Are you exhausted but unable to sleep at night? Do you wake up feeling cynical and unmotivated to start the day? Have you turned to food, or other substances to cope with how you feel? If this sounds close to home, you may be experiencing burnout. That feeling that you cannot keep moving forward, but do not know what else to do or how to get out of it. All you want to do is sleep and wake up when things are better.
You are not alone in this. A Gallup study found that 23 percent of people in the workforce experience burnout very often or always, and an additional 44 percent feel burnt out sometimes. All this means that nearly two-thirds of employees are burnt out on the job. Burnout triggers a full physical response such as triggers high blood pressure, vulnerability to illness, and insomnia as common symptoms.
The 5 stages of burnout
This guide is inspired by Winona State University’s burnout study, as well as our own psychological research. Burnout can affect anyone, at any time in their lives. However, a recent study has shown that the average professional experiences burnout by the age of 32. As with any illness, symptoms of burnout change from person to person, however, we have identified that the following five stages are commonly observed:
1. HONEYMOON PHASE
When we undertake a new task, we often start by experiencing high job satisfaction, commitment, energy, and creativity. This is especially true of a new job role, or the beginnings of a business venture. In this first phase of burnout, you may begin to experience predicted stresses of the initiative you are undertaking, so it is important to start implementing positive coping strategies, such as taking practical steps to support your well-being alongside your professional ventures.
The theory is that if we create good coping strategies at this stage, we can continue in the honeymoon phase indefinitely. Common symptoms include:
Readily accepting responsibility
Sustained energy levels
Commitment to the job at hand
The compulsion to prove oneself
High productivity levels
2. ONSET OF STRESS
The second stage of burnout begins with an awareness of some days being more difficult than others. You may find your optimism waning, as well as notice common stress symptoms affecting you physically, mentally, or emotionally.
Common symptoms include:
High blood pressure
Inability to focus
Lack of sleep or reduced sleep quality
Lack of social interaction
Unusual heart rhythms
Avoidance of decision making
Change in appetite or diet
The general neglect of personal needs
Grinding your teeth at night
3. CHRONIC STRESS
The third stage of burnout is chronic stress. This is a marked change in your stress levels, going from motivation to experiencing stress on an incredibly frequent basis. You may also experience more intense symptoms than those of stage two.
Common symptoms include:
Lack of hobbies
Missed work deadlines and/or targets
Persistent tiredness in the mornings
Procrastination at work and at home
Repeated lateness for work
Social withdrawal from friends and/or family
Uptake of escapist activities
Anger or aggressive behaviour
Decreased sexual desire
Denial of problems at work or at home
Feeling threatened or panicked
Feeling pressured or out of control
Increased alcohol/drug consumption
Increased caffeine consumption
Entering stage four is burnout itself, where symptoms become critical. Continuing as normal is often not possible in this state as it becomes increasingly difficult to cope. We all have our unique limits of tolerance, and it is key that you seek intervention at this stage (for clinical issues, please refer to our partner Thrive Your Life). Common symptoms include:
Development of an escapist mentality
Feeling empty inside
Obsession over problems at work or in life
A pessimistic outlook on work and life
Physical symptoms intensify and/or increase
Chronic stomach or bowel problems
Complete neglect of personal needs
Continuation or increase in escapist activities
Desire to "drop out" of society
Desire to move away from work or friends/family
5. HABITUAL BURNOUT
The final stage of burnout is habitual burnout. This means that the symptoms of burnout are so embedded in your life that you are likely to experience a significant ongoing mental, physical or emotional problem, as opposed to occasionally experiencing stress or burnout.
Common symptoms include:
Chronic mental fatigue
Chronic physical fatigue
How to prevent burnout
While burnout can cause issues at work, at home, and in life in general, it is always possible to take action and move towards Stage 1. Even if you are not experiencing stress or burnout now, we suggest the wisest course of action is to proactively take up self-care practices and build your mental resilience.
Solution 1: Focus on the things you can control. This starts with doing an evaluation of all the things you feel are out of your control (working hours, break times, projects) and then focus on the things you can, in fact, control.
Do you actually have to check your email every minute? You need to question these types of work habits when considering how important it is to give your mind a rest.
Do you have too many notifications buzzing on your phone? When you are in the middle of completing a task, it is your decision whether you pick up the incoming phone call or reply to that never-ending text group. If your boss hands you a new project, you have the right to ask your boss to help you prioritize your workload. The conversation can sound like, “Can you help me prioritize these projects for a moment? Here’s what I am currently working on, and here is what I have pending on deck. Here’s how long X will take me, here’s how long Y would take me. Should I make any workflow changes to honour your priorities?” Boom.
Solution 2: Take an inventory of the people in your life. Write down all the names of those you interact with most and then consider if they lift you up or drag you down. When you read their name on the list ask yourself:
Do I get excited or anxious when their name pops up on my phone with a call or text? This will help you become aware of who feels unhealthy for you, allowing you to set limits.
When a complainer starts venting, try to transition the conversation from what is wrong, to how it can be fixed. Ask them if they need help coming up with solutions for the problem. If they continue to wallow in their negativity, set a time limit and then politely excuse yourself from the conversation. Consider adding more positive people into your life, like a mentor who can help direct you towards professional and personal growth.
Solution 3: Bring balance back into your life.
Tackle the most important task of the day first. Whether the task is a workplace presentation, or getting a doctor’s appointment set up. The majority of the population’s productivity is highest in the mid-morning hours, so considering carving this time out for that top task.
Establish little goals and rewards. With both monotony and chaos, small rewards will help give you the motivation to keep going. Allow these sweet moments of joy to be a reminder of why you are working.
Keep a gratitude list. At the end of each workday jot down three things you are grateful for. Counting your blessings is not simply a “woo-woo” mindset shift, it actually helps improve cardiovascular health and makes you more resilient to stress. Take it seriously.
Accept that there is no such thing as “perfection” when it comes to balancing your life. You will tetter and totter, but it’s all about being aware and course-correcting efficiently. Accept that some days will be all about work, but then some days must be all about rest, family, and fun.
Burnout is not a new problem, but as the pandemic continues into 2021, it is critical that company leaders understand how to identify and mitigate it.