In our post-pandemic world, “burnout” has become quite the buzzword. Colloquially, it’s often used to describe being sick and tired of pretty much anything, from cooking and cleaning to The Bachelor and Bumble. Despite the ways it’s used in everyday conversation, though, burnout also refers to a syndrome caused specifically by work-related stress and exhaustion—and it’s something employees and employers (and society as a whole) need to take seriously.
As exhaustion and general malaise become more widespread across the workforce, experts have been discussing the stages of burnout that ultimately lead to extreme crisis—and what to do at each phase to best protect your health and sanity. Here’s what you should know.
At its most distilled, burnout is work-induced fatigue. “It is a type of physical and mental exhaustion that can occur when you have worked in emotionally or physically draining conditions for a long time,” explains holistic health expert and doctor of chiropractic Suzanna Wong, D.C., founder of Twin Waves Wellness Center in San Diego.
Read More: 4 Burnout Myths We Need To Bust Now
Burnout is not (yet) officially classified as a medical condition. However, in 2019 the World Health Organization released a statement identifying the syndrome as a phenomenon of chronic workplace stress, amplifying the urgent need for healthier work culture and increasing understanding of the issue amongst both employers and the people working for them.
The 5 Stages of Burnout
Burnout isn’t a syndrome that you’re free of on Monday and wake up with on Tuesday. Instead, burnout is something that comes on slowly and surely over the course of a few weeks, months, or even years.
The gradual progression of burnout can be broken down into five different phases, according to researchers. These stages can be useful in helping employees and employers alike understand, and therefore troubleshoot, this growing issue.
Stage 1: The Honeymoon phase
The initial stage of burnout, called “the honeymoon phase,” usually aligns with starting a new job, a new position at the same company, or getting a new manager or boss. Just like the honeymoon phase of a relationship, this phase is typically accompanied by feelings of optimism, excitement about the future, productivity, and joy. Though it might not be top of mind, this is the stage in which workers should implement positive coping strategies in order to minimize the risk of progressing to the next stage, say researchers.
Start by setting up sound lines of communication with your employer and erecting boundaries around when you work after-hours and on the weekend, says holistic health and Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner Laura Erlich LA.c., F.A.B.O.R.M., clinical director with Mother Nurture Wellness. Outside of work, “it can be helpful to make lifestyle modifications like prioritizing sleep, eating a balanced diet, minimizing alcohol and other recreational drug use, and finding a movement practice,” she says.
Stage 2: Onset of Stress
Sometimes known as the “onset of the balancing phase,” this phase of burnout is marked by what can be classified as a ‘normal’ or ‘passable’ amount of stress. Folks in this phase experience stress during work occasionally, but not every second of every day.
While the stress is not constant at this stage, people may begin to notice any number of symptoms associated with mental or emotional stress, such as reduced focus, increased irritability, decreased joy around work-related tasks, and generalized work angst, according to mental health advocate and sports psychologist, Dr. Haley Perlus, Ph.D.
People prone to physical signs of stress may also notice symptoms such as higher blood pressure, headaches, change in appetite, gut discomfort, and teeth grinding, she says. Important to note: At this stage, these symptoms may be imperceptible to someone who is not highly in-tune with their body.
Stage 3: Chronic Symptoms
The “chronic symptoms stage” is the stage of burnout that can occur when regular ol’ stress is not managed but instead multiplies. During the chronic stress stage, people experience stress intensely and frequently. Typically, on a daily—if not hourly—basis.
Usually, this is the stage in which workers feel a combination of increased pressure to perform at a certain level, decreased appreciation from their higher-ups and peers, resentful of and cynical towards their workplace and/or co-workers, and apathy. Outside of work, someone in this stage of burnout might drink more, have less interest in sex, feel less energized to leave the house, and be generally grumpier, more aggressive, or withdrawn, researchers say.
According to psychotherapist Courtney Glashow, L.C.S.W., founder of Anchor Therapy, in addition to the emotional symptoms of stress, people at this stage typically experience a number of bodily symptoms, such as nervous sweating, jumpiness, feeling on the edge, and twitchiness. At this point, the physical symptoms are intense enough that they’re tough to ignore.
Though working with a mental health professional as a prevention strategy (think during the honeymoon phase) is always ideal, getting some extra support at this stage of the burnout game is crucial to avoid sliding into the following, more extreme, phases, Glashow notes.
Stage 4: Crisis
When most people think about burnout, they’re thinking about the “crisis stage” (which is often known simply as the “burnout stage”). The result of prolonged workplace isolation, pressure, and negativity, the fourth stage in the burnout cycle is not subtle.
When someone has reached the crisis phase, they often experience a slew of noticeable symptoms, such as feelings of overwhelm, fatigue, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, anger, depression, and confusion, according to Perlus. Increased substance use and abuse is also a common symptom for people who are this burnt out, she says.
At this stage, “people with burnout usually begin to feel disconnected from their co-workers, work projects, and more,” according to Perlus. They can also begin to feel disillusioned about their job and unsatisfied even during a win-filled work day.
Stage 5: Habitual burnout
If they don’t address the root cause of their burnout, people can progress from the burnout phase to “habitual burnout phase.” At this fifth and final stage, burnout has become part of everyday work life and experience in a way that has serious consequences for their work and personal lives.
This stage is associated with impaired social skills and impeded brain function, says Perlus. “People in this stage are way less productive, have very little energy, and may even have feelings of helplessness, resentment, and hopelessness,” she explains. They are also more likely to be diagnosed with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, she adds.
According to Glashow, people at this stage are even more likely to get fired from their jobs due to worsened performance.
How To Test For Burnout
Since burnout does have any physiological cause, going to the doctor for a urine or blood test will not reveal if you have burnout. The best way to determine if you have burnout or not, according to Wong, is to take inventory of your emotions and take note if you notice any shifts. “The key is to look for things that are out of character for you,” she says.
Some questions to help determine if you have burnout include:
- Do I find it hard to concentrate at work?
- How do I feel about my recent work performance?
- What are my energy levels like at work?
- Am I experiencing any physical symptoms during my work day?
- What has my energy towards your coworkers, clients, or customers been like?
If your answers reflect any of the symptoms of burnout discussed here, talk to a mental health professional or holistic healthcare provider. Your provider may have you fill out something called the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), which is the leading measure of burnout, to gain a clearer sense of how you’re doing.
5 Tips For Recovering From Burnout
Hard truth: Burnout is not something that will go away on its own. Instead, it should be—and needs to be—treated because of how significantly it can negatively impact your quality of life both in and out of work, says Perlus. Here are a few tips for moving through burnout and finding joy in life and work once again.
1. Talk to your personal support system
If you’re experiencing burnout, the people close to you are going to notice! In fact, it often leads people to be ‘off’ in their interactions with loved ones. Telling your partner, parents, and best friends what’s been going on will help them understand why you haven’t been quite yourself, says Perlus. “Reconnecting with a loved one can help distract you from work, as well as give you a support team to get you through this period of time,” she says.
2. Check in with your employer
Once you’ve entered stage three of burnout (the chronic symptoms phase), your work performance is likely going to suffer in some way shape or form. If you’re at the point at which you’re struggling to perform, Perlus recommends talking to your manager and/or Human Resources team. “Explain that you want to come to a resolution in which you can renegotiate the situation and expectations to make it more livable,” she says. “Hopefully, together you can come up with ways that they can support you.”
If things do not improve after this conversation, or you do not feel heard by your supervisor and HR team, your mental well-being may be best cared for by taking a step back. “In some instances, you may need to take a leave of absence or seek a new line of work,” says Erlich. Of course, applying for and changing jobs is no small feat and takes time—but it may be the best long-term solution if the changes you need aren’t being implemented, she says.
3. Explore therapy
“A mental health professional can be hugely helpful in treating burnout and chronic stress,” says Glashow. They’ll be able to help you develop a recovery plan in and out of the office that takes the nuances of your particular life into account. So, if you don’t already have a therapist, it may be time to consider working with one.
4. Dial in your wellness practices
Anything that supports your overall wellbeing will support you during burnout recovery. That’s why Perlus suggests those navigating burnout re-prioritize their sleep routines, dial in their nutrition, and find a regular movement practice that brings them joy. Certain supplements known to enhance stress management, such as adaptogens ashwagandha and Holy Basil, as well as magnesium (try the glycinate form) and B vitamins, can also be supportive as you recoup.
5. Be patient
You didn’t come down with burnout overnight, and you won’t cure it overnight. Don’t get discouraged. Instead, continue making positive edits to your work and non-work life, and stay in conversation with your employer, and you’ll slowly feel yourself return to equilibrium, says Glashow.