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Workplace burnout can shake an organization at its core. Learn what the five stages are burnout are and how you can reverse them.
Workplace burnout can shake an organization at its core. While it stems from job-related stress, burnout impacts all areas of an employee’s life. And now that many teams are working remotely — and therefore separately — it’s especially important to stay in tune with your employees’ well-being, so they don’t suffer in silence.
But where do you start? The best thing caring leaders can do is understand the signs and stages of burnout and use that knowledge to create a healthy environment where employees feel seen, heard, and supported.
The most common signs of burnout among employees include lackluster productivity, decreased motivation, irritability, and exhaustion. In the worst cases, people might encounter sleep disruptions, physical illness, and behavioral issues like escapism, anxiety, and neglect of self-care and personal needs.
The frequency and severity of these signs depend on the stage of burnout you’re in. There are five stages of workplace burnout. We detail them so you can spot the signs before it’s too late.
The five stages of workplace burnout are:
As the name suggests, the honeymoon stage of burnout is one filled with positivity and optimism. An employee in this first phase of workplace burnout exhibits high energy and satisfaction even as their job-related stress increases.
But unlike an employee who is simply enjoying the challenges of their work, an employee in the honeymoon phase uses their unwavering commitment to their work as a coping mechanism for the stress and dissatisfaction that’s creeping up.
Alexander Burgemeester, Neuropsychologist and Owner of The Narcissistic Life, describes this beginning stage as “actually working in overdrive.”
He further explains that if you’re in this stage, “you are simply working more to drive through your exhaustion, hoping that it will just pass. If you find you are working too much on purpose, you may want to slow down and take a break from working in order to break this cycle that can lead to burnout.”
Jack Latus, CEO of Latus Health, suggests that leaders use the honeymoon phase as an opportunity to help employees build resilience and alternative coping strategies for job stress.
“When people are feeling good and performing well, [use that time] to teach self-awareness and coping techniques for when things do start to get more challenging. Focus training on understanding and building resilience. In the same way, an athlete doesn’t train new skills under fatigue, you shouldn’t expect your employees to be able to learn coping strategies when they are in a stressed state.”
Eventually, the honeymoon phase wanes and troubling signs of stress emerge. Instead of unbridled optimism and positivity, employees will start neglecting self-care duties, have bouts of irritability, and begin to struggle to focus.
The tricky part about this stage is that some employees can hide it well, often by burying themselves further into their work. Michelle Yu, a Career Coach, HR Consultant, and former SoftBank HR Executive, notes that you’ll often find employees “battling burnout by doing more: some people might not know their limits and might take on even more or speed up.”
What’s more, the current state of remote work culture has made the practice of overworking surprisingly common.
Yu further explains that this tendency for employees to take on more work in the face of rising stress levels “might lead to [them] feeling anxious when they aren’t doing enough or when there are periods of downtime. This is a sure tell sign of being on the path to burn out and that rest and relaxation are needed (both mentally, emotionally, and physically)”.
The third stage of burnout is a turning point because it’s when the broad range of burnout symptoms people caution you about is hard to miss.
For example, minor annoyances might now lead to outward bouts of aggressive behavior, and low productivity levels turn into repeated missed work deadlines. Exhaustion becomes an everyday thing and apathy sets in. Also, employees’ previous attempts to numb these behaviors, such as hiding behind the work, aren’t as effective.
Lattice Hudson, Founder of Lattice & Co, confirms that chronic stress appears as an onset of multiple physical and emotional symptoms all at once.
“Most individuals ultimately realize something is amiss when they reach the tiredness phase. Persistent melancholy or despair, prolonged gastrointestinal or intestinal issues, persistent mental exhaustion, constant exhaustion, severe headaches or migraine headaches, a desire to cut oneself off from society, a desire to move away from people you care about, and even repeated suicidal ideas are just a few of the indicators.”
Also called the “crisis” stage, the fourth stage is where symptoms become critical. Here, exhaustion reaches a new high, and symptoms overall will be so pronounced and consistent that they hinder employee productivity altogether.
On the mental and emotional side, this may look like self-doubt and pessimism that results in social isolation, depression, and an “escapist mentality.” Physically, employees may suffer from symptoms like chronic headaches, fatigue, or body aches so frequently that it’s impossible to continue work as normal.
If your employees have reached this stage, it’s crucial to intervene. Latus emphasizes the need for self-care as an effective remedy for burnout and for both employees and employers to partake in the recovery plan. “To reverse the burnout cycle, it is essential that time for self-care is scheduled. It is not possible to ‘work’ your way out of this stage; working harder will not help, and as an employer, this is the time to say, rest and refresh so that you can get back to being productive.”
At the fifth and final burnout stage, symptoms don’t just pop up occasionally. Chronic physical and mental fatigue will be so embedded into the employee’s life that day-to-day functioning is a battle.
Since workplace stress is what kickstarted this entire journey, it’s up to company leaders to undo and prevent the harm. If you don’t, the persistent state of stress will be so debilitating for employees that they may experience uncontrollable anxiety and depression or complete physical shut-down.
Latus cautions all leaders to not wait for employees to ask for help and put measures in place as early as possible to prevent employees from ever reaching this serious stage of burnout.
“Given the stigma that is still associated with not being able to cope and needing help, my advice is for workplaces to ensure they are doing the following:
Workplace burnout is a progression of mental, physical, and emotional symptoms resulting from job stress, which can become unbearable over time. By understanding these five stages of burnout, you’ll not only be able to catch it in the early stages but also be better equipped to foster an environment that prevents burnout from ever becoming a problem for your team.