Stress & Burnout

Self-care Tools for HR Professionals to Reduce Stress and Prevent Burnout

Recognize the five stages of burnout and take practical steps to prevent the progression of stress into harmful, habitual burnout.

a woman with her eyes closed looking down

Chibs Okereke, stress and burnout coach

8 min read

In the age of disruption, human resources (HR) departments are the shock absorbers of the organisation. They’re on the front line, communicating and managing change down through the organisation and absorbing the fear and stress that percolate back up.

From leading through COVID and the Great Resignation to managing layoffs and confronting an era of change due to AI and automation, HR professionals have faced constant challenges for nearly four years. And now, changes in workplace structures and cultures have left most HR departments under-resourced and under pressure. 

Factor in the natural instinct of most people in HR to go above and beyond to help others, along with a tendency to become perfectionistic under stress, and it’s no surprise that HR professionals face a high risk of burnout. In fact, nearly all HR managers and leaders are feeling overwhelmed (94%), emotionally fatigued from their work (97%), and burned out (98%). As a former HR manager myself, I know how tough it is.

If you’re an HR professional who’s struggling, please know that you’re not alone. And be aware that there are things you can do to mitigate the effects of stress and prevent burnout. 

The five stages of burnout

As a first step, it’s important to understand and recognize that there are five stages of burnout. It can seem like burnout is sudden, but in reality, it’s a progression of stress over time that can sneak up on you. Here are the five stages of burnout we tend to see:

1. Honeymoon

When we undertake a new job, project, or task, we often experience very high satisfaction, abundant energy, and loads of excitement and creativity. High achievers, filled with excitement about newness and possibilities, are especially susceptible to the honeymoon phase.

In this stage of burnout, you might start to experience a bit of stress, but it feels like good stress, like excitement. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that you’re still experiencing a degree of stress to your system. Even if it’s the last thing on your mind, you should begin using stress-reduction strategies now, because you want to stay in the honeymoon stage indefinitely.

2. Onset of stress

During this stage, you’ll start to notice that some days are more difficult than others. Your optimism might begin to wane, and unpleasant stress symptoms, such as an inability to focus, irritability, anxiousness, or poor sleep, might emerge. If you haven’t initiated well-being strategies by now, you need to start, because the longer you go without addressing the problem, the harder it’s going to get. You’ll begin to feel worn down, more stressed, and like you don’t have time for anything, including self-care.

3. Chronic stress

Research shows that about three weeks of stressful days in a row begin to make permanent changes to your nervous system. Your body gets the message that you’re living in danger and goes into constant high alert. At this stage, you’ll feel significant stress on a near-daily basis. You could be withdrawing, missing deadlines, becoming ill, and/or feeling persistent tiredness or anger. 

4. Burnout

Chronic stress leads to burnout. Burnout can look a lot like stress, but three feelings distinguish it: overwhelming exhaustion, a lack of enthusiasm, and increased negativity about your job and less ability to perform it. In fact, researchers have recently identified cognitive impairment as a symptom of burnout. 

At this stage, it’s increasingly difficult to cope and critical to seek help. The longer you remain at this stage, the more damage you’re going to do to your nervous system and the more challenging it’s going to be to get back to a healthy state.  

5. Habitual burnout

This is the stage I got to as an entrepreneur and CEO, and it’s no joke. Once we get here, the symptoms of burnout are so ingrained in your life that you’re going to experience significant mental, physical, and emotional problems.

Armed with an understanding of the five burnout stages, it’s vital to stay in tune with how you’re feeling. Otherwise, you may wake up one day burned out and not know how you got there. So, get to know your unique signs of stress, take our burnout assessment to know what stage you’re in, and initiate self-care to reduce stress and build resilience before burnout becomes habitual. Download our stress & burnout tip sheet and assessment here.

The 5 Stages of Burnout & Tips to Address Them

This tip sheet outlines practical ways to manage stress before it becomes chronic and results in burnout

Download now
the 5 stages of stress & burnout and how to address them

Four well-being strategies and tools to reduce stress and prevent burnout

To get started, here are four effective well-being strategies and tools that are easy to adopt and integrate into your day.

1. Rediscover your purpose

When clients come to me burned out, they’ve usually lost or forgotten their purpose, and that leads to cynicism and negativity about their job. “Purpose” refers to a sense of meaning and direction in one’s life—whether a career goal, a desire to make a positive impact on the world, or a desire for personal growth and self-discovery. Without a sense of purpose, burnout can be exacerbated. 

Alternatively, a clear purpose can help prevent burnout by providing a sense of meaning and fulfilment. It can help us set boundaries and make self-care a priority, and it provides perspective during difficult times. If you’re feeling burned out, rediscover why you decided to embark on your career, understanding your values, your strengths, and your passions. Align them with your company’s values to help you determine your purpose and get back on track.

2. Integrate micro breaks into your daily routine 

In the age of busyness and distraction, it takes only a minute or two to relax, clear the cobwebs, refocus the mind, and reset. We don’t need to spend hours with our eyes closed in meditation.

Micro breaks are easy to incorporate into your day at the start of meetings, between meetings, or while completing a task. It’s a simple but powerful way to shed some of that stress we’re carrying with us into the next part of our day. And as well as helping us to de-stress, micro breaks can heighten focused engagement. If we can integrate micro breaks into our organisation, we can create a broader culture of mindfulness.  

I’ve got several short, sharp micro-break tools in the Calm app, and there are many more from other stress and burnout experts. Try them out and monitor how you feel before and after; I think you’ll find they’re an effective way to relax and rebalance.

3. Practice controlled breathing 

When you’re in a prolonged state of stress, you need to find a way to break out of high-alert mode. One way to do this is through controlled breathing. By intentionally controlling your breath, you can create calm in moments of stress, anxiousness, fear, or any uncomfortable emotion. Controlled breathing allows you to get more air into your lungs, increase the oxygen in your bloodstream, lower your heart rate, and get your body into a rest-and-digest state. 

The Calm app offers several types of short breathing exercises. Experiment with different techniques and find what works best for you, and then use them whenever you feel the onset of stress, anxiousness, overwhelm, or overthinking.

4. Adopt a daily mindfulness practice

On days when life feels overwhelming, becoming aware of our inner and outer world can really help us find some quiet amid today’s frenzied pace. It can also help us recognize our stress signals so we can step up our self-care and return to healthy habits, like eating healthy meals, spending time in nature, or simply breathing more deeply. A daily mindfulness practice is a great way to create that awareness—to snap us out of autopilot, help us find our bearings, and put us on a path to living more healthfully and confronting challenges with calm and composure.

Mindfulness practice also can have a direct impact on how we feel in the present moment. Research shows that a regular mindfulness practice reduces stress and anxiousness, enhances our focus and concentration, increases productivity, lowers blood pressure, and improves our sleep. It can even improve our pain tolerance.

I use mindfulness to help me with my stress, anxiety, depression, and exhaustion, and I find that it’s also a powerful tool that helps me focus, gain clarity, and enjoy the good things in my life. Calm offers an extensive library of self-care tools that can help you build a mindfulness practice and benefit in similar ways.

Start your self-care today

There’s a lot of change at the moment, and while change can be daunting, it’s also a door to new possibilities. It’s a chance for growth, for innovation, for fresh perspectives. So when faced with change, let’s choose to see the opportunities it brings. And remember, the more stressed you are, the more you’ll fear change. The less stressed you are, the more change will feel like excitement.

Challenges are inevitable, but it’s not about the challenges. It’s about how we tackle them. Resilience is our tool; it’s our strength. So look after yourself and build up your resilience. And know that we’re all in this together. I call it being selfishly selfless. 

For more information on how Calm Business can help you improve your and your employees’ mental health and well-being, contact a Calm specialist today

Help employees stress less, sleep better, and build more resilience with Calm Business

Book a demo
three iphones with different app icons on them