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  • Writer's pictureAmy Pinnell, MSW, RSW

How to Identify the 5 Stages of Burnout

After helping countless helpers and healers recover from burnout, I'm outlining the 5 stages of burnout, including signs to watch out for. By the end of this blog post, you'll have a deeper understanding of the 5 stages of burnout and burnout prevention strategies for each stage.

"But, I'm not doing enough."

"What will they do without me?"

"I'll be letting my clients and coworkers down."

I've heard these phrases again and again from helpers, healers, and health care workers, who are in states of utter exhaustion. They're drained, overwhelmed, and running on empty, and yet unable to allow themselves to slow down and take care of themselves.

Whether you're a nurse, a social worker, a therapist, a veterinarian, a doctor, a massage therapist, a university student studying one of these professions, or some other type of helper or healer, you're at risk of burning out if you don't know how to identify signs of stress in yourself or what to do about it.

The first step to preventing burnout is building your awareness about the stages and signs of burnout.

Though you might be wondering...

What exactly is Burnout?

The Centre for Addiction & Mental Health defines burnout as: "a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stressed."

When you encounter a stressor (like a lion, a pending deadline, or an angry client), your stress response is activated, initiating a neurological and physiological shift to help you survive and respond to the stressor; you may notice that your heart beats faster, your muscles tense, and you hyper-focus on the situation at hand.

The stress response is a helpful survival response in many situations, but spending too much of your time in a state of stress can be problematic. If you're not returning to the rest & relaxation response often enough, you'll eventually burnout.

The good news is, if you're aware of the signs, you can actually implement coping strategies to help you return to the rest & relaxation response before you hit a point of burnout.

5 Stages of Burnout

1. Honeymoon Phase

This might surprise you, but the first stage of burnout is actually feeling enthusiastic and passionate about your work. During this initial phase, your excitement about the work combined with a strong desire to prove yourself may lead to working in a way that is unsustainable in the long term. As you're feeling highly motivated to make a difference in the lives of others, you may work long hours and take on extra tasks.

Signs to watch for:

  • Overcommitting to tasks and projects

  • Neglecting self-care and personal needs

  • Feeling unable to disconnect from work

  • A compulsion to prove yourself

  • High productivity

Burnout prevention strategies:

  • Pace yourself by working your scheduled hours and setting boundaries regarding your workload from the get-go

  • Prioritize self-care and things that bring you joy outside of work

  • Create a burnout prevention plan

2. Onset of Stress

If you've overcommitted to tasks and projects, you may begin to feel overwhelmed and unable to keep up with your workload. You may start to experience persistent stress, which can present as irritability, anxiety, and fatigue. Stress is a common occurrence in many professions, but only develops into something problematic if it goes unaddressed for a prolonged period.

Signs to watch for:

  • A shift from excitement about new projects to anxiety about how you'll get everything done

  • Struggling with sleep, either insomnia or excessive sleep

  • Changes in appetite or eating habits

  • Increased susceptibility to illness

  • Waning optimism and job satisfaction

Burnout prevention strategies:

  • Take time to pause and tend to your emotions, acknowledge the stress you feel and consider what will help you return to the rest & relaxation response

  • Return to the self-care practices that you know are grounding & rejuvenating for you

  • Reassess how you're spending your time and what is in your capacity

  • Set boundaries with your workload, or ask for help as needed

The first step to burnout prevention is building your awareness of the stages & signs.

3. Chronic Stress

Chronic stress occurs when the stress experienced in stage two becomes constant and unmanageable. When you experience work stress and, rather than slowing down or tending to your own needs, you keep pushing yourself to work harder, take on more tasks, and continue to work at an unsustainable pace, you're setting yourself up for chronic stress. It's at this stage that serious mental, emotional, and physical health issues start to manifest.

Signs to watch for:

  • Persistent feelings of exhaustion

  • Frequent mood swings or emotional outbursts

  • Decreased productivity and inability to focus

  • Muscle tension, more frequent headaches, and/or digestive issues

  • Feeling panicky, angry, or apathetic

Burnout prevention strategies:

  • Give yourself permission to take mental health days to rest and rejuvenate

  • Reassess how you're spending your time and what is in your capacity

  • Set boundaries with your workload or ask for help as needed

  • Seek professional help, such as a therapist with experience in burnout recovery & prevention

  • Reintegrate self-care into your routine with a focus on gentle & soothing self-care

4. Burnout

Once chronic stress has transitioned into burnout, you'll no longer be able to function effectively in your professional or personal life. You may feel emotionally drained, experience a sense of detachment from your work, and struggle to find meaning or satisfaction in what you do.

Signs to watch for:

  • Cynicism or negative attitudes towards work and clients

  • Reduced empathy for others

  • Withdrawing from social activities and relationships, including your usual self-care activities and activities that you enjoy

  • Physical symptoms become chronic

  • Bouts of sadness and/or high anxiety that impacts daily functioning

Burnout prevention strategies:

  • Seek professional support from your doctor and therapist

  • Take a medical leave from work (your doctor may be able to support you with a note)

  • Use your time off to rest and rejuvenate

  • Do things that feel calming for your nervous system

  • Once you've recovered, you can work with a therapist to create a burnout prevention plan

5. Chronic Burnout

When burnout goes unaddressed, it can become a chronic issue that severely impacts your well-being. At this stage, the symptoms of burnout may become deeply ingrained, leading to long-term consequences for your health and career.

Signs to watch for:

  • Chronic physical ailments or illnesses

  • Depression or anxiety disorders

  • Thoughts of leaving the profession or a complete change in career

  • Chronic fatigue

Burnout prevention strategies:

  • Seek professional support from your doctor and therapist

  • Take a medical leave from work to focus on healing both your mental & physical health issues

  • Rest as much as possible, and slowly reintegrate self-care activities

  • Once recovered, you can work with a therapist to consider career options, next steps, and how to stay well at work moving forward

You don't have to figure it out alone.

If you're noticing signs of stress, chronic stress, or burnout, I can help!

Through my 1:1 therapy services for helpers & healers, I help you, not only prevent burnout but grow from the experience so that you can create a sustainable practice.

Together we explore your specific stressors and stress responses and create a burnout prevention plan that caters to your needs so that you can stay healthy & well while doing what you love.

I'm passionate about supporting fellow helping professionals re-align with their values and create a career that not only serves others but also serves themselves.

I'm passionate about supporting fellow helping professionals re-align with their values and create a career that not only serves others, but also serves themselves.

Amy Pinnell, MSW, RSW Brave Spirit Counselling


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