Burnout is a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion, resulting from chronic and unresolved stress. It is characterised by three components, i.e., exhaustion, cynicism/ detachment from one’s job, and reduced occupational competency. In a recent survey of 7500 full-time employees, 76% of them admitted to experiencing burnout at some point in their career (Gallup, 2020).
Contrary to popular belief that burnout is a sudden onset, it actually develops over a significant period of time, with symptoms gradually increasing in intensity. The five stages of burnout, their accompanying symptoms, and what can be done at each stage to backtrack its progression are highlighted below (Veninga and Spradley, 1981).
Stage 1: Honeymoon Phase
At the start of a new job, we often experience high levels of dedication, energy, creativity and job satisfaction. We readily accept responsibilities and are committed to proving our capabilities in the workforce. It is important at this stage, while we are motivated and optimistic, to establish positive coping mechanisms in preparation for rainy days.
Stage 2: Onset of Stress
The second stage of burnout begins when we consciously recognise the stressors at work, realising that some days are more difficult than others. Common symptoms during this stage include anxiety, fatigue, forgetfulness, headaches, changes in appetite, irritability, lack of focus, poor decision making, reduced quality of sleep, high blood pressure, etc. It is vital at this stage to schedule regular short breaks during our work day, and remind ourselves of what made us enthusiastic about our job in the first place.
Stage 3: Chronic Stress
The third stage of burnout is characterised by perpetual low-level stress and exhaustion, apathy, withdrawal from social activities, and an uptake of escapist coping mechanisms such as excessive alcohol and/or drug consumption. Frequently occurring symptoms include resentment, aggression, feeling threatened & emotional, cynicism, tardiness, procrastination, missing deadlines, constant fatigue, denial, etc. Burnout is just around the corner at this stage. It is imperative to reach out to your support system for help, and take some time off to rejuvenate.
Stage 4: Burnout
True burnout occurs when the symptoms discussed above become chronic. Physical symptoms intensify, and there is a significant increase in self-doubt, social isolation, escapism, and an overall pessimistic outlook towards work and life. There is complete neglect of personal needs, coupled with symptoms of clinical depression. It is crucial at this stage to seek professional help, hit pause and re-evaluate our life goals and career trajectory.
Stage 5: Habitual Burnout
Habitual burnout is the final and most intense stage. It is characterised by chronic mental & physical exhaustion, chronic depression, chronic & adverse behavioural changes, and in certain cases, frequently occurring suicidal thoughts. Clinical intervention is critical at this stage to treat symptoms, and revive one’s sense of self-worth.