There Are 3 Main Stages of Burnout, According to a Psychologist

Unmanaged, chronic workplace stress is an occupational phenomenon commonly known as ‘burnout’. What most people don’t know though, is that burnout originated in the mid-70s and its roots initiated as a social problem, as opposed to occurring purely within the workplace. Fast forward to 2021, and burnout takes no prisoners – it isn't limited to the office and it often comes in three waves. 

Feeling the first wave of burnout comes with an overwhelming sense of exhaustion, where our emotional and physical resources are so overextended that they become depleted. The second wave sees feelings of cynicism and detachment, which is then followed by the final wave of ineffectiveness and a lack of accomplishment.

These three dimensions of burnout see individuals who are completely and utterly depleted due to chronic emotional, physical and interpersonal stressors. Here's a full rundown of the symptoms of each stage of burnout and advice on what treatment options are available.

What are the 3 stages of burnout?

Stage 1: Feeling completely and utterly exhausted

The 3-component syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and feelings of low personal accomplishment can see our mental health rapidly deteriorate and our recovery become increasingly difficult.

At its initial phase, burnout leaves us feeling overextended, depleted and just plain old drained. This usually occurs because we are overloaded with our to-do lists and priorities, and we're also experiencing some degree of conflict.

Feeling drained and fatigued, without a means to being replenished, means individuals are barely left with enough energy to get through the day. 

How to treat stage 1 of burnout

At this stage of burnout, it’s time to totally pump the breaks. This means time off, physical rest and psychological distancing from conflict laden people and situations.

This is the time to really practice self-care and we aren’t just talking about taking a simple bath. It’s time to sleep well, go for walks, eat lots of healthy and nutritious foods, as well as saying no to to-do lists, plans, projects and certain people. Seeing a therapist during the first phase of burnout is also a really great place to start.

Burnout can escalate rapidly and be incredibly difficult to get out of, so a therapist is a must in terms of aiding you through the symptoms and the recovery process.

Stage 2: Feeling detached and lifeless

If we don’t catch it while we can, burnout gets us into really murky water where we experience depersonalisation with a loss of idealism. Here, we see individuals flooded with negative, cynical or an excessively detached response to others and situations. While becoming automatically detached can help serve as a protective factor in order to preserve the self, this level of detachment usually shows a high level of distress associated with the complete and utter exhaustion we initially experience at the onset of burnout.

With depersonalisation, it’s common to experience physical or emotional numbness of our senses or responses, feeling as though you are outside of yourself and a degree of dissociation. Here, people and things appear foggy, we start to feel really lifeless and there is a degree of dissociation. 

How to treat stage 2 of burnout

Learn to use "grounding" techniques, like standing up and observing everything happening around you, rubbing your hands together or watching people's feet move.

Try to surround yourself with your nearest and dearest friends and family. While it may feel like you have no one to talk, it's crucial you confide in those closest to you. Remember, support is never far away. When talking to someone you trust, attempt to dig deep and talk about past distressing experiences, neglect or trauma. 

Stage 3: Feeling incompetent and unaccomplished

The final stage of burnout leaves all its victims feeling inefficient and unsuccessful. There is a real decline in feelings of competence and productivity, and symptoms of depression are usually in full swing here.

At this point, things become really difficult to cope with, a growing sense of inadequacy kicks in and we start to see ourselves as failures. 

How to treat stage 3 of burnout

At this point, it’s important to turn to our support networks – whether that be our family, friends, colleagues, partners or practitioners. Starting a light routine in terms of going to sleep at the same time each night, activity scheduling and engaging in some form of exercise, is a great way to help aid the release of feel-good hormones and prevent negative self-evaluation.

Final word

Whilst burnout can really floor us (especially towards its tail end), it’s crucial to know there is support out there. Seeking help from your General Practitioner is a perfect place to start as well as discussing some of your concerns with a Psychologist. Online services like Lysn are great spaces to speak to professionals whenever and wherever you can. If the first signs and symptoms of burnout prompt you to seek help, then the later stages can be avoided, leading to a much quicker and easier recovery.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency, call 000.

If you are concerned about your health, wellbeing or sleep, your first port of call should be your GP, who will advise a correct treatment plan. 

Noosha Anzab is a clinical psychotherapist & psychologist at LysnLysn is a digital mental health company with world class wellbeing technology which helps people find their best-fit professional psychologist whilst being able to access online tools to improve their mental health.

Unsure if you're tired or just burnout? Here's a full explainer. 

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