dearest can see it a mile off.

9. Depersonalization

At this point you feel like you offer no value to the world, and lack confidence in what you feel you could once do. Your life feels like one long series of mechanical and emotionless functions.

10. Inner emptiness

You feel an expressed sense of emptiness. You resort more to booze or drugs or possibly find relief in overeating, strange and exaggerated sexual behavior, or other activities.

11. Depression

Here you feel hopeless, lost, and exhausted, and see little in the way of rays of light for the future.

12. Burnout syndrome

At this, the most serious level, you feel suicidal and desperate for a way out. You are on the verge of mental and physical collapse and need medical support and attention.

Managing and handling burnout is complex. The most critical piece is to learn the symptoms and when you observe them in others, provide comfort and guidance. In many cases the most difficult stage is helping the person to know that they are experiencing burnout (particularly if they have never burned out before).

In some cases you should ask that individual to step away from the community and go and unwind. A few days away can have a tremendous benefit.

Pitfalls To Avoid

  • Don't mistake burnout symptoms for someone being mean or irrational.

Tips and Tricks

  • Lend a comforting, understanding ear to someone suffering with burnout. They need a friend not an enemy.
  • Always remember that those burning out will have a short temper so put their words and statements in context.

Further Reading

* Burnout is covered in The Art of Community (http://artofcommunityonline.org/)


Jono Bacon provides an overview of burnout and the burnout cycle.