Burnout – 5 Key Stages and Preventative Strategies
Deadline pressures and heavy workloads are a fact of life for leaders. But when relentless work stress leads to debilitating physical and emotional exhaustion, something must change. Over the past 20 months, I’ve noticed a pattern emerge among leaders prioritising results over essential self-care. It’s bigger than the usual pandemic stressors of isolation, financial and job insecurity, or pressure to achieve more with less. Rather, it highlights a toxic belief and unconscious conditioning around failure – that to be successful we must hustle and climb the corporate ladder, culminating in systemic failure to connect, care for each other, and take timeout to re-energise. Here’s the thing: when we live by this code, we forego essential wellbeing tenets for a sustainable career and happier, healthier life. Amidst the chaos, people of all cultures, religions and creeds are ‘waking up’ and getting ‘grounded’ in a global re-set and shift toward that which is truly significant.
70% of professional feel that their employers are not doing enough to prevent burnout. – Deloitte
It is likely at some point you have felt overwhelmed or stretched thin in your role. The toxic thing about burnout is that it happens gradually, so you may not notice the symptoms immediately. Burnout is the “too late” stage – our bodies signal of serious dis-ease, impacting ability to function optimally across all aspects of life.
Research from the Winona State University reveals 5 key stages of burnout, which I’ve adapted with simple preventative strategies below.
1. The honeymoon: You’re energised and driven by passion and ambition, compensating for stress and pressure by working harder to meet demands of a challenging work environment (thus laying the foundation for burnout).
2. The balancing act: You’re highly competent but energy is depleting rapidly, with physical symptoms of stress starting to show. Early warning signs that you’re approaching ‘breaking point’ may include diminished pride in your work, resentment towards colleagues, losing sight of yourself and your goals, forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating, and unexplained muscle tension and insomnia.
3. Chronic symptoms: You’ve run yourself into the ground trying to be a superhero and work stress is bleeding into your social context. You start having trouble being present with loved ones and maintaining relationships. You’re exhausted, and any joy or motivation you had for your role is gone. We all have unique limits of tolerance however it’s becoming increasingly difficult to cope. Red flags may include anger, denial, depression, blaming others, a constant desire to “escape”, and physical illness.
4. In-crisis: You start to obsess about work and life frustrations and your overall outlook becomes pessimistic. Where did the carefree, loving, self-actualised person you aspire to be disappear to? At this stage, physical symptoms intensify and continuing as normal becomes impossible. You may be experiencing chronic headaches, stomach and bowel issues, and behavioural changes. People I work with to overcome burnout will often describe feeling “lost” or “empty inside” – a desire to drop out of life. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, please seek intervention and/or psychological help.
5. Enmeshment: By now the signs of burnout are so embedded in your life, instead of experiencing occasional stress and fatigue, you’re on-track to develop an ongoing mental, physical or emotional problem. People in this situation are often celebrated among colleagues as hard working, esteemed professionals. Yet, behind the social mask they wear every day is an unhappy individual who feels trapped in their job and stuck in a self-defeating cycle.
Effective strategies to beat burnout
Early intervention is the key to overcoming burnout. Understanding symptoms and causes will not only help you recover but equip you with a blueprint for prevention.
1. Recognise the source: Explore the contributing factors and sources of stress in your work and life. This is an essential first step toward positive change.
2. Identify immediate changes you can make: What projects or tasks are you taking on that aren’t essential? Be honest – are you overly ambitious and trying to prove something, or do it all? What can you immediately delegate or set aside to lighten your load?
3. Reach out to people you trust for help: when you’re completely exhausted, identifying how to resolve burnout can be overwhelming. Talking to people you trust is a good start – partners, friends, and family members. Brainstorm solutions that help you feel more supported and less isolated and alone.
4. Take back control: A common aspect of burnout is feeling powerless, as though you’re not making progress and life is rushing by. When burnout happens through external factors it is often difficult to see what caused it, or what you can do to turn the situation around. Whilst you may not have control over what led you to burnout – you do have the power to take back control and re-energise, which starts with prioritising time and attention. Importantly, you can’t do everything yourself. Hand over competing priorities to a trusted colleague.
5. Set boundaries: Leave work at work. An essential aspect of burnout recovery is to implement an “end of workday” routine that supports you to completely switch out of “work mode” and into re-energising for the next day. Communicating that you need additional support is not a sign of weakness. It is essential to health and wellbeing and managing workload productively.
Let’s make it our mission to look out for each other and beat burnout.
Until next time...