The 5 Stages of Burnout

The average age of burnout is just 32 years old. It is probably for this reason this topic is one of my most popular workshops to deliver to corporate clients and a workshop I have delivered to the likes of CDW, Snapchat, American Express and many other global names. Which inspired me to put some of my thoughts on paper for this week’s HumanOS blog. I want to approach it slightly differently however, as my workshops focus more on what we can do as individuals to manage and mitigate against burnout but what we also need to seriously consider is what we need to be doing at an organisational level to prevent burnout within our teams. So let’s take a look…

Firstly, what is burnout? The term ‘burnout’ was created in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He used the term to describe the implications of severe stress and high standards in ‘helping’ professions”. The term has since evolved and nowadays applies to anyone consistently experiencing these three main symptoms:

  1. Constant emotional and physical exhaustion

  2. Alienated and emotionally distant due to constant stress and frustration

  3. Reduced performance or ability to complete everyday tasks.

(Maslach and Leiter, 2016)

 

burnout

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined burnout as a syndrome that happens due to the impacts of work (World Health Organization, 2019). Effectively it is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Individuals suffering from burnout feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and alienated which results in the loss of meaning in their work and a reduced performance to complete everyday tasks, once found simple to perform.

And if we take a look at the statistics, they are pretty concerning:

  • Burnout among British workers increased by 48% to record levels between 2021 and 2022 (Glassdoor, 2022)
  • 46% of the working population is at risk of job burnout (Westfield Health, 2022)
  • 67% of 25-34-year-olds bear the biggest brunt (Priory Group, 2023)
  • Google Trends data shows searches for ‘burnout symptoms’ have increased by 75% in the last year, and 248% since 2018.

Not to mention the impact this has on business with an estimated 13.7 million workdays lost every year in the UK due to work-related stress, anxiety, and depression resulting in £28.3 billion in lost productivity (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2021)

With work-life boundaries more blurred than ever, workloads at all-time highs, new working patterns increasing rates of loneliness, sleep issues up and unrealistic societal expectations penetrating the brains of us all, is it really that much of a surprise this is where we are?

So what do we do? First off we need to understand how burnout progresses. Previously, Herbert Freudenberger described this progression in 12 stages. This has since been simplified and recognised widely as a 5-stage version, see below:

The 5 stages:

  1. Honeymoon phase: Just like the first phase of a relationship this is the stage we see undivided attention, excitement and unbridled optimism. Sounds great right? Well, it is, until it’s not. Whether it is starting a new job or tackling a new task, it’s common to experience satisfaction that leads to periods of productivity and high output but this is only of benefit if it can be sustained.
  2. Onset of stress phase: Of course, the honeymoon starts to fizzle out, things become less perfect than they seemed, and so the stress begins. It isn’t constant but the signs start to show. The focus lessens, the productivity lowers, and the fatigue begins to creep in.
  3. Chronic stress phase: As the name suggests – the stress becomes more persistent. The pressure starts to rise and it starts to impact how we function – we start feeling overwhelmed, like we are chasing our tails, we are procrastinating. We start to withdraw or become irritated and it starts filtering into other areas of our lives.
  4. Burnout phase: When people speak about burnout, this is often what they are referring to – we have reached our limit and functioning as normal is no longer possible. You become consumed by the problems and challenges – you may feel doubt or numbness. Physical symptoms become a lot more chronic – headaches, stomach issues and gastrointestinal problems. Our behaviours also change.
  5. Habitual burnout phase: If left untreated, this is where we see chronic sadness and even depression. Burnout has become embedded in our life and we are no longer able to carry on as push through.

So the good news? This can be prevented. If we implement the correct strategies at the correct times we will be able to operate within Stages 1 and 2 quite happily (we cannot avoid stress and nor do we want to, if we did this it is unlikely our life would bring much fulfilment).

Unlike my workshops I won’t be talking about individual strategies at this stage, I want to point the spotlight on organisations. After all, even if individuals are doing all they can to approach their stress correctly, fundamentally if they continue to be placed in the same highly stressful situations, it will eventually take its toll. Or worse, they are seen as resilient and “high-functioning” and then given even more work and responsibility because, well “they can handle it” so where does it stop?

What can we do as organisations to look after our individuals and try to support them in maintaining a honeymoon approach indefinitely?

We need to change our culture. Our narrative of work. We need to take control of how we design our systems and create sustainable working models again, designed for the optimal functioning of our individuals. And I believe this begins with the below:

  1. Lead by Example: Effective leadership and management play a pivotal role in maintaining the honeymoon phase for employees. Leaders should demonstrate the behaviours and principles they promote within the organisation. When leaders actively practice what they preach in terms of work-life balance, stress management, and positivity, it sets a powerful example for the entire team. a positive and optimistic attitude, reinforcing the organization’s culture of positivity. When leaders lead by example and authentically follow the advice they provide, it fosters trust, respect, and alignment among employees. More – it shows other leaders this is possible.
  2. Foster a Positive (not toxic positive) Work Environment: Corporate organisations should cultivate a workplace culture that exudes positivity and optimism. This includes promoting open communication, teamwork, and a sense of belonging. When employees feel valued and appreciated, and free to be themselves.
  3. Prioritise Stress Management Initiatives and Education/Support: It is crucial to prioritise stress management initiatives and provide education and support related to stress. This proactive approach helps employees build resilience and cope effectively with stressors but it also makes them aware of the dangers and the importance of taking their stress seriously.
  4. Offer Opportunities for Skill Development and Growth: The honeymoon phase thrives when employees see opportunities for personal and professional growth. Organisations should invest in their employees’ development, personal and professional to keep them engaged, optimistic and fulfilled.
  5. Give them space and flexibility: Striking a healthy work-life balance is essential for maintaining the honeymoon phase but so is individuals having the time, energy and space to balance all areas of their lives, not just work.
 

By focusing on these aspects corporate organisations can create a work environment that not only prolongs the positive and productive stage for employees but also helps prevent the onset of stress and burnout, ultimately benefiting both the employees and the organisation as a whole.

Think your company could benefit from our “Managing & Avoiding Burnout” Masterclass, drop me a message and book a complimentary consultation call to discuss this with me in more detail: bianca@humanos.co.uk

Bianca, Co-Founder @ HumanOS

References:

Burnout hits record level as workers can’t switch off. (2022). UK Human Resources News. [online] 12 Jul. Available at: https://hrnews.co.uk/burnout-hits-record-level-as-workers-cant-switch-off/

Handley, E. (2022). 46% of the working population at risk of job burnout. [online] Open Access Government. Available at: https://www.openaccessgovernment.org/the-working-population-are-at-risk-of-job-burnout-mental-health-remote-working/136705/#:~:text=Almost half of working people [Accessed 13 Sep. 2023].

Maslach, C. and Leiter, M.P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), pp.103–111. doi:https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20311.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (2021). NICE | The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. [online] NICE. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/.

Priory Group (2022). Mental Health Statistics. [online] Priory. Available at: https://www.priorygroup.com/mental-health/mental-health-statistics.

World Health Organization (2019). ICD-11 – Mortality and Morbidity Statistics. [online] Who.int. Available at: https://icd.who.int/browse11/l-m/en#/http://id.who.int/icd/entity/129180281.