The 5 Stages of Burnout: What Your Business Needs to Know

Andrew Buck June 28, 2022

Today, most organizations are aware that burnout exists, and that it poses a potential threat to productivity and wellbeing of their employees. But they may not be aware of the 5 stages of burnout, through which most people go when they become burnt out at work.

Understanding these 5 stages of burnout is vital, as it allows you to identify burnout faster, and treat any issues before they get too big. The further someone progresses through all 5 stages, the more difficult it is to pull them back out of it.

Burnout, job burnout or burnout syndrome, is a serious matter. It’s currently recognized by the World Health Organization as an “occupational phenomenon”, where chronic workplace stress leads to energy depletion or exhaustion, negativity and cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy.

Read on to learn more about how to protect your team members (and yourself) from burning out.

Click here to learn more about Employee Burnout, how to prevent it, and how to treat it.

What Are the 5 Stages of Burnout?

Burnout is generally (though not always) characterized by the following 5 stages:

  1. The Honeymoon phase
  2. Onset of stress
  3. Chronic stress
  4. Burnout
  5. Habitual burnout

Treating burnout is similar to treating a disease. The earlier you catch it, the easier it is. You’re going to have a much better chance of helping someone who’s experiencing burnout symptoms if they’re just getting to the onset of stress (phase 2), compared to someone who is at habitual burnout (phase 5).

Often, for those who go right through to the final stage of burnout, the only cure is to leave the company altogether and make a fresh start. That’s why it’s so important to spot burnout before it gets too far. Letting it go unchecked will result in irreparably damaged relationships, high turnover, and losing your best talent.

Let’s look a little deeper at each of the 5 stages of burnout now.

Stage 1 – The Honeymoon Phase

First is the honeymoon phase. This is usually when someone is fairly new to the job, or is starting a new task or project. The person is happy, motivated, and has feelings of high job satisfaction.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like it has anything to do with burnout. But it is often where burnout begins. The positivity of the honeymoon stage may mean the person is willing to put in long hours, take on too many tasks, and deal with stressful conditions.

This is great, until the honeymoon feeling wears off. That’s when burnout really begins to surface.

It’s important to learn coping strategies during this phase, to prepare oneself to be able to handle an increase in stress in the near future.

Stage 2 – Onset of Stress

The subsequent phase is where the honeymoon period wears off, the person’s air of optimism and motivation fades, and signs of stress become evident.

As stress starts to creep into one’s work life, mental and physical health might start to deteriorate. A person could start taking more sick days, and their energy may be diminished.

At this stage it’s important to recognize stress and exercise techniques to deal with it. Small amounts of stress are normal, and can be successfully managed. Mindfulness meditation, breathing techniques, journaling and open discussion can help deal with stress in its infancy.

The problem is when it’s allowed to grow and become something deeper.

the 5 stages of burnout - stress and chronic stress

Stage 3 – Chronic Stress

The third stage is the chronic stress phase – meaning stress levels persist for a long time, or the person experiences constantly recurring bouts of stress.

Occasionally experiencing stress is normal, and often easy to deal with. But unresolved stress soon becomes chronic, where it’s closer to your natural state at work.

The health issues from chronic workplace stress become more serious. This phase may manifest itself as absenteeism, or issues with constant lateness and missed deadlines. Often, this leads to disciplinary action, which only exacerbates stress.

People who experience chronic stress are also likely to take it home with them, affecting their personal life. Physical symptoms may begin to show up too.

It’s more important than ever to diagnose burnout at this stage, before it gets any further, and take action. The person may need a vacation to switch off and refresh. Employee wellness benefits, like counseling or therapy, can also help.

However it’s also important to identify what led the employee to this stage, and fix it, so they don’t end up coming right back to the same place.

Stage 4 – Burnout

True burnout comes next, where the person has gone further than simply a state of being stressed out. Someone experiencing true burnout is generally pessimistic, cynical, and has a low feeling of self-worth.

The symptoms at this stage may include mental health issues such as depression or behavioral changes, as well as physical symptoms, like stomach issues, headaches, a weakened immune system and trouble sleeping.

Here, coming to work and doing one’s normal duties becomes a chore. The person may be unsocial, and isolate themselves from fellow team members. They feel emotional exhaustion, and apathy towards the job, which can lead to disregard for safety measures and little to no attention to detail in their work.

Someone who reaches this stage may end up leaving the job completely, if they feel the situation is unsalvageable. To treat someone at this stage, and keep them on your team, it takes real care and understanding of the situation, and serious change to the causes of burnout in the first place.

Stage 5 – Habitual Burnout

Chronic or habitual job burnout comes when someone has been at the fourth stage of burnout for some time, without any improvement.

This is a serious condition, with serious consequences for the employee’s mental and physical wellbeing. They’re very likely to be depressed or anxious. They will generally have feelings of low self-esteem, and a negative view of everything around them.

It usually persists into all other aspects of their life, as well, which can affect their happiness and personal relationships outside of work.

When someone reaches the final stage of burnout, there’s very rarely a path back for them. The cynicism about work is so deeply embedded, that the only way to recover is to change jobs. And even then, they may carry this feeling over to a new job.

Likewise, the negative energy of habitual burnout can spread throughout the organization, and become much more than just an issue affecting one single person.

That’s why it’s so important to deal with burnout early, and create an environment that protects employees from progressing this far down the rabbit hole unchecked.

Could you avoid burnout by switching to an Unlimited Vacation Policy? Click the link to learn more, and decide whether flexible time off might be right for your business.

Burnout Symptoms to Look Out For

The first step of preventing burnout is noticing it. That means looking out for common stress symptoms and signs that someone may already be burned out, or is progressing along these 5 stages of burnout.

Common symptoms include:

It can also lead to physical health symptoms, including:

Often someone advancing through the stages of burnout will show an increasing pattern of absenteeism, which could be related to a lack of motivation to come to work, or health problems like those above.

Preventing Burnout

Preventing burnout from occurring – or from progressing past its early stages – is much more reliable than treating burnout that’s already gone too far.

In the worst case, try to identify when people are falling into the 2nd or 3rd phases. But ideally, you’ll create a system to stop people from advancing this far in the first place.

You can help prevent burnout by managing employees’ workload, and avoiding putting them under undue stress or stacking too many responsibilities on their plate.

Striving for productivity is fine, but not when it goes too far.

You’ll also want to work on building a positive, inclusive and safe working environment. Workplace dysfunction, office politics, bullying and a general air of negativity at work all lead to higher rates of burnout.

Also focus on offering employee benefits targeted towards health (particularly mental health) and wellness. Vacation time is a big part of this. Many people end up burned out from working too long without a rest, and a chance to switch off.

While many companies see paid time off as a negative thing, regular breaks help employees de-stress, and come back to work more productive and with a positive attitude.

This not only means you get more from the employee in the long run, but it also rubs off on the rest of the team, helping prevent other people from slipping into a state of burnout.

Further Reading:

How Much PTO Is Average? Check out the standard PTO allowance in the US and around the world.

How Flamingo Helps You Prevent Burnout

We created Flamingo to help modern teams be happier, healthier, and prevent burnout among their staff.

Flamingo is a vacation tracker for Slack. It gives you an efficient and pain-free way to request and approve time off, making it easier for employees to take the regular breaks they need to stay healthy.

Oftentimes, employees know they need a break, but the friction of having to ask a manager face-to-face, or via email or private message, is too much. Flamingo makes the process easy and stress-free.

The reporting features of Flamingo help managers identify which employees have gone too long without taking time off, and may be at more risk of burning out. You can pull up any team member’s leave history in just a few clicks, and follow up with these people to encourage them to take a few days off.

Modern teams need to be aware of burnout, and understand the positive effect that regular vacations, or simply a day off here and there, can have in preventing burnout.

That’s our goal – to help your team stay happy, healthy and productive.

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