5 Stages of Burnout

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In my last article, I talked about the risk factors for burnout and at the end of that article, I asked you to rate your level of risk for burnout. The experience of burnout is not an overnight event. Burnout is something that develops over time because we fail to recognize the warning signs and do something about them. We recognize that warning lights and strange sounds coming from our car means it is time to find out what is wrong and fix it. But we often ignore the warning signs coming from our bodies. I will talk about the five stages of burnout so that you can better recognize the warning signs and have the opportunity to do something about them before the effects of burnout take over your body, mind and life.

There are five stages of burnout. There are no set rules on how you will progress from one stage to another. How long you stay in each stage is dependent on your particular situation. You may stay in a particular stage for years and never advance to the next stage. You may make adjustments in your life that will bring you to a lower stage of burnout or out of burnout completely. No matter what stage you find yourself in, it is never too late to make adjustments that can improve your life.

Honeymoon Stage

This is the stage you find yourself in when you start a new job or a new project. Regardless of what the new event is, you dive in whole heartedly. You do not mind the long hours, the extra demands on your attention and energy or the learning curve required to be successful in this new challenge. You are happy and you love everything about this new opportunity even if it is stressful. The down side to this stage is that you are going along completely unaware of the toll it takes on your mind, emotions and body to maintain this high level of productivity. You could be close to running on empty and not even know it.

Speed Bump

After a while, you start to notice that you are not functioning like you used to. Maybe you are a little tired. Maybe you notice that you are making mistakes here and there. You begin to work even harder to maintain the same level of productivity you started off with. Part of you recognizes that you need a break. However, if you do not take that break, you will start to see some of the signs of burnout I talked about in my last article. The job, the project, the event will not be as exciting as it used to be and you may not be as enthusiastic as you used to be about working on it. When you do work on it, you may find that you are not as productive or effective as you used to be. You may have difficulty shutting your mind off. Whereas in the honeymoon stage, you did not mind thinking about it all the time but now it is negatively affecting your ability to sleep or leave it behind to have fun. This can lead to compensating behaviors such as overeating, drinking, or shopping to “reward” yourself for working so hard.

Chronic Stress Stage

This is the stage where you no longer deny that something is happening to you. You may or may not connect your symptoms to the new job, project or event, but you no longer deny that you need help managing your symptoms. You may see a doctor for help sleeping or for headaches or stomach problems. Your problems are probably not limited to the physical realm either. You may be feeling constantly irritated, worried, have difficulty concentrating and feel overwhelmed. This is a critical stage. This is the stage where most people seek stress management in the form of a vacation, a new job, a new project, and/or medication. The danger is in finding yourself in the honeymoon stage again only to progress back to this stage. This cycling around the honeymoon stage, the speed bump, the chronic stress stage and back again can be avoided with regular stress management practice. As mentioned in The Art of Loving Life, awareness is the key to managing stress. Increasing your awareness of the stages of burnout and its particular effects on you can save you from having to cycle through these stages again and again. It can certainly save you from progressing to the next stage.

Crisis Stage

At this stage, you become a walking time bomb. The symptoms of the chronic stress stage have exacerbated but your efforts to cope are ineffective. You may get fired, become hospitalized, experience serious relationship problems or cause significant problems for others. You may find yourself worrying about worst case scenarios which can lead to extreme thoughts, such as running away, suicide, bankruptcy, and other fantasies of escaping from your life.

Exhaustion Stage

In this burnout stage, exhaustion implies that your mind and body’s resources have been completely used up. You have been hospitalized for a major illness, suicide attempt or alcohol/drug addiction or in jail due to a distorted attempt to escape your situation. Recovery from this stage is a long process. At this stage, it takes more than stress management to recover but recovery is possible with professional help.

Recovery is actually possible at any stage. Regular stress management can help you maintain your honeymoon stage level of productivity and reduce the likelihood of your reaching the speed bump stage or beyond. If you recognize that you are at the chronic stress or exhaustion stage, please seek professional help. Incorporating stress management, even at these stages is helpful and can compliment other forms of professional help but stress management alone is not enough.

This article was adapted from The Work Stress Connection by Robert Veninga and James Spradley and from The Art of Loving Life.

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