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- Burnout is a reaction to prolonged or chronic stress, characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced ability to function.
- There are five stages of burnout. Understanding the progression can help you recognize warning signs of burnout and take action as soon as possible.
- Quitting is not a viable option for most people facing job-related burnout. Goal setting, micro-breaks, and digital health tools can offer relief.
Burnout was rampant in the earlier days of the pandemic. While parents did their best to juggle childcare and other responsibilities that now fell on their shoulders during the workday, frontline workers faced fatigue and unrealistic expectations with no relief in sight. Those fortunate enough to transition to working from home felt the blurring of work-life boundaries. And across all professions, people in the United States and worldwide lost the ability to seek comfort and respite via face-to-face interactions with friends and loved ones. So the Great Resignation came as no surprise, as more than 47 million Americans quit their jobs—the most resignations on record.
In 2022, as we entered the next phase of the pandemic and felt a greater sense of normalcy, you would expect burnout to subside. That hasn’t happened. Reports of job-related or occupational burnout are getting worse. According to the latest quarterly survey conducted by Slack’s Future Forum, 43% of U.S. office workers “feel burned out at work.” While burnout isn’t classified as a health condition, the consequences can be crippling to the individual (e.g., depression, chronic fatigue) and negatively impact their employer (e.g., productivity loss, presenteeism). When employees are overworked and burnout goes untreated, everyone loses.
The Five Stages of Burnout—Workplace and Otherwise
You don’t wake up one day with burnout. Instead, it is a slow progression of physical symptoms, thoughts, and behaviors. The initial stages may be almost imperceptible, but by the time you reach the habitual burnout phase, it can be nearly impossible to carry out your daily responsibilities.
Luckily, there are proactive steps you can take to prevent or limit burnout. And, like a progressive condition, the earlier you can detect burnout and make changes, the better.
Stage 1: Honeymoon Phase
Like the honeymoon phase of a new relationship, the first stage of burnout is characterized by energy and optimism. In the context of a new job, you are productive and eager to take on new challenges. Likewise, for someone newly diagnosed with diabetes, there is a commitment to regularly making the best choices and a belief that better health is within reach.
Stage 2: Onset of Stress
At this stage, your job may have become the central focus of your life, leaving less time for friends, family, and pleasurable activities. Gradually, you begin to experience signs of stress. Reduced productivity, an inability to focus, changes in appetite, headaches, and anxiety are common.
Stage 3: Chronic Stress
You’ll reach a point where once intermittent stress has now become a constant in your life. Mounting pressure will negatively impact your performance and self-assurance. Many times, interpersonal relationships also suffer. It’s not uncommon for people in this stage to become angry and lash out at others or become isolated.
Stage 4: Burnout
If nothing changes, your symptoms will become critical as you enter the burnout stage. Burnout is not a medical diagnosis, but a state of complete exhaustion marked by troubling behavioral changes, intense physical distress, and feelings of emptiness and self-doubt. Concentrating is seemingly impossible, and you feel disillusioned by what once motivated you.
Stage 5: Habitual Burnout
You’ve reached your limit. Chronic mental, physical, and emotional symptoms of burnout are embedded in your life such that you can no longer function normally. Complete neglect of your personal needs, including quality sleep, leaves you vulnerable to illnesses. Depression and anxiety are common. Numbness, cynicism, or a sense of indifference make it difficult to ask for help.
If you are experiencing burnout or habitual burnout, please seek professional help.
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a 24/7/365 free and confidential information service that provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357), TTY: 1-800-487-4889. You can also use their online treatment locator or send your zip code via text message to 435748 (HELP4U) to find help near you.
- Crisis Text Line provides free text-based mental health support and crisis intervention. Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, anytime to connect with a live, trained crisis counselor.
How Chronic Condition Management Compounds Burnout
Under the current circumstances, everyone in the workforce is at risk of burnout, but none more so than people living with chronic conditions. Ongoing health issues like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease often take an emotional and physical toll and increase someone's risk of financial stress. Managing one of these conditions by itself can lead to treatment fatigue, which, when experienced alongside workplace stress, can accelerate the progression of job-related burnout.
In addition to a steady paycheck, one of the most important benefits of employment to someone living with a chronic condition is health insurance. So quitting and transitioning to a new job to escape burnout is unlikely the best option. The good news is that there are several coping strategies one can use to minimize the impact of burnout and get back on track to better workplace productivity and overall health.
How to Cope with Burnout Without Quitting
The best way to deal with burnout is by preventing it in the first place. Unfortunately, intermittent stressors (e.g., heavy workloads and deadlines) are an inevitable byproduct of any profession. Still, you can use specific strategies to avoid letting workplace pressures lead to the debilitating state known as burnout.
Work With Purpose
Most of the time, reframing your career as more than a way to earn a paycheck can go a long way in helping you avoid burnout and minimize work-related stress. Try identifying your job's impact on other people or the world around you to add more meaning to what you do daily.
For example, like many of my colleagues at One Drop, I see the bigger picture: transform health, change lives, and create new opportunities for everyone. My daily responsibilities—big and small—further our company's mission and inevitably support people living with diabetes worldwide.
Alternatively, your purpose may be career-driven. Professional development and job satisfaction are linked, so consider working with management to identify opportunities for growth within your organization and related milestones to keep you motivated.
Perform a Job Analysis
When was the last time you looked at your job description? For most people, it's at the time of hiring or promotion. We enter a role, then begin accumulating responsibilities—executing without stopping to question if what we're doing daily or weekly is of the utmost importance.
Find 30 minutes on your calendar. Use this time to draft a detailed list of what falls within your work purview, from minute tasks to bigger projects. Then, with support from your direct manager or HR department, compare the list with your current job description and the company's business objectives. The goal is to level-set expectations, so you can return to work with reasonable expectations and a clear understanding of your near- and short-term priorities.
High-quality work requires personal care activities and practices to restore your body and mind. Key tools for internal alignment and stress management include exercise, meditation, food, sleep, and time off.
Exercise: Cardiovascular exercise and resistance training have the potential to reduce workplace burnout by increasing well-being and reducing perceived stress. Need ideas? Try these no-equipment total body workouts.
- Moving Meditation: A yoga or Tai Chi practice can help ground you in the present through the alignment of breath and movement. The health benefits of moving meditation include improved mood and self-efficacy along with physical strength and endurance.
- Nutrient-Rich Diet: Feeling stressed can be a symptom of something bigger: cortisol in overdrive, poorly managed blood sugar levels, a compromised immune system, or all of the above. Talk to your doctor or One Drop clinical health coach about adopting an anti-inflammatory eating plan and ensure your diet is full of nutrient-dense foods. And just as what you eat can be healing, certain foods can have the opposite effect. While they can provide short-term comfort, added sugar, refined carbohydrates, caffeine, and alcohol have been linked to increased inflammation and symptoms of anxiety.
Sleep Hygiene: According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleeping less than six hours per night is among the best predictors of job-related burnout. Start with a few basic strategies for getting more high-quality sleep.
- Micro Breaks: Taking a break from work doesn’t always need to require using your vacation days. New research suggests taking 10-minute breaks from tasks throughout the day may help prevent workplace burnout.
Build Support Systems
It’s easy to get locked into the work hamster wheel and shut out distractions, including the people we care about. But it’s imperative that work doesn’t spill into playtime. Outside normal work hours, quality time with loved ones should be protected at all costs. Research has found that people who have strong relationships with friends, family, and community members are more likely to experience physical and psychological health benefits such as increased resilience to stress, decreased risk of depression and cardiovascular disease, and improved longevity.
Fostering healthy relationships within the workplace also has its benefits. Regardless of your field, bonding with peers can have a direct impact on your professional success and has been shown to boost individual productivity and creativity, morale, and overall job satisfaction.
Try One Drop
There remains an unwritten expectation within the U.S. workforce: show up no matter what. As a result, Americans are on the job—virtually or in person—regardless of their mental, physical, or emotional state. Presenteeism, working at minimal capacity due to health problems, correlates to a one-third reduction in individual productivity and repercussions for our economy and population health.
But there’s good news: New research study results indicate that One Drop's digital diabetes program is an effective solution to presenteeism, yielding significant benefits for employees with type 2 diabetes. (Not a One Drop member yet? Start your free trial today.)
When to Seek Professional Help
A crucial part of recovering from burnout or habitual burnout is asking for help. Seek professional intervention if burnout symptoms worsen or interfere with your daily life even after you’ve tried the measures at your disposal. Engage with counseling or other mental health services offered through your employer, or contact Mental Health America to find resources closest to you. For immediate confidential support, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline or message the Crisis Text Line.
Just as you don’t suddenly experience burnout, the road to recovery will likely take time and require patience and self-compassion. Be kind to yourself and take things one day at a time. You’ve got this.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Alexa Stelzer, RDN, LD, CDCES, clinical health coach at One Drop