How to manage each of the 5 stages of burnout

Even before the pandemic and Great Resignation, employee well-being was a top-ranked trend for importance and that continues today. Simultaneously, a more alarming trend continues to rise as more employees report workplace burnout. Companies must understand this phenomenon, evaluate their risks, and be intentional about lowering and controlling them to protect their people and businesses.

The term burnout is used to describe feelings of being overworked or overwhelmed by one’s working conditions (read toxic work environments, micromanagement, taking on too much, or being asked to do more with less), but it’s actually more intricate than that. The World Health Organization recognizes burnout as a form of job-related stress that has not been successfully managed, although it’s not classified as a medical condition.

There are five stages of burnout that individuals and organizations must assess and then take action to mitigate the progressively worsening symptoms. Analyzing burnout risks are important in all companies, but especially for those in high risk industries like construction, manufacturing, hospitality, and transportation where the resulting diminished self-efficacy, decision-making ability, and lapses in judgment can be fatal.

Phase 1: The honeymoon phase

When taking on new work, it’s common, and even predictable, to experience minor boots of stress. Stress comes with the newness of a big challenge or career advancement, but most people tend to cope well in this phase as they establish footing and grow into their roles. Company leaders must provide clear expectations, upskilling opportunities, support resources, and a commensurate level of autonomy to help employees manage burnout risks at this level.

Phase 2: Onset of stress

Stress onset can manifest in a number of ways appearing as nervous anxiety, irritability, fatigue, or disorganization. Employees must prioritize their decisions as strategic, significant, or quick and take an appropriate amount of time to evaluate each type. Mindfulness techniques can also bring people’s awareness to changes in their moods, heart rates, and other physical changes like muscle tension and tiredness.

Meditative box breathing and other simple techniques can reduce stress throughout the day at this phase. Company leaders can assess employees’ stress onset in regular check-ins like 1:1 meetings, daily huddles, and pulse surveys. Empathic listening is key to mitigating stress at this point. There are also opportunities for leaders to eliminate work blockers and bottlenecks, drive down the number of emails sent, improve clarity on strategy, and to invest in wellness workshops that connect your workforce with highly engaging, diverse speakers on relevant and timely topics.

Phase 3: Chronic stress

When stress levels rise faster and more frequently, the risks for mental and physical health consequences increase and employees could reach a dangerous tipping point. Today’s high employee turnover rates, longer recruitment cycles, and shifting workloads can overwhelm remaining staff with too many tasks and decisions to make. The clarity and focus that they need to make sound business decisions or execute tasks safely diminishes as stress graduates into cognitive overload and decision fatigue.

Individuals are encouraged to use available medical benefits, employee assistance plans, or seek local counseling. Speaking up and innovating work improvements are also good options. Before employees escalate to this phase, company leaders must prioritize essential work, refine project scopes, and reinforce relevant risk and safety training versus forcing staff to do more with less.

Companies can make significant improvements through the adoption of technology and automation. Investing in digital platforms that connect your teams, automate workflows and communications, and/or integrate safety and incident management can ease the burden of chronic stress and allow teams to focus on what’s important. Those experiencing chronic stress should seek professional medical and mental health services.

Phase 4: True burnout

If employees truly reach the point of burnout [not in the way the term is commonly overused], they can experience far more critical symptoms like cynicism and strong pessimism about their work, feelings of incompetence, unwarranted fears, strong desires to escape or self-isolate and other serious physical conditions. These strong behavioral shifts can increase the likelihood of workplace accidents, injuries, disputes, and violence; poor decision-making; decision avoidance; bypassing safety protocols, or impulsive behaviors (like walking off the job). Employees at this stage can be a danger to themselves, others, and your operations; and it means that action is overdue and must be swift.

For individuals experiencing true burnout, it’s time to take a vulnerable, hard look in the mirror and ask, “Is this really the job and company for me?” Real burnout can result from lack of boundaries, people pleasing, being a superhuman (a form of imposter experience), or genuine resentment about a job. How you show up, whether you’re leading with strengths, have the ability to delegate work, or actually like your job has the power to shift burnout into overdrive or reverse it. For companies [except those in extenuating circumstances]burnout can be mitigated with better strategic planning and organizational health resources.

Phase 5: Habitual burnout

This most severe phase of burnout occurs when one’s harmful physical and emotional symptoms become embedded and impact their quality of life. This shows up in forms of chronic sadness or depression, mental exhaustion, low self-efficacy and, in the worse cases, as suicidal ideation. National resources at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are here to support us all and we must let go of any feelings of shame, guilt, or pride and simply get the help we need! Left unchecked, the consequences of habitual burnout can be devastating at both individual and organizational levels.

Companies must create safe, diverse, inclusive workspaces led by well-trained, empathetic leaders to support employees. High rates of habitual burnout warrants an evaluation of key leadership, budgets, workflows, technologies, and more. Both white and blue collar employees at all skill levels have a lot more options today and are not sticking around organizations where habitual burnout is prevalent. The level of investment that it could take to reduce habitual burnout could be used far more effectively in earlier stages of this cycle on improved planning, staffing, tooling, and wellness programs.

Burnout doesn’t have to be devastating or permanent. Not only is it possible for a person to experience burnout in a job they like and want to keep, but for some people and companies it becomes a catalyst for much needed changes in leadership, culture, compensation and benefits, communications, technology investment, and the ways work gets done. What’s clear is that there are degrees of both personal and corporate accountability in managing burnout risks and that we must all be intentional about developing meaningful solutions to protect ourselves and our businesses.

Princess Castleberry is the interim head of People & Wellness at Aclaimant and the owner and principal consultant at Castle Risk & HR Consulting.

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