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Starting the Year Stress Free: Five Stages of Burnout

As the new year approaches it is a good time to take stock of where you are at on the burnout scale.  We are constantly bombarded by societal images of what success looks like and the pressure to attain it.  In our capitalist society, the view of the masses is that the more money you have, the more successful you are.  Though not all individuals share this perspective, that is still the bar of success and even happiness in the minds of many.  While trying to attain this “success,” people find themselves caught up in the rat race to get there.  Even when they do get “there,” suddenly a new “there” appears.  This never-ending race to the top can ultimately lead to burnout. 

There are five stages of burnout which are discussed below.  If you recognize that you are in any stage other than stage one, take the opportunity to reflect on this and perhaps change course to something that will allow you to begin the new year revitalized and stress free.

  1. The “Honeymoon Stage” is the first stage and where everyone should aim to stay.  In this stage individuals are excited and energized by their work and ready to face any challenge that is thrown at them.  This is also where one learns to handle some of the obstacles they may encounter and how to tackle these obstacles in a healthy manner.  The habits and coping skills developed in this stage will determine whether an individual will stay in this stage or continue to the next phase of burnout.  In this phase, it is important that one develops healthy coping skills and is able to maintain work-life balance.  If unhealthy coping skills are developed, it is almost inevitable that one will move on to the next stage of burnout. 
  • The second stage of burnout is the “Onset of Stress” or “Balancing Act.”  The honeymoon is over and feelings of dissatisfaction with one’s employment are emerging.  The rose-coloured glasses have come off and stress sets in.  This is when people may start to be inefficient at work, have trouble focusing, and avoid certain tasks.  They may experience symptoms outside of work like unhealthy escapist activities such as eating, drinking, smoking, etc.  Individuals may no longer be practicing healthy self-care habits like exercise and adequate sleep.  Neglecting these positive outlets and unhealthy coping skills leads to further exacerbation of burnout and could push people into the next stage.
  • Stage three of burnout is known as the “Chronic Stress” stage.  This stage is similar to the previous stage however, symptoms have likely increased.  At this point one is experiencing stress at work on a very frequent basis.  There is little motivation and essentially no excitement about work.  Some of the symptoms a person might experience are lack of hobbies, missing work deadlines, tiredness, illness, procrastination, lateness, social withdrawal, increase in alcohol or caffeine consumption, anger, apathy, cynical attitude, etc.
  • Stage four, referred to as the “Crisis Stage”, is when the breaking point is reached.  There are clear physical, mental and emotional signs of break down and this is when a person will go on stress leave or may leave a job entirely.  A person at this stage is at risk for a mental breakdown.  At this point, people don’t see a way out of their circumstances and become indifferent to work.  There is a continuous sense of failure and powerlessness.  Individuals will often obsess about work frustrations and have a pessimistic outlook.  This stage can lead to anxiety or depressive disorders.  Some of the physical symptoms that may be experienced are constant fatigue, digestive problems and chronic headaches.
  • The final stage of burnout is aptly named the “Burnout” or “Enmeshment” stage.  In most cases, an individual would leave a position during the “crisis stage.” If a person does end up staying in their position, it is likely they will develop long-term physical and mental health issues.  The people who stay in positions in which they have burned out, are usually hard workers, however, they are likely extremely unhappy and have a very poor quality of life.  Stress is a major cause of physical and mental health illness and people in this phase are experiencing high levels of stress daily.  At this point, what a person is experiencing may no longer be recognized as burnout, but they may be diagnosed with an actual mental or physical illness. 

After reading through these descriptions of the various stages of burn out, take some time to reflect on where you are at in your level of burnout as far as these stages go.  Have you developed healthy coping skills that allow you to stay in the “honeymoon stage”, or are you further down the path to burnout?  Keep in mind, without physical and mental health, you will not be able to perform at your highest level. 

Some key things that you can do every day to help cope with the stresses of a demanding career are to provide your body with nutritious food, exercise for at least 30 minutes a day, spend time in nature, meditate or practice yoga, and get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night.

About The Author

Dr. Jennifer Marion, ND is a graduate of CCNM and a member of OAND. She treats patients with a variety of health issues and is passionate about helping her patients both look and feel their best by addressing the causes of health issues rather than simply treating or suppressing symptoms. Dr. Marion has experience working with digestive wellness, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight loss, and detoxification programs, pain management, sports injuries, hormone imbalances, clinical nutrition, supplementation, lifestyle counselling, blood sugar balance, stress, anxiety, depression, skin conditions as well as cosmetic enhancements.

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