Reality is different, as reality often is. Burnout starts from somewhere nice enough but ends in chronic, well, everything bad. We’re all at different stops along this route, experiencing various symptoms, some standard and some not.
Depending on where you look, you’ll see there are multiple stages of job burnout. But if we were to cover that, we’d be writing until the cows come home.
Instead, let’s look at one popular model out of many: Veninga and Spradley’s model, which says that job burnout occurs in five distinct stages.
What are the five stages of burnout?
This is precisely what it sounds like. When we’re at this stage, we feel excited and enthusiastic about our job and revel in a sense of healthy challenge. In short, we’re rearing to go. We experience stress here, sure. But we respond to that with a variety of coping mechanisms and strategies, most of which are healthy. But the unhealthy ones? We’ll get to those in a bit.
Fuel shortage stage
Once we’ve been in the honeymoon stage for a while, we start to feel a drag on our energy. We might be tired, have disturbed sleep, or feel inefficient. Here’s also when unhealthy coping mechanisms come into the picture — and we paper over the cracks with more junk food, alcohol or binge-watching. But we’re still good because although we’ve moved on from wide-eyed optimism, we’re now aware that some days are better than others.
Chronic symptoms stage
If we haven’t tackled physiological symptoms in the previous stage, they become more pronounced. In this stage, we’ll likely experience physical illnesses, irritation, anger, even longer periods of low moods.
Imagine angry red warning signs flashing on the screen right now because that’s what this stage is all about. According to Veninga and Spradley, our physiological symptoms transform into psychosomatic disorders like high blood pressure and chronic headaches. This is also the stage where the emotional effects kick in: self-doubt, cynicism, and general dissatisfaction. We become stuck in a loop of workplace frustrations, and the only way out is developing an “escapist mentality”.
Hitting the wall stage
This stage is a total shutdown, a complete maladaptation because we haven’t dealt with stress healthily and early on in the process. The symptoms of burnout become so entrenched in our lives that we’re more likely to be diagnosed with a significant physical or emotional problem than with burnout.
You’re probably thinking, “Oh heck, this is sobering”. And you’re right, it is. As a society, we’ve tended to gloss over burnout or place the responsibility squarely on the burning person’s already heavy shoulders.
But we’d urge you to keep this in mind: it is always possible to change how you deal with stress and return to beautiful Stage 1. We can’t control our stressors, but we have more control over how we react than we think we do.
What happens after you identify your stage of burnout?
First, you pat yourself on the back because it’s challenging to approach burnout head-on, recover from burnout, and prevent it from hitting you as hard in the future. Go, you!
You’ve probably noticed a pattern in the stage descriptions, a pattern that involves coping mechanisms. Coping with stress is a skill, even if it feels weird to put it on a resumé under Adobe Photoshop or something. It’s something we hone over time with the use of sustainers.
Sustainers are behaviours, habits or actions that help you maintain positive coping mechanisms against stress. They’re things to keep in your back pocket for a stressful day, so the negativity doesn’t get the best of you!