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The Stages of Burnout

By April 20, 2023No Comments

I’m really happy about the fact that a lot of my work is focused on helping people like you to discover how you can adapt how you live and work to prioritise your wellbeing, find more balance and avoid burnout. 

And “burnout” is a word that is used so commonly now (probably because more and more people are experiencing it and variations of it) that it’s easy to lose sight of what it actually is and what it looks like. What makes it different from stress? How quickly does it come on?

Various definitions and models have emerged over the years that can help explain what burnout is and what it looks like in reality.  One of these is the six-stage model of burnout, developed by psychologists Beverly Potter and Steven Potter.  This is a useful way to look at what happens before and during burnout, so we can identify opportunities to take proactive action around our stress and working patterns.

So, what are the six stages of burnout?

  1. Honeymoon Phase: In this stage, you’re feeling excited and energised about your work. You’re motivated and optimistic about the future and are willing to put in extra effort to succeed – for example working late.  This sounds good, doesn’t it?  This is how we all want to feel!  This is a good place to be- but problems arise when we are consistently going above and beyond our capacity, doing that little bit extra, that it becomes normal.   Often, the systems we are working within (whether that is the organisation you are working for, or simply the nature of running of a business if you are self-employed) encourage and reward overworking and so it is easy to move into the next stage – onset of stress.
  2. Onset of Stress: You’re starting to experience stress related to your work.  This could be due to an increased workload, long hours, or difficult colleagues or clients. Despite the stress, you’re still able to cope and manage your workload effectively.
  3. Chronic Stress: Stress has become chronic and is starting to take a toll on your physical and emotional health. You might be experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, or poor sleep.  You might be starting to feel less engaged and motivated about your work, or you might be feeling even more determined and motivated to maintain your normally excellent performance – and so the stress continues.
  4. Burnout: In this stage, you’ve probably reached a point of exhaustion and cynicism towards your work and your situation.  You’re feeling emotionally and physically depleted.  You’re less sociable and might be wanting to avoid colleagues and clients, as well as friends.  You might be irritable and snappy with others.  You will be struggling to gain a sense of accomplishment from your work.  Your performance may be suffering, but chances are you also may be continuing to perform at a very high standard, but with great cost to you and your well-being.   If this stage continues,  burnout can lead to serious consequences such as depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
  5. Habitual Burnout: In this stage, burnout has become a habit and you’ve accepted it as your normal way of being. Outwardly you may be appearing to function very well – but inwardly you’re feeling stuck and unable to make changes.  You’re might be experiencing a lot of the signs of the burnout stage but have come to adapt your life to manage these.  The majority of your time and energy is spent working, thinking about work or recovering from work.
  6. Crisis/Disintegration: In this final stage, you’re experiencing a breakdown of your physical, emotional and mental health, as well as relationships and work performance. This stage often involves serious physical and mental health issues and usually requires medical/psychological input as well as a prolonged period of time off work to recover.A useful framework?The six-stage model provides a useful framework for understanding the stages of burnout and what it might look like at each stage – but it’s important to say that not everyone progresses through all six stages – fortunately, we can often take action to prevent progressing through to the burnout crisis stage.Variations on this model have added a “crossroads” phase, which is where we recognise the need to take action and get support to create change and restore well-being – and so this prevents progression to future stages.

    It’s important to remember that it’s easier to restore wellbeing and prevent burnout in earlier stages, than it is further down the line – so getting support sooner, rather than later is always recommend.

    Here are some reflection prompts to consider:

    • What is your relationship to stress and burnout?
    • Do you recognise any of the six stages in yourself?
    • If yes, what actions or changes can you take that would help you in the short term? And the long term?
    • How can you restore your physical and emotional energy right now?
    • Where can you seek support? Who can you talk to?

    If you are experiencing a significant impact on your physical or mental health as a result of burnout, please do speak to your GP or occupational health service if your workplace offers this. Contact 111 if you need urgent mental health support.

    If you would like some support in prioritising your wellbeing and avoiding burnout, get in touch here