The 5 Stages of Burnout & How to Beat It By Sarah Ross

Stress affects everyone in different ways. What is highly stressful for one person, is easy and routine for another. Yet, regardless of what is actually causing it, our bodies all react in the same way to stressful situations. Cortisol and adrenaline levels spike, as our brain focuses on keeping us “safe”. It’s been that way since our ancestors lived in caves and hunted for food, yet the spikes were only ever meant to support short periods of acute stress. Individuals today, are living with ever increasing levels of daily stressors, and ongoing raised cortisol levels which the human body was just not designed for. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines Burnout as “chronic workplace stress which has not been successfully managed”. It is not a life sentence, and simple stress management techniques implemented even before you feel really stressed can help reduce the impact of any burnout in your life.  Sarah Ross, founder and director of Your Reason to Breathe, a multi-award-winning international Burnout Recovery speaker and business mentor, qualified NLP Master Practitioner, Executive coach and Mental Health Advocate shares her insights into how to beat burnout by listening to the signals your body gives you when you are stressed. 

You do not burn out overnight, there is a build up of stress over time which is not managed effectively. In a study by Winona State University in 1981, 5 stages of burnout were defined:

Stage 1 – The Honeymoon Phase

Life is good, you are full of energy, motivated, inspired and enjoying your work. Everything is seen in a positive light with little to no stress involved. 

Stage 2 – The Onset of Stress

There are now good and bad days, and your enthusiasm is starting to wane. Some stress symptoms like insomnia, irritability and lack of focus, start to appear. 

Stage 3 – Chronic stress 

Stress has become a frequent problem, and you are experiencing symptoms like missing deadlines, lack of motivation for work, feeling pressured or exhausted.

Stage 4 – Burnout

You are no longer able to deliver in the same capacity as in stage 1. The stress symptoms you have previously experienced are getting worse.  Your mental health is impacted, your work is suffering, and you feel the need to isolate from those around you. 

Stage 5 – Habitual burnout

You are burnt out. Physically, emotionally and mentally, just getting through each day is a struggle. You feel depressed and may even be questioning what is important in life. There are very few good days, if any.

Burnout is avoidable, when you learn to pay attention to the signals that your body is giving you. Every headache, every pain, every gut feeling is telling you to pay attention to something. Act on those signals and burnout will not be an issue. Ignore them consistently and recovery from burnout becomes much harder. 

As Robin Soderling, professional tennis player, said, “I was the perfect person to have a burnout because I was not listening to my body at all”. 

How to prevent burnout:

If you think you may be burning out, here’s some quick tips to help maximise your mental health, manage your stress levels and avoid a serious burnout:

  1. Hydrate: Drink at least 2 litres of water a day. 
  2. Sleep: Make sure you get good quality sleep every night. 
  3. Take a Break: Take a break from work or stressful situations. Whether it’s a  day off, a vacation or medical leave, give your body time to reset and recharge, especially if you have important decisions to make. 
  4. Smile: Make your own happiness a priority at least once a week. Do something that makes you happy and allows you to escape the stress; meet friends, go to the gym, read, get a massage etc. 
  5. Engage: Do not isolate yourself from family or friends when feeling low and stressed. Their support can help you remove the stress from your life. 

And remember, as Anne Lamott, American writer, said “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes…including you!”