5 stages of burnout: how to notice the symptoms

“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” defines the WHO. Although it is not classified as a medical condition, it can trigger and lead to physical and emotional illnesses.

Burnout is essentially a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and continuous stress. It happens when a person feels overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet persistent demands. This can affect anyone in any industry, and can also happen at home, at school or university, but is most common in the workplace. In the current pandemic, working from home and dealing with the extra pressure can also have a huge impact on our mental health.

The NHS reminds us however that:
“Not all stress is bad.
Long-term stress can harm your health.
There are ways to manage stress.”

There are many research pieces about burnout and the various stages, and we chose to follow Winona State University’s Stages of Burnout study. Detailing each phase, we also mention the symptoms you may notice.

The 5 stages of burnout

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1. Honeymoon phase

The first stage is one we might not assimilate to burnout but it can be the very start of one. A new task, responsibility or job is often seen as the trigger. A personal life event can also be a starting point, such as a divorce or a new arrival in the family, having an effect on your work situation. With this change of situation, your level of job satisfaction, energy, creativity and commitment will be impacted. You’ll feel as if everything is fine, you are perfectly able to manage the situation and nothing will affect you.

At this point, what can make everything change is to have the right positive coping mechanisms in order to avoid entering the next stages of the burnout.

Technically if you are able to maintain these positive coping mechanisms, you should be able to stay in this honeymoon phase indefinitely.

At this stage you might experience the following:
• Strong creativity boost
• Heightened productivity & energy levels
• Job satisfaction
• Intense optimism
• Strong commitment to the new task, job or responsibility
• Desire to prove yourself

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2. Casual stress

Your coping mechanisms aren’t as effective, and you have now realised that some days are clearly better than others. You feel like the stress you are under at work (or at home) is becoming a little harder to manage. In this phase you are most likely to feel common stress symptoms affecting you emotionally, mentally, or emotionally.

At this stage you might experience the following:
• Fatigue
• Anxiety
• Unhappy at your job
• Irritability
• Difficulty to focus
• High blood pressure
• Forgetting things
• Less self-care
• Racing heart
• Sleep disturbances, insomnia
• Headaches
• Some activities become escapes such as watching TV, smoking, drinking or eating

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3. Chronic stress

At this stage, the feelings you have experienced in the previous phase have become far more frequent. A decrease in your motivation will appear, and people are starting to notice some issues at work such as missed deadlines and irritability in certain situations. Both physical and emotional symptoms have intensified during this phase.

At this stage you might experience the following:
• Chronic fatigue, exhaustion
• Anger or aggressive behaviour
• Procrastination at work and at home
• Missed work deadlines and/or targets
• Denial of how you are feeling at home or at work
• Physical pain or illness
• Lack of interest, particularly in hobbies
• Instants of panic
• Increase in the time spent doing escapism activities: drinking, smoking, caffeine, eating
• Feeling of pressure intensifying
• Social withdrawal from friends and/or family

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4. Burnout

The fourth stage is the crisis phase. You have reached a burnout, from which it is not feasible to continue as if everything was ok. It is now crucial to get help and support in order to recover and get out of this downward spiral. This step of the burnout can happen at different times for many as we all have varying levels of coping with stress, but it is also important to be able to detect when colleagues or close friends seem to be at this stage and to get them professional assistance without offending them. If you are unsure what to do, talk to a specialist for advice.

Symptoms here will intensify and happen on a more frequent basis, you might not even have a day without them.

At this stage you might experience the following:
• Behavioural changes
• Feeling empty and lost inside
• Pessimistic mood
• Self-doubt
• Social isolation
• Denial
• Desire to move away from work or friends/family
• Complete neglect of personal needs
• Chronic headaches
• Chronic stomach or bowel pains and issues
• Continuation or increase in escapism activities

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5. Habitual burnout

The fifth stage (and yes there is one), is when your symptoms are so engrained in your life that your burnout has become habitual. Because of this, your physical or emotional issues will have taken over and have become an ongoing issue.

At this stage you might experience the following:
• Chronic mental fatigue
• Chronic physical fatigue & illness
• Depression
• Chronic sadness
• Burnout

Although this might all seem rather pessimistic, it shows that there is a series of steps to even get to the burnout stage, and you are capable (within reason) to get out of the cycle at any phase, by seeking help or talking to someone. This burnout scale is also there to help you identify symptoms and become aware of what you might be experiencing. However, we do recommend you talk to a professional if you feel like your stress is becoming unmanageable.

There are many resources out there, including the Livitay app, which can help you to learn positive coping mechanisms and practice better self-care.

We are all becoming a lot more aware of the consequences of stress on our wellbeing, and luckily there has been a significant rise in recognition of the importance of mental health care, specifically in the workplace. So this is a good thing! Take care of yourself, your body and your mind.