Updated: Apr 30
What is burnout?
Burnout can develop when an individual is suffering from chronic stress for prolonged periods. This can lead to emotional, mental and physical exhaustion. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) chronic stress is primarily caused by work. ‘Occupation stress,’ says the WHO ‘is the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope’.
Other causes of chronic stress-induced burnout include toxic relationships, money troubles, and poor socioeconomic circumstances.
What is occupational burnout?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), occupational burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic work-related stress, with symptoms characterized by "feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy”.
A recent study by Gallup (2020) showed that 75% of employees experienced levels of burnout defined as either ‘always, often or sometimes’. Gallup went on to conclude that occupational burnout is mainly down to ‘poorly managed workplace stress’ with employers [not?] having the power to mitigate burnout by managing how well they respond to making positive changes for employees.
With burnout recovery estimated between several weeks to a couple of years, it is important for individuals to have regular ‘check-ins’ to assess their levels of stress and potential burnout markers. Back in the 1980s workplace burnout was becoming a popular and important topic of research. One of the most important research projects completed was by Veninga and Spradley (1981) who went on to outline stages of burnout as a means of assessment.
Related: Stress | The Complete Guide
The Five Stages Burnout Assessment
Below, the five stages of burnout have been outlined (Veninga and Spradley, 1981) including the emotional, physical, and behavioural changes that are potential indicators of work-related burnout. The stages can be used to identify the signs and symptoms of burnout within ourselves. Following the five stages, links to a range of resources have been included. These resources include articles on how to self-manage and tackle burnout and external support agencies.
Stage 1: Honeymoon period
Commitment to job
High job satisfaction
Stable levels of energy
Motivation and drive
Acceptance of responsibility
Arriving on time for work
Completing deadlines on time
Feeling at balance with workload
Stage 2: Juggling act
Workdays becoming increasingly difficult – more negative to positive
Difficulty making decisions
Avoidance of making decisions
Irritability or anger
Feeling of Frustration
Feelings of sadness
Feelings of anxiety
Teeth grinding and/or jaw clenching
Escapism – e.g., overspending, drinking, smoking
Reduction in stress relief activities e.g., gym, walking, exercise
Stage 3: Chronic stress
Emotionally exhausted or drained
Emotionally overwhelmed with things that didn’t use to be difficult
Struggling to get up in the mornings
Lack of interest in work and/or normal activities
Reduction in hobbies
Increase in escapism behaviours
Reduction of living in the present – feeling somewhere else
Anger and or depressive emotions
Increase in physical illness (immune system compromised)
Related: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
Stage 4: Crisis
Obsessive negative thinking patterns related to work
Change in eating habits
Feeling emotionally destabilised
Noticeable and persistent behavioral changes (including to others)
Loss of hope for the future
Increase in feelings of sadness and depression
New thoughts related to suicide
Avoidance behaviours (both work-related and personal)
Personal neglect for mental and physical health
Struggling to do the basics e.g., brush teeth, have a shower
Avoidance of social activities
Disconnection from others and activities
Feelings of being trapped or stuck
Increase in escapist behaviours e.g., gambling, comfort eating, social media
Related: The Stress-Proof Brain by Melanie Greenberg
Stage 5: Entrapment
Entrapment is chronic ongoing burnout resulting in sustained physical and emotional difficulties. At this stage, it is likely that a diagnosis for a mental health condition will be given rather than addressing the root cause of the burnout.
Long term physical issues e.g., chronic fatigue
Possible stress and trauma diagnosis
If you believe from this assessment that you are at risk of being in stages 2 to 5 don’t wait until the condition manifests into something serious. Take decisive action to move back to stage 1. Pausing and reflecting on what changes can be made in your life is a positive first step.
Alternatively, seeking professional support can also help you to explore the positive changes you can make in your life to reduce your risk of burnout.
An important key point to remember is that if you are in stage 1 (or aiming for stage 1), and the patterns of coping are positive and adaptive, then you can continue to operate in this stage on a long-term basis without any issues.
From this article, you should have a clear understanding of how chronic stress can trigger burnout. Furthermore, you have gained an insight into the emotional, physical and behavioural changes that can take place as a consequence of burnout.
More importantly, from this article, you should now feel confident in your ability to assess the stages of burnout before making positive steps to reduce your risk of burnout. Finally, if you still feel you need further support, don’t hesitate to reach out to a qualified professional.
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky
The Stress-Proof Brain by Melanie Greenberg
"Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases". WHO. 28 May 2019. Retrieved 2019-06-01