Understanding Burnout And The Wellbeing Practices That Prevent It

Burnout, huh? You are not sure you experience it let alone how to prevent it? Hold my coffee and listen to this.

It is Wednesday at 8:55 AM – five minutes until I have to log in for work.

I am at the kitchen table. My chin is making a hole in the hand that supports it. I havenโ€™t even had my first coffee yet but my hands are shaky. I am anxious. I am tired. I have had a headache for a few days now. I would rather drop off the face of the Earth than press the โ€œonโ€ button of my laptop. I do it anyway.

I am burned out. Hell, at this point I am just ash.

This is how burnout feels. Sounds familiar? Keep on reading!

How are stress and burnout different

It might sound like stress and burnout may be synonyms but they are not. The easiest way to differentiate them is to think in terms of โ€œtoo muchโ€ and โ€œnot enoughโ€. Stress is โ€œtoo muchโ€: too much work, too many responsibilities, too much pressure. Burnout is about โ€œnot enoughโ€: not enough energy, not enough motivation, not enough willingness. Burnout occurs when we have experienced stress long enough to feel empty and depleted.

Early burnout signs you can catch today

Lack of enthusiasm

I think we all know the days when you promise yourself that you will do great things just to find yourself uninspired at the sight of the emails in your inbox. It is true that sometimes this state has nothing to do with your wellbeing – maybe the task at hand is boring, maybe you had a late night and you feel tired. However, I think it is safe to say that you know the type of lack of enthusiasm I am talking about. It is the one that appears even for things you are usually excited to do. This lack of enthusiasm is one of the early signs of burnout that you can catch today.

Worrying that you underdeliver at work

Once you start burning out, you feel like you just cannot do the things you have to and you start to procrastinate. You try to mask your decreased productivity but at the back of your mind, you start wondering if others can see what you already know – you are not delivering at the same level as before. If you experience this worry habitually, it might be a sign you are burning out.

Mood swings

My colleague has an excellent saying โ€œI know if I am doing well by how I react to the small inconvenient things that happen every dayโ€. These are words we can live by. If you feel physically and mentally healthy and balanced, the fact that a colleague forgot to send you a report will be something you can easily brush off. However, if you are tired, stressed and burning out, even the smallest things will take you out of balance and cause you to act more aggressively than normal. In fact, being easily agitated, experiencing anxiety and developing a more cynical view of life are all signs of burnout that you can catch early.

If you are curious to see what your burnout level is, check this quick self-test.

There are more burnout stages than you think

How many stages do you think burnout has? I would have said three. The first one is to set yourself on fire, then to pretend you are not on fire and finally, to burn out. However, there are actually five stages. Letโ€™s take a look at them:

The honeymoon

Ah, the happy first days of a venture! Whether it is a new project at work, a new job or starting a business, the beginning is always exciting. At this stage, you might experience overwhelm and it is expected. Managing new people or learning a lot of things at once might cause you to stress a little. 

Symptoms: optimism about your work tasks, high energy levels, high job satisfaction, the occasional experience of stress;

What wellbeing practices to focus on? In this stage, it is important to start implementing wellbeing activities that allow you to rest, recharge and combat stress. In theory, if you successfully start practising these, you can stay in the honeymoon stage forever. Here are examples of what you can do that take into consideration the five pillars of wellbeing:

โ†’ Physical exercise;

โ†’ Focus on healthy food and hydration;

โ†’ Prioritise good sleep;

โ†’ Schedule time for friends and family;

โ†’ Find your stress reliever and practice it often;

โ†’ Find five to ten minutes to be still every day;

The onset of stress

At this stage, you start to acknowledge that some days are just stressful. It might feel like the pressure is too much and you start to experience anxiety. It becomes more difficult to focus and to make decisions. Maybe your sleep and quality of life start getting affected by the stress you experience.

Symptoms: headaches, lack of focus, inability to make decisions, anxiety, decreased sleep quality, drop in your social interactions;

What wellbeing practices to focus on? I dare to say that all of us experience this level of stress at some point(s) in our lives. I have noticed that there are certain changes – moving to a new house, starting a new job, moving to a different country, which will inherently lead to this stage of burnout. It is important to acknowledge the increasing presence of stress and to find healthy ways to reduce it. Here are some pointers on what to focus on:

โ†’ Physical exercise;

โ†’ Eat regularly and work out a system to remember to drink water;

โ†’ Set a bedtime routine: reduce screens and media intake, read, practice mindfulness;

โ†’ Proactively schedule relaxing activities and time with friends and family;

โ†’ Engage in mindfulness activities every day;

Chronic stress

Now you are stressed more often than you are not. Your motivation has drastically decreased. You start noticing changes in your outlook on life – you start developing apathy and/or become easily agitated. You might distance yourself from your friends and family and drop hobbies that used to bring you joy. You feel exhausted very often. Whatever fun there was at the beginning of your work had completely vanished by now.

Symptoms: anger or aggressiveness, feeling panic, feeling like you cannot control your life, exhaustion, increased usage of drugs, sugar and/or coffee, procrastination;

What wellbeing practices to focus on? Traumatic events or prolonged period of everyday stress can lead to chronic stress. At this point, it is worth spending some time examining your daily routine and schedule. It is important to find the cause for the increased stress, strategise ways to decrease it and implement practical steps to do so.

โ†’ Taking care of your physical wellbeing;

โ†’ Taking care of your mental wellbeing;

โ†’ Get to the bottom of the problem: journal, talk to a trusted friend or work with a therapist or a coach;

โ†’ Examine your daily routine: which of your daily activities ehance stress and which battle it?

โ†’ Implement actionable items in your schedule to decrease stress and increase levels of wellbeing;

โ†’ Consider taking a well-deserved rest;


At this stage, you feel like you cannot continue with the way things are. It is becoming increasingly challenging to cope with your work and personal life. You experience behavioural changes and start developing chronic health problems such as headache or stomach pains. You might completely stop taking care of yourself and start wishing you can hide forever.

Symptoms: chronic health problems (often headache or stomach issues), feeling empty inside, no motivation to take care of yourself, social isolation, desire to quit everything; intense self-doubt;

What wellbeing practices to focus on? As you progress through the stages of burnout, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to manage stress on your own – not because you are not capable, but for the reason that you have less mental and physical energy to put in the work. I read many articles on preventing burnout while preparing this one and surprisingly few of them recommended what I think is very important and hence, I will start with it:

โ†’ If it is possible, get help – a therapist or a coach can be the best investment at this point. They can help you identify the reasons for the burnout and work with you to raise your motivation levels so you can take actions to balance your life.

โ†’ Identify a few areas of wellbeing which are key for improving your quality of life and focus only on them: you might feel like your sleep, eating habits, mental wellness and social wellbeing are all falling apart, but I recommend you to pick a few things that can make the biggest impact and focus on implementing them. Remember – at this stage your motivation levels are not very high and you are prone to procrastination and self-doubt. Do not bite more than you can chew. Baby steps!

โ†’ Consider a lifestyle change: what in your lifestyle can you change to create a more balanced and healthier environment for yourself?

Habitual burnout

Habitual burnout means that you experience burnout symptoms on regular basis. This amount of stress wears you off and leads to a series of chronic conditions.

Symptoms: burnout syndrome, chronic mental fatigue, chronic sadness, chronic physical fatigue, depression;

What wellbeing practices to focus on? While it has happened that I would experience burnout, I have never reached this stage and therefore, I will recommend you to seek professional help. Dealing with chronic fatigue, burnout syndrome or depression might take intervention and assistance that involves more than a healthy diet and a good nightโ€™s sleep. What is most important at this point is to know that it is possible to get better and that asking for help is the best way to go. We are all just humans who sometimes need other humans to give them a hand!

The one thing to do every day to reduce the risk of burnout

There is a wonderful metaphor for wellbeing which involves a pan with water and a frog. If you boil the water and drop the frog in the pan, the animal will use its strong back legs and push itself off the bottom of the pan. I will jump out. It will live. However, if you leave the frog in the pan and slowly heat the water to boiling temperature, the frog will cook itself. By the time it realises how hot it has gotten, it will be too late to jump out.

I like this story because it describes what happens with us, humans, so well. We often let ourselves sit in the heating water, thinking we are managing it until it is a bit late for preventive measures.

There is one thing you can do every day to reduce the risk of burnout and it is simple – check-in with yourself. Set aside five to ten minutes in the morning to evaluate how you feel – physically and mentally. This easy practice will help you catch early signs of chronic stress and burnout and will allow you to introduce wellbeing activities that support your health on time.

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