Burnout occurs in employees when there is no definite endpoint to an intense period of work in sight for them. This leads to uncertainty and a lack of self-belief that the individual can succeed, this causes a reduction in resilience, a sense of hopelessness and eventually this results in physical, mental and emotional collapse – what we know as a breakdown. It is the prolonged engagement in activity at a push, or stretch level of intensity which leads to burnout. In the same way a top athlete must have recovery programmed into their training schedule to allow for sustainable improvement over the long term, an employee must also have the same work-rest cycles in their work-life schedule to allow for sustainable high performance and productivity.

In 2019, the World Health Organization officially classified burnout as a major global health challenge. And a recent Deloitte workplace study found that 77 percent of the employees interviewed had experienced burnout. Workplace stress has created unsustainable cycles of employee turnover and absenteeism, and it’s a contributing factor in 120,000 deaths every year in the United States alone. These stats are all pre-covid19 pandemic as well, which has exacerbated the burnout issue even more, meaning these stats will be even worse now.

There are multiple models of burnout which have been proposed by different psychology and wellbeing experts, ranging from 3 to 12 stages in each model. But the 5-stage model is the most widely accepted:

  1. Honeymoon phase
  2. Onset of stress
  3. Chronic stress
  4. Burnout
  5. Habitual burnout

Stage 1, the Honeymoon Phase, is where an employee has high job satisfaction and is performing to a high standard, they are ‘in flow’ and work is great. Signs that an employee is in the honeymoon phase include being:

  • Cheery at work
  • Highly productive
  • Keen to take on more work

Whilst this is where we want our employees to remain all the time, instilling self-awareness in your employees is paramount in this stage. The tendency in this stage is for employees to take on too much work because they are eager to impress and feel like they are performing well. The issue is that the increased workload can lead to raised stress levels, more pressure, and employees taking on more than they can handle. 

The solution is to use the honeymoon phase, when people are feeling good and performing well, to teach self awareness and coping techniques for when things do start to get more challenging. Focus training on understanding and building resilience. The same way an athlete doesn’t train new skills under fatigue, you shouldn’t expect your employees to be able to learn coping strategies when they are in a stressed state.

If employees don’t get this right it is likely that they will head into stage 2 – onset of stress. In this stage, all work days don’t seem as fun and easy, and employees likely start to feel some signs of stress and anxiety. 

You can often tell if you or a team member is heading into this stage if they show any of the following symptoms, being:

  • Less focused on tasks and easily distracted
  • More forgetful
  • Less productive

If you track any of your biometrics with a wearable, look out for a reduction in your Heart Rate Variability (HRV) or lower sleep scores. Both of these are often signs that your body is entering a stressed state, and it is important to take steps to rebalance.

Practicing mindfulness is one of the best strategies for preventing onset of stress stage. Mindfulness sessions give you the opportunity to reflect, connect with yourself and take stock of how you are feeling. Self awareness is key to burnout prevention. Mindfulness practice also trains your brain to activate your parasympathetic nervous system as a response to stress (your calming, rest and restore neural mechanism) as opposed to your sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. This means that when you are exposed to stressors in the future you will naturally handle it in a more healthy way.

Failure to reduce stress levels at this stage will likely lead to a person entering stage 3 – chronic stress. In this stage, stress is experienced more intensely and on a frequent basis. Some of the signs of someone entering the chronic stress stage are:

  • Short temper or aggression
  • Signs of severe tiredness
  • More self-care and self hygiene
  • Lateness
  • Physical illness

At this stage, to reverse the burnout cycle, it is essential that time for self-care is scheduled. It is not possible to ‘work’ your way out of this stage, working harder will not help, and as an employer, this is the time to say, rest and refresh so that you can get back to being productive. The best self-care activities to schedule into your week are:

  • Walks in nature (great for boosting BDNF – Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor)
  • Meditation
  • Exercise and gym sessions
  • Yoga
  • Massage

You must schedule these activities, otherwise there will always be something more important and you will not get out of the Chronic Stress stage. The key is to always be using these self-care tips to help you stay in the honeymoon phase long-term.

Failure to reverse the cycle at this stage can lead to actual burnout and even head into habitual burnout. In these stages employees will show physiological signs of stress and often develop depression. In these stages look out for:

  • Employees’ obsessions over problems
  • Becoming reclusive 
  • Pessimistic outlook on everything
  • Self-doubt

In these stages, employees will need professional support to guide them on a recovery journey, and to prevent it happening again. Given the stigma that is still associated with not being able to cope, and needing help, my advice is for workplaces to ensure they are doing the following:

  • Deliver burnout awareness sessions and strategic communications throughout business
  • Train managers on the key signs of burnout and how to support employees they see entering each stage
  • Promote self-care throughout the business
  • Ensure employees can access mental health and counselling support whenever they need it, wherever they are. You can do this by providing employees access to a connected health platform (CHP) such as www.Yodha.io 

Many of us believe that success should be instant. We reason that if we want to achieve big results, we need to take big risks and throw ourselves headfirst into new projects. But trying to do too much too quickly just isn’t sustainable. To win in the long term, create the mantra in your business that ‘dramatic success is created through gradual, sustainable growth’.