One of the things that I completely missed when dealing with burnout is that it doesn’t happen overnight; the stages of burnout are distinct, each with individual warning signs. If only I had known this earlier on, perhaps I would have spotted the signs and avoided a severe burnout, but better late than never.

In this article, we’ll talk about the key signs and stages of burnout. As you read it, consider whether you recognise any of the symptoms and patterns. If you do, stop, listen more and take notice.

There’s a great quote, “if you listen to your body when it whispers, then you won’t have to hear it scream.” The earlier in the burnout cycle that you can spot the symptoms, the sooner you can take action, get better and stop burnout in its tracks.

Please note I am not medically trained, and this article does not constitute medical advice. If you are experiencing a severe health condition, then you should consult a medical professional.


Stage one: I’m excited!

When you first start a new job or project, you will likely be full of enthusiasm. You can see all of the possibilities ahead for making a tangible difference to the organisation and doing great things for your career in the process. Everything is new and exciting, and it’s easy to go all-in as you learn the ropes, get to know the new culture, and interact with your new colleagues. You don’t have any baggage from earlier regimes in the organisation or project team; you just have a fresh perspective.

This initial stage is the time to develop the habits that will give you strong foundations going forwards. It’s the moment to start as you mean to go on. Set clear boundaries in terms of the hours that you work, how responsive you are to your colleagues, and how flexible you’re willing to be in terms of weekends and holidays. Once you’ve set those initial impressions, people get used to working with you in a certain way. It then becomes much more difficult to change these rules of engagement.

The stages of burnout

Two personality types are particularly prone to neglecting their needs even from this early stage:

  1. The high achiever. If you’re an A-type personality, you are very driven. You tend to run headfirst into new opportunities and think about your own needs second. Often the behaviours that high performers receive rewards for, such as working long hours and taking on more and more work, are red flags when it comes to burnout. These practices are not sustainable long-term. You might be able to work like this for several years, but eventually, working in a high-stress environment and not having appropriate self-care in place will catch up with you.
  2. The people pleaser. If you live to make other people happy, you tend to compromise your self-care and needs in the pursuit of helping your stakeholders. As you go the extra mile for them, you neglect yourself in the process.

At this stage of high energy and excitement, you may begin running on adrenaline. You may find that your stakeholders compliment you on how much you’re getting done and how you are a breath of fresh air. This type of praise can end up being like a drug; the more recognition you get, the more you neglect your needs in the pursuit of more.

You’ll be feeling productive, have high energy levels, and you’ll see a bright future ahead. So why would you have any cause for concern?

Stage two: Starting the battle

You start noticing that it’s taking more energy to do what you’ve been doing. You wake up each morning feeling that bit less rested.

The honeymoon period is definitely over at work. You’ve established some bad habits, which you now associate with your success at work. These habits may include working long hours, being contactable on the weekend, saying yes to everything your boss asks you to do; in short – putting the organisation’s needs ahead of your own.

You might not even notice the subtle changes in your body and your mind. Instead, you push on and miss the warning signs that your body is giving you. A partner or close friend might start noticing a difference in you. Perhaps you’re less present in your relationships, you’re sleeping less at night, and you’re finding it harder to be present in the moment.

Stage three: Emotions and reduced effectiveness

By this stage, your body is beginning to run out of gas. You may experience emotional outbursts such as becoming easily frustrated, unpredictable levels of anger and crying without warning. Your productivity may begin to drop even though you’re putting the hours in. It’s almost as if your brain is running slower, your thought processes are cloudy, and your working day feels like walking up a slippery slope, two steps forward and one back.

You wonder why you don’t feel as energetic and positive as you used to.

 

Stage four: Illness sets in

By now, your body has been giving you warning signs for so long that it stops having patience. You will probably be aware that there’s something seriously wrong based on your emerging symptoms.

You may experience a host of physical symptoms such as stomach upsets, pains and extreme fatigue. Emotionally, you’re also feeling quite fragile; you may often cry, feel angry, unstable and unpredictable. If you’re someone who likes to be in control, it can be incredibly frightening to no longer be able to predict how you will react in the office or at home.

You now recognise that you’re struggling to cope, but you may not feel comfortable acknowledging this or reaching out for help. You may still be trying to push through.

People who seek medical guidance at this stage may believe they have a physical underlying health condition that’s causing them to experience these symptoms. If a medical professional, friend or colleague mentions burnout, they may be in denial that it could happen to them.

Many others will try to deal with these symptoms independently, feeling scared and lonely in the process and not wanting to admit that something is wrong, perhaps fearing how their employer will respond.

Burnt out woman

Stage five: Loss of all drive as you detach

And then suddenly, it’s like your light has gone out. The motivated, productive version of you at work has gone. Just getting through each day feels like a struggle. Even getting out of bed in the morning requires a herculean effort.

You may start to feel detached from your work and home life. Anxiety may creep in as a sense of dread on a Sunday about the week ahead or every time you open your inbox.

 

Stage six: Burnout has consumed you

All of the warning signs have now escalated to utter physical and emotional exhaustion to the degree that you are struggling to function.

At the extreme, this is the stage that some individuals are hospitalised or signed off work for a significant period.

In my case, this stage started with a massive panic attack in the office one Friday evening, and that was the last day I was physically able to work in my corporate career. When I tried to work from home the following Monday, I was shaking and physically sick. The words on emails were swimming around the page in front of me. I couldn’t make sense of them or hold a thought in my head for long enough to complete a task.

I had no idea what was wrong with me, but I knew I needed help fast and headed to the doctor the next day. That was the start of nine months of intense medical support and therapy to get me back to being a functioning human being who could take care of myself, let alone think about going back to work.

Even the smallest things like getting out of bed or cooking a meal can seem overwhelming when burnout takes hold. It generally requires some serious time out to give yourself the space to heal.


It doesn’t need to be this way – you don’t have to go through the stages of burnout

As you can see, burnout gives us so many clues along the way. We may realise them too late the first time around, but you never forget a lesson that intense.

I will always need to keep an eye on my tendency to throw myself into projects and start overworking. However, now I know precisely the signs to watch. With me, it’s the smallest things at first – an eye twitch, a sense of frustration that isn’t justified, or my digestive system starting to feel off. I’ve learned the hard way that this is my body letting me know that it needs to rest, and I now respect that.

I hope that through articles like this and other people sharing their stories, you’ll develop a self-awareness with your own body and mind that allows you avoid burnout and stay healthy and happy for the rest of your career and life!

Two professional women

Where to go for additional support

If this article resonates with you, and you are approaching burnout, or there already, there are lots of support options:

  • If you are experiencing significant physical or mental symptoms such as strong feelings of anxiety, depression or exhaustion, then it’s best to consult a qualified medical professional who can help you determine the care and support you need. In my case, I left it so long that I needed the support of a psychiatrist, a therapist and medication to stabilise me. Everyone is different, and there is no one right way to treat burnout.
  • If you are earlier in the process or coming out the other side, I can offer one-on-one personalised coaching to support you. See the Work With Me section for more information and book a complimentary call.
  • You can check out my courses and resources, including free support guides and templates.
  • Join our email list for regular content to support your journey.
  • You can check out more burnout blogs on this website and my YouTube channel.

You are enough. We will defeat burnout together.

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2 Comments

  1. A very accurate analysis Emma
    I came close to burn out on a couple of occasions but fortunately I was able to get out of the toxic office and work away for a period
    It was a case of developing different strategies. My boss was great but his boss thought work before family which I would not do. When he tried to tell me this wanted doing I used to tell him what I had on and which job did he want me to drop?
    I wasn’t popular but I got on with what I saw were the priorities. In my experiences the things which can build up to stress are poor management priorities and people chasing around like headless chickens
    I worked on one project and the project office was nearer my home. I got on well with the team there and they were happy to let me do my work there. The best thing was taking redundancy and then choosing what work I wanted to do without all the stress and office politics working from home as part of small teams

    1. Thank you for sharing your story Francis. It’s great that you identified the stress was building up and had strategies for dealing with it. Having boundaries around how much work we take on is critical.

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