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Alcohol and Mental Health

What Are the Stages of Burnout?

July 13, 2023
18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
July 13, 2023
18 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
July 13, 2023
18 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
July 13, 2023
18 min read
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Reframe Content Team
July 13, 2023
18 min read

You’re barely hanging on. Your life has started to feel like a never ending hamster wheel: you wake up, go to work, stay late to get things done, come home from work, check your email, go to bed, and do it all over again the next day. You're physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. And your relationships with loved ones are suffering. 

In this post, we’ll explore a condition many of us suffer from: burnout. In fact, 89% of Americans have reported experiencing burnout in the past year. We’ll look at what it is, how it occurs, and what we can do to prevent ourselves from reaching the end of our rope. Let’s get started!

What Is Burnout?

Simply put, burnout is a form of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that can result from working too hard for too long. It’s a relatively new phenomenon: the term was coined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who used it to describe medical professionals, such as doctors and nurses, who felt “burned out” from their tireless work. 

The term has since evolved to include any working professional experiencing exhaustion and an inability to cope with daily tasks. In fact, in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout as a syndrome that stems from our occupation, noting that it is caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

While rates of burnout have been on the rise for several decades, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have exacerbated burnout among people from all different professions. This is largely because the line between our personal lives and our work lives became increasingly blurred, as many of us turned to remote work environments during lockdown. 

What Are the Stages of Burnout? 

Interestingly, burnout doesn’t just happen all of a sudden. It’s not as if we wake up one morning and are instantaneously burned out. Rather, it’s a gradual process that builds over time. Signs and symptoms can be subtle at first, making it difficult to catch. 

Generally speaking, people go through 5 stages of burnout: 

Stage 1: The Honeymoon Phase

Interestingly, in the beginning, burnout often feels like we’re moving in the right direction. We’re chasing our goals. We’re working towards success. Our flame is burning strong, we’re full of energy, and the future seems bright. 

Over time, however, our ambition and enthusiasm might morph into a compulsion to prove our worth to ourselves and others. We might not feel “good enough,” so we take on additional work and responsibilities. We also might have difficulty saying no and always feel like we need to be doing more. 

These positive-seeming qualities are common symptoms of burnout in this stage:

  • Commitment to the job at hand
  • Compulsion to prove oneself
  • Free-flowing creativity
  • High productivity levels
  • Job satisfaction 
  • Readily accepting responsibility
  • Sustained energy levels
  • Unbridled optimism 

Stage 2: Onset of Stress

As the honeymoon phase passes, we’ll begin to experience stress. Maybe not every second of our day is stressful, but we begin to notice that some days are more difficult than others. Similarly, our optimism might start dwindling. We might start to lose focus more easily or be less productive when completing tasks. 

These are some common emotional and behavioral symptoms in this stage:

  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance of decision making
  • Forgetfulness 
  • Inability to focus 
  • Irritability
  • Lack of social interaction 
  • Lower productivity 

And Stage 2 is when we start to develop some physical symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Heart palpitations
  • High blood pressure
  • Lack of sleep or reduced sleep quality
  • Changes in appetite or diet 

Stage 3: Chronic Stress

Eventually, we reach a point where our stress has become persistent, or chronic. As the pressure mounts, the stress is more likely to affect our work. For instance, we might experience apathy — a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern about our work. We also might be late for work, not complete our projects on time, or procrastinate during tasks. 

During this stage, we’re likely to withdraw from normal work-related conversations. We also might be easily angered and lash out at coworkers. Sometimes, this carries over into our personal life, and we may begin to pull away from friends, family members, or loved ones. 

In Stage 3, symptoms from stage 2 generally become more intense. We might also experience these additional physical symptoms:

  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Decreased sexual desire
  • Increased alcohol/drug consumption
  • Increased caffeine consumption
  • Physical illness
  • Persistent tiredness in the mornings

Other emotional and mental symptoms develop during this stage:

  • Cynical attitude
  • Resentfulness
  • Denial of problems at home or work
  • Feeling pressured or threatened
  • Lack of hobbies
  • Social withdrawal

Stage 4: Burnout

Stage 4 is when we reach our limit and can no longer function as we normally would. Doing anything becomes near impossible. During this stage, we might start to feel like a shell of our former self. We might feel detached from our own body and feel like we’re just going through the motions. Where we once used to be enthusiastic about work, we now feel negative or indifferent towards it. We no longer see ourselves or others as valuable, and we’re unable to connect with people or our own needs. 

We also might start to feel a sense of inner emptiness or worthlessness, and we struggle to find meaning in our work. We’ve lost all our motivation and might daydream about quitting, moving, or leaving our career. To cope with these uncomfortable feelings, we might turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as overeating, drinking, doing drugs, or having sex.

This stage is typically when our behavioral changes become obvious, and friends and family start getting concerned. They might notice how impatient, irritable, and negative we’ve become. We also might do things that impact others, like forgetting to pick up our child from school or missing a meeting. 

Physical symptoms often become more intense in this stage. For instance, we might experience chronic headaches, stomach issues, or gastrointestinal problems. Our burnout might also make itself known through these symptoms:

  • Complete neglect of personal needs
  • Desire to “drop out” of society 
  • Desire to move away from family and friends
  • Self-doubt
  • Social isolation
  • Pessimistic outlook on work and life

Stage 5: Habitual Burnout

If left untreated, burnout can become a part of our everyday life, leading to the fifth and final stage: habitual burnout. This means that the symptoms of burnout are so embedded in our life that we’re likely to experience a significant ongoing mental, physical or emotional problem. For instance, we might develop severe anxiety and depression, or chronic mental and physical fatigue that prevents us from working. Our job status may be put in jeopardy if we don’t seek help. Healing usually requires an extended leave from our job. 

Is Burnout the Same Thing as Stress and Depression? 

While stress can contribute to burnout, they’re not the same thing. Stress means having too much on our plate — too much work to handle, too many responsibilities, too many hours spent working. Burnout is essentially the opposite. We feel like we don’t have enough: not enough motivation, not enough energy, not enough care. 

Similarly, depression and burnout are not the same thing. Certain depression-related symptoms, such as exhaustion and difficulty performing tasks, can masquerade as burnout. But people with depression experience negative feelings and thoughts about all aspects of life, not just about work. Burnout is work-related, and it happens when we’re overwhelmed, overworked, or unable to keep up with our job’s demands.

Who Is at Risk for Experiencing Burnout? 

Some people are at a higher risk of experiencing burnout than others. For instance, if we have poor self-esteem, unrealistic expectations in the workplace, or poor stress management skills, we’re more likely to suffer from burnout. 

Similarly, if we “live to work,” forget to schedule time for non-work activities, and see ourselves as highly motivated and persistent, we may be at risk for burnout. 

We may also experience burnout at a higher rate if our job requires a heavy workload, is understaffed, has conflicts in the workplace, or doesn’t reward work when a job is well done. 

For instance, employees who feel they are treated unfairly at work are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout. Conversely, employees who feel strongly supported are 70% less likely to experience burnout symptoms on a regular basis. 

Interestingly, lack of role clarity is also a risk factor. For instance, only 60% of workers know what is expected of them. When expectations are unknown, employees may become exhausted simply trying to figure out what they’re supposed to be doing — or trying to do too many things at once. 

If we work in a culture that expects everyone to be superstars, we’re probably at risk for burnout.

How Can We Prevent Burnout? 

If we see ourselves in any of these stages of burnout, it’s important to seek help from a family member, friend, or medical professional. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help when we feel we’re in over our head. Contrary to popular belief, asking for help is a sign of great strength — not weakness. Plus, it’s best to get ahead of burnout before things spiral out of control. 

Burnout is a serious condition that can put a significant strain on our physical, mental, and emotional health. While we can’t expect to eliminate stress from our life, we can work to prevent burnout from happening. Here are some tips:

  • Exercise regularly: Exercise is not only good for our physical health, but it can also give us an emotional boost. It also leads to increased energy levels and productivity. If you’re struggling to find time, try incorporating mini-workouts or short walks throughout the day. 
  • Eat a balanced diet: A healthy diet (lots of fruits, vegetables, protein, and healthy fats) is essential to give our body and mind the fuel they need to function optimally. Foods rich in omega-3s, such as flaxseed oil, walnuts, and fish, are particularly beneficial, as they help fuel our brain. 
  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness can be an incredibly powerful tool for managing stress. It anchors us in the present moment and allows us to connect with what we’re experiencing. Mindfulness can involve breathing exercises, using guided imagery, and other practices to relax our body and mind. 
  • Get adequate sleep: Regardless of how much we have on our plate, we can’t deny our body the time it needs to rest and reset. Aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night. Keep in mind that establishing a relaxing bedtime ritual and eliminating technology at least 30 minutes before bedtime can help promote good sleep hygiene.

The Bottom Line

Burnout is a real condition that can wreak havoc on our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Because it can happen gradually, it can be difficult to recognize. But we aren’t meant to live in this state: if we suspect we’re suffering from burnout, it’s important to reach out for helpl right away. 

Finally, if you’ve realized you’re using alcohol to help numb feelings or manage stress, Reframe can help. We can give you the tools you need to cut back on your alcohol consumption and lead a healthier, happier life. 

Summary FAQs

1. What is burnout?

Burnout is a serious condition that can result from working too hard for too long. It negatively impacts every aspect of our health, including our physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

2. What are the stages of burnout?

Burnout is a gradual process that typically unfolds over a series of 5 different stages. During the first stage, we’ll likely feel excited and ambitious about our job. Once this phase passes, however, we tend to experience an accumulation of stress that manifests itself in different physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms.

3. What are the most common symptoms of burnout?

Physical symptoms of burnout include fatigue, difficulty sleeping, recurring headaches, or gastrointestinal problems. Emotional symptoms include lack of motivation, negative outlook on your job and life, and an overall feeling of dissatisfaction. Behavioral symptoms include social isolation, shirking your responsibilities, and work-related anger outbursts.

4. Who is at risk for experiencing burnout?

A variety of factors put us at risk for burnout, including our stress management skills, personal and professional expectations, workload, and work culture and environment.

5. How can we prevent burnout?

We can protect ourselves from burnout by exercising regularing, eating a balanced diet, practicing mindfulness, and getting adequate sleep.

6. What should I do if I’m experiencing burnout?

If you’re experiencing burnout, it’s important to inform a family member, friend, or medical professional. Depending on what stage we’re in and the severity of our condition, it might be necessary to take a leave of absence from work in order to heal.

Stay Healthy and On Track With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

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The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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