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5 Stages Of Burnout—An Expert’s Guide To Cope

You know it’s time for a breather when each workday feels like the day you’d rather quit. Burnout symptoms can arise from a number of occupational struggles—find out what a psychologist recommends for some relief.

By Debashruti Banerjee
10 Oct 2021

Feeling tired or stressed after strenuous activity is a natural response, but what if this exhaustion debilitates you to the point where it negatively impacts your functionality, productivity as well as personal and professional lives? This is a syndrome known as burnout, described by the 11th revision of International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines burnout as “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others. It results from performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll.” Due to sparse and convoluted research in the past, burnout has often been confused to be indistinguishable from other responses and conditions like stress, depression or anxiety.

According to Dr. Shreya Chakravarty, a Hyderabad-based psychologist at Apollo Health City, stress is a response to an external situation characterised by anxiety, disturbed mood, fatigue, dissatisfaction etc, caused due to adverse circumstances. Whereas burnout is a state of chronic exhaustion resulting in hypertension, irritability, cynicism, forgetfulness and more. On the other hand, burnout symptoms have also been seen as a precipitating factor for depression, but as a 2016 paper published in the journal of World Psychiatry has pointed out, “the two constructs are indeed distinct: burnout is job‐related and situation‐specific, as opposed to depression, which is more general and context‐free”.

The paper further classifies signs of burnout into three different dimensions—exhaustion or wearing out (fatigue and debilitation), cynicism or depersonalisation (negative attitude, withdrawal) and inefficacy or reduced personal accomplishment (lesser productivity, morale and coping skills).



Five progressive stages of burnout
“Causes of burnout can trigger from work attitude (job pressure, undervaluation, monotony) and work lifestyle (cluttered schedule, long shifts, lack of sleep),” says Dr. Chakravarty. She further clarifies and describes the five distinct stages of burnout syndrome—each with more distressful red flags than the last—until it becomes completely enmeshed in one’s day-to-day life.

1. Initial Stage: During this stage, a person shows overenthusiasm and overindulgence towards work. This happens particularly after getting a new job, or new initiative when a person tries to prove their best potential.
Onset Stage: This is where initial signs of stress start to show up. The person starts compromising with personal needs like skipping meals, eating at odd hours and sleeping time. Changes in appetite, food-related cravings, and anxiety are common in this stage.

2. Chronic stage: At this stage, the effect of stress on performance is visible. Work productivity, problem-solving skills and work competence suffer.

3. Crisis Stage: This is the breakdown phase. Critical physical and emotional exhaustion, depression resulting from continuous sense of failure, powerlessness and inability to control or cope up with work demands are prominent in this phase. People may also face digestive problems, self-doubt and pessimistic attitude towards work in particular and life in general.

4. Final Stage: This is the stage when burnout becomes a part of one’s life. It starts affecting personal relationships, psychological mood, health and work. When taken care of, this leads to the recovery stage.


How can identifying burnout early help?
Proper research on burnout syndrome is a recent affair, with no distinct unanimity in terms of its prevention or treatment. However, in the 2016 World Psychiatry paper, authors Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter believe that intervention can occur both at the individual and collective levels. With individual strategies being more practiced, the most common recommendations include:
“a) changing work patterns (working less, taking more breaks, avoiding overtime work, balancing work with the rest of one’s life);
b) developing coping skills (cognitive restructuring, conflict resolution, time management);
c) obtaining social support (both from colleagues and family);
d) utilising relaxation strategies;
e) promoting good health and fitness; and
f) developing a better self‐understanding (via various self‐analytic techniques, counseling, or therapy”.

Dr. Shreya Chakravarty believes in checking in with oneself from time to time—it is necessary that we take a step back and ask ourselves certain questions, by doing which we might be able to identify certain signs of burnout early on. “Ask yourselves—do you feel critical and irritable? Are you dragging yourself to work every day? Do you lose focus easily or feel a lack of satisfaction at work?” she suggests. In fact, burnout symptoms can also manifest themselves physically, she adds, in terms of headaches, bowel problems, sleeping issues and more.

Here are a few baby steps that Dr. Chakravarty trusts can have a positive impact:

  1. Don’t overextend yourself, maintain realistic goals—don’t be a perfectionist.
  2. Organise and prioritise your work, don’t let it pile up. Work smart.
  3. Be assertive, trust your potential. But don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
  4. Make sure to eat and rest well, nurture your hobbies and interests.
  5. Keep some time aside for relaxation and meditation.






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