The Five Stages of Burnout: Stages 1 and 2

When I worked as a campus health coach, I obtained systemic stress management counseling from the American Institute for Preventative Medicine. This training was extensive, and it was timely. Below is a bar chart of all the publications gathered on the topic of burnout from 1983 to 2022. As you can see, 2020 was a significant year, but as a subject, burnout hasn’t garnered much attention in the last fifty years. Sadly, generations have dealt with the effects of stress-induced burnout without proper tools, support, or compassion. Even in 2015, psychologists were presenting arguments that burnout was not distinct enough from stress or depression to be diagnosed and treated.

burnout research image

Thankfully, science is always evolving. While some were looking for similarities between burnout and depression, other doctors and psychologists looked for causation and prevention. One of the challenges scientists face in distinguishing stress and burnout is the definitions. Dr. Hans Selye, M.D. defined stress in 1963 as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” This leaves a lot of room for interpretation when seeking a diagnosis.

Dr. Selye also noted that humans require some stress in their lives. We need motivation or healthy tension to move forward. The challenge is discerning where the line is between healthy tension and distress or unhealthy tension. That’s why it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of the 5 Stages of Burnout.

stress and productivity curve

Stage 1 of Burnout

Stage one is identified as someone’s plumb line or baseline. One title for this stage is Overflowing Enthusiasm” because when someone is in stage one, they are motivated by the positive tension of stress. Whether focusing on personal or professional goals, one is characterized by one’s strong desire to succeed.

Enthusiasm may continue if an individual conserves and replenishes energy through stress management techniques. These may include self-care, relaxing regularly, healthy time management, and assertiveness.

Stage 1 energy is also conserved and replenished when someone feels that their productivity is noticed and appreciated. Depending on the ministry, job, or personal goals someone is focusing on, stage one energy will remain as long as they sustain satisfaction.

Key Points: SMART goals, accountability, and healthy boundaries are all significant parts of remaining satisfied. When someone begins to feel that they aren’t appreciated or that they are being taken advantage of, their energy levels will start to slip into stage 2 of burnout.

Stage 2 of Burnout     

Stage two is usually defined as “Loss of Enthusiasm” and is identified when someone says they have a sense of the blahs for more than a day. When attitudes and emotions begin to grey or lean more toward negative thoughts through the day, it’s time to pause and ask why.

Changes in behavior and attitude may alert someone that the burnout process is starting. It becomes easier to begin the repair process when we can name our why behind an emotion.

Have you thought or said:

  • I need a vacation.
  • These tasks feel redundant.
  • This new project feel overwhelming.
  • I’m having a hard time concentrating.
  • I don’t feel appreciated.
  • I’m going to sneak out early today. No one will miss me.

If you read through this list and say yes to more than one of these statements weekly it’s time to evaluate the why behind them. Is there a conflict that’s remained unresolved? Are you overdue for a vacation? Do you need to look for more responsibility? Are you in need of stronger support systems around you? What do you need to delegate?

The most important part of identifying your burnout stage besides clarifying the why is working toward getting back to stage 1. Understanding what triggers our stress will allow us to practice better self-care or ask for professional help when necessary.

While we will always face stressful days, the more stress-filled days we encounter in a row without adequate support, the more likely we are to face both mental and physical health impairments.

Check out this short video to learn about all 5 stages of burnout:

Next week we’ll discuss Burnout Stage 3.

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