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  • Heather Polivka

The 5 Stages of Burnout

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

The Five Stages of burnout. Burnout is about the ecosystem. Not the people (or you)

This is the second in a 3-part series on burnout…something we are seeing and hearing a lot about right now!

In our first in the serious, we talked about how burnout happens. It is important that if you walk away with nothing else, you understand that employee burnout is about the ecosystem, the work environment, NOT THE PEOPLE.

Certainly, there are elements of the ecosystem we can impact as business leaders, and some we cannot. We will get to solutions in the third and last post in the series.

In this post, let’s focus on understanding how burnout works.

Burnout is a psychological process and occurs due to excessive, prolonged stress related to work. ALL of us have been enduring prolonged stress, so we expect that many of us might be at stage 2 of burnout.

There are 5 Stages of burnout. Understanding the five stages allows us to start recognizing and addressing the signs of burnout earlier. If we start using coping mechanisms earlier, it prevents us from getting to the later stages.

Phase 1: Honeymoon

This is typically when you start a new job or new role. We are all energized and enthusiastic. Indications of this phase include:

  • High job satisfaction

  • Commitment

  • Energy

  • Creativity

Now, while we might be exhibiting all of these, we are also usually facing a vertical learning curve related to the role, team, or company. The key issue is what patterns of coping strategies you begin to develop when facing the inevitable stresses of the job.

In theory, if the patterns of coping are positive, adaptive, then you will remain in the honeymoon stage indefinitely.

But few people do.

Phase 2: Balancing act

As opposed to the unbridled optimism and positiveness of phase 1, you are now clearly aware that some days are better than others, regarding how well you are handling stress on the job.

An awareness of a noticeable increase in the following is indicative of phase 2.

  • Job dis-satisfaction

  • Work inefficiency. Perhaps you are losing focus, avoiding making necessary decisions or just not remembering where stuff is.

  • General Fatigue.

  • Disrupted Sleep. Often your mind is swirling so much that you can’t sleep.

  • Escapism. Doing anything but thinking about work, but not necessarily spending time in a productive manner. Examples of escapism from the pandemic include eating, drinking, zoning out in front of the TV, etc. Contrast this with activities people took on during the pandemic to process their stress, which would not count as escapism as these were productive in some measure, such as bread baking, puzzles, and watercolor painting.

Phase 3: Chronic Symptoms

Phase 3 is an intensification of some of the same indicators in phase 2 including:

  • Chronic exhaustion and fatigue

  • Physical illness, as stress builds up and acts as a risk factor in many diseases

  • Anxiety, anger, or depression

Phase 4: Crises

The symptoms of burnout become critical to overall quality of life.

  • Physical symptoms intensify and/or increase in number. Illness is the norm.

  • Obsessing about work frustrations outside of work, to the detriment of other relationships and activities.

  • Pessimism and self-doubt dominate thinking, feeling, and acting.

  • Developing an escapism mentality, becoming completely absorbed in entertainment, fantasy, or far flung ideas.

Phase 5: Enmeshment

The symptoms of burnout are so embedded in your life that you are more likely to be labeled as having some significant physical or emotional problem that you are to be labeled “burned out”.

We don’t mean to leave you in the depths of despair on these 5 stages! We will cover how to address burnout in our last in the series.

In the meantime, do some reflection:

  • Where are you in the 5 stages of burnout?

  • Are you seeing any of these symptoms when it comes to your people? What is the latest stage you are seeing?

Interested in burnout in your organization? Schedule a no-obligation 30-minute strategy call with Heather by clicking here.

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