In our previous blog post, we explained what areas of your health and productivity can be affected by burnout. In this piece we’ll explain how you actually get to the point when you become burned out and the stages you go through. Spotting the signs early can be really helpful in reducing burnout symptoms and risks so read on!
What is Burnout?
Burnout has been defined as ‘a syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and a sense of low personal accomplishment that leads to decreased effectiveness at work’ (1). While burnout was initially spotted in those in ‘helping’ professions, e.g. nurses, physicians, social workers, its role in other professions is also widespread and thankfully is becoming more recognised. Technologies such as Vitrue VIDA Burnout assessments are also now able to empower people with insights into where they might be at risk of, or exhibiting symptoms of burnout with recommendations on how to prevent or reduce it.
Previously, Herbert Freudenberger, an American psychologist, described the progression of burnout in 12 stages. This was later simplified into a 5-stage version that is described below.
1. Honeymoon phase
The first stage is referred to as the Honeymoon phase (Figure 1). It is particularly relevant to new job roles or undertaking new work tasks and initiatives. At this stage, there are absolutely no signs of burnout, instead, you are full of enthusiasm, commitment, and joy from your work. You are very productive and take on every possible task and opportunity to perform your best. You feel creative, optimistic and full of energy, and to prove your skills, you may take more onto your shoulders than you should (3).
This stage is wonderful and to stay here forever would be ideal! But be careful when in this stage. The risky aspect of the honeymoon phase is if you don’t prevent overworking and adopt strategies to wind down and get rest regularly, this may progress to the next stage before you know it.
2. Onset of Stress
You progress to the next stage when you gradually start noticing that some days are more stressful than others. You lack time for personal needs, and you start seeing your family and friends less. Your job might become the most important thing in your life (1). Some early signs of stress may start bothering you, manifesting as an inability to focus, headaches, anxiety, change in appetite, and even high blood pressure, to name few (3).
3. Chronic Stress
Frequent experience of high-stress levels brings you into the stage of chronic stress. As a result, your problem-solving skills and performance decrease further, and at this point, you start feeling you are out of control and powerless. Your efforts do not seem to yield the same productive results as before. To avoid facing the pressure of your tasks, you may procrastinate. You might not be praised or acknowledged for your achievements which can build up a sense of incompetence and failure (1).
Chronic stress takes a toll on your mental and physical health and further intensifies the symptoms described in stage 2. You now may find yourself getting ill more frequently. Additionally, you may not seem to regulate your emotions that well anymore. Even small things may make you aggressive, resentful, or sad. You may deny the problems and distance yourself from colleagues and social life (1). In extreme cases to escape the negative emotions, some people may even start to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs.
This stage is burnout itself. Not addressing the previous stages/ symptoms promptly can result in critical exhaustion levels that will make it hard to cope with work demands. The continuous sense of failure and powerlessness eventually leads to the feeling of despair and disillusionment. You don’t see ‘a way out’ of the circumstances and become indifferent towards your work (1).
Physical symptoms may add on and further intensify. Apart from being constantly fatigued, having ongoing digestive problems, chronic headaches, you may also experience behavioural changes. The developed sense of self-doubt and pessimistic outlook on your job and life can be pronounced at this stage (1).
5. Habitual Burnout
This is when you don’t manage to recover from burnout and the state and the symptoms become a part of your life (3). Attempts to bring yourself back to normal is more challenging than it has ever been. Apart from affecting your career, it may reflect in many aspects of your life, including personal relationships. You can lose joy in your hobbies that you once loved, and you may not feel like doing anything. You may always feel sad and depressed. At this point, you may need outside help to overcome the burnout symptoms and turn on the recovery path (1).
Reasons for Burnout
It can affect a person at any stage of their career, but a recent study found that the average worker may experience burnout by as early as 32 years of age (2). The most common employee responses to why they burnout are working long hours (58%) and taking too many tasks (52%). Some other factors include the feeling of responsibility to be constantly ‘on’ while at work (47%) and not taking enough days off (39%) (2). But let’s have a closer look at the roots of burnout.
The risks of burnout can stem from two main routes, the personality and attitude of the employee or the workplace conditions, or a combination of both (figure 2). An employee with a great work ethic and healthy attitude to work may still eventually be worn out by a workplace with some fundamental issues such as not supporting its employees or not ensuring healthy culture. On the other hand, a high-achieving employee with perfectionistic strivings who neglects her own needs and personal boundaries and puts her job at the centre of her universe is most likely to burnout regardless of workplace conditions. Check out Figure 2 for personal (Internal) and workplace factors (External) that may predispose to and lead to burnout symptoms (1).
It is also important to note that the recent pandemic affected collective mental health and increased the likelihood of burnout. People are forced to work remotely which doesn’t help as around a half of workers report working more hours or finding it difficult to set boundaries between personal and working lives. On it’s own it is a significant risk factor for exhaustion and burnout, and just under a half of those with burnout symptoms may quit their jobs (2).
For employees, the ideal-case scenario would be to stay within the honeymoon stage or being able to return to it quickly. If you have minor symptoms only a few small adjustments in your everyday life may be enough to alleviate the symptoms. For example, you need to set better personal boundaries and be more realistic about the workload you are taking on (1). It is essential to plan your work to leave the workplace before you are completely exhausted at the end of the day. You should have quality personal time that would be enough for recharging, doing what you love to do, and seeing the loved ones (hopefully, we can do more of the latter soon!).
If you experience intense physical and mental symptoms of burnout, seeing a healthcare professional would help to differentiate these from other underlying conditions that might have an impact on your health.
Employers, should promote the wellbeing of their employees by creating a space and culture where employees feel supported, feel in control and have fair opportunities to grow. Having adequate office resources and providing solutions for work-life balance e.g. flexible work schedule, may significantly impact someone’s life! It is extremely well proven that the overall rewards and positive work outcomes from preventing burnout easily outweigh the costs.
The first step for employers or employees to engage with and reduce burnout levels is to understand where they are today. Vitrue VIDA Burnout assessments use cutting-edge evidence-based assessments and recommendations to help understand where your team might have burnout symptoms and risks and give them personalised recommendations on how to prevent or treat it. If you are an employee and would like to discover how you can access all of the amazing benefits VIDA has to offer, click here.
VIDA’s core service is a wellbeing and desk assessment. This gives employees personalised recommendations on how to improve their health, wellbeing and ergonomics while working from home or in offices. VIDA empowers employers with prioritised insights on what would drive health and wellbeing across their teams while also ensuring they are compliant with their duty of care for desk/DSE/workstation assessments.
Side Note: As with many complex issues, there’s a lot of alternate views on the topic. You might see other articles on “The 4 Stages of Burnout” or “The 12 Stages of Burnout”. Don’t worry about this – the important thing is that you find a way to focus self-improvement – one of these approaches might connect with you better and that’s what matters!