There Are 5 Stages of Burnout, and Understanding Them Is Key To Reclaiming Your Peace

Photo: Getty Images / Delmaine Donson
When Hillarie Kay was in her 20s, a panic attack landed her in the hospital. She was consumed with the stresses in her life: working 50+ hours a week as the main breadwinner in her family, having an affair, and being a mom to a two-year-old and a newborn with special needs. She attempted to change her lifestyle, but six months later, found herself back in the hospital covered in hives. Kay, now a burnout coach, author, and speaker, is just one of many people who’ve found themselves experiencing burnout: a psychological syndrome defined as a prolonged response to chronic stress that’s often tied to work.

Experts In This Article

Sadly, burnout is common in our society. In the American Psychological Association’s 2023 Work in America Survey, about 57 percent of the ~2,500 people surveyed reported experiencing negative burnout-related feelings as a result of workplace stress. Although World Health Organization (WHO) classifies burnout as an “occupational phenomenon,” the reality is that burnout bleeds outside the lines of work into our personal and social lives.

“While most research focuses solely on burnout as a response to work stressors, I believe burnout is occurring more frequently today because people are experiencing chronic distress in multiple domains of their lives. There’s no longer a separation between our professional and personal lives,” says Jenna Watson, LMHC, founder of Mend Orlando and a psychotherapist who specializes in helping people and organizations prevent and recover from burnout.

"The stages of burnout usually move in a linear path, where things will get worse if you do not take steps to create change." —Neha Amin, DO, board-certified burn surgeon and founder, Balance and Breakthrough

You can recover from burnout once it’s already happened, but it’s better if you can recognize the signs and prevent it from happening in the first place (or again). “It’s always best to catch it early, but it can be difficult to notice this in the earlier stages as many of us assume work stress is normal,” says Neha Amin, DO, a board-certified surgeon and founder of Balance and Breakthrough, a burnout coaching service for women and physicians. “This is why burnout often happens slowly and insidiously.”

To help better identify burnout before it fully sinks in, it’s a good idea to understand the stages of burnout. Therapists once used a 12-stage model, created by psychoanalyst Herbert Freudenberger1 in the '70s, to conceptualize burnout, but it has since been simplified to just five stages. (More on those in a second.) If you can better understand these five stages and how they progress, you have a better chance of catching burnout early.

What are the five stages of burnout?

The five stages of burnout are: honeymoon, onset of stress, chronic stress, burnout, and habitual burnout. These phases, as described by a 2020 Local and Regional Anesthesia research review2 examining burnout in health-care workers, present a good overall description of the stages of burnout, says Dr. Amin. “[They] usually move in a linear path, where things will get worse if you do not take steps to create change. But each stage is just a general description and every stage can look a little different for each person,” she says.

Stage 1: Honeymoon

This phase may seem positive from the name alone, but it sets the stage for what’s to come. It describes the moment when you begin a new job or project, and are feeling optimistic, excited, and consumed by the new venture. “This is the stage where all the feel-good neurotransmitters are flowing,” Watson explains. “The dopamine alone can provide energy and leave the person feeling optimistic, excited, and energized for their new venture. Creativity and strategic thinking will be at an all-time high.”

Specific symptoms of this stage include:

  • Job satisfaction
  • Accepting responsibility
  • Sustained energy levels
  • Unbridled optimism
  • Commitment to the job
  • Compulsion to prove oneself
  • Free-flowing creativity
  • High productivity levels

Stage 2: Onset of stress

At this point in the stages of burnout, the stress of the new job or project begins to mount, and the golden sheen has worn off. “The feeling of ‘I have to do this’ versus ‘I get to do this’ kicks in,” Watson explains. “While stress can still motivate you, reality sets in.” Perhaps you don’t meet your own expectations or the expectations of others, or there have been some disappointments.

If, at this stage, you don’t implement any positive coping strategies, the risk of burnout increases, according to the research review. “Once you start noticing things like work is coming home more often, or the stress is starting to affect other parts of your lives like not feeling present enough at home, or you notice your boundaries are starting to get crossed, or you’ve started using unhealthy coping mechanisms, it’s time to start re-evaluating,” says Dr. Amin.

Specific symptoms of this stage include:

  • Inability to focus
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Reduced sleep quality
  • Lack of social interaction
  • Lower productivity
  • Avoidance of decision-making
  • Change in appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Neglect of personal needs

Stage 3: Chronic stress

Stress isn’t evil or avoidable, but if you don’t (or can’t) deal with it properly, it can become long-lasting and hard to shake. “Chronic stress can be created through a combination of lack of information and feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty,” Watson explains. “This is the stage where our bodies start speaking to us and sending warning signals, like insomnia, fatigue, headaches, [and/or] gastrointestinal issues.”

Other specific symptoms of this stage include:

  • Persistent tiredness
  • Procrastination
  • Resentfulness
  • Social withdrawal
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Apathy
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Cynical attitude
  • Decreased sexual desire
  • Denial of problems
  • Feeling threatened
  • Feeling pressured
  • Alcohol/drug consumption

Stage 4: Burnout

This is the stage where burnout truly sets in, though its exact manifestation will look different for everyone. Burnout itself occurs on a spectrum, Watson says. For example, “mild burnout may be as simple as revisiting work and personal priorities to make space for activities that have high emotional rewards and value to the person,” she says. “At its worst, individuals lose hope that their situation will ever improve.”

The authors of the 2020 research review describe this stage as one of apathy, “where despair and disillusionment occur” and “people do not see a way out of the situation and become resigned and indifferent.” It can also rob you of your focus and working memory, making you forgetful, and preventing you from being able to think critically or strategically, Watson says. At this stage, isolation is common, as personal relationships may feel like just another to-do on your checklist.

Specific symptoms of this stage include:

  • Obsession with problems
  • Pessimistic outlook
  • Physical symptoms
  • Self-doubt
  • Social isolation
  • Chronic headaches and GI problems
  • Neglect of personal needs
  • Escapist activities
  • Behavioral changes

Stage 5: Habitual burnout

Habitual burnout is the last of the stages of burnout. “Functional freeze, overwhelm and high irritability are all now your constant as you are in a state of survival from burnout,” Dr. Amin says. Watson sees it less as “habitual” and more as the severe end of the burnout spectrum, where it can lead to a mood disorder like major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. Dr. Amin agrees. “This is a surefire way down the path leading to anxiety, depression and poorer overall health if drastic changes aren’t made,” she says.

Specific symptoms of this stage include:

  • Chronic sadness
  • Chronic mental fatigue
  • Chronic physical fatigue
  • Depression

What does real burnout feel like?

“Burnout is different for everyone,” Kay says, but it’s more than just feeling tired. As mentioned earlier, the stages of burnout can start with signs of being overworked but goes beyond that, to the point where all aspects of your well-being are affected. “Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you have felt constantly overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands,” she says.

The WHO and other mental health researchers regard these three overarching symptoms to be the hallmarks of burnout3:

  • feeling exhausted or drained
  • feelings of negativism or cynicism
  • reduced efficacy or personal achievement

However, you may experience more specific symptoms from those listed above depending on your burnout stage, as well as many other factors. “Burnout is influenced by our unique fears, motivations, energy sensitivities, and cultural nuances,” Kay says. “What triggers burnout for one person might fuel growth in another.”

For example, in some people, the symptoms of burnout can mimic those of a mood disorder like depression or anxiety, Watson says. Physical signs can range from insomnia and gastrointestinal issues to frequent bouts of the common cold. “Mentally, an individual will feel overwhelmed, lack motivation, and find it difficult to complete the tasks they normally would,” she says, and emotionally, they may feel irritable and have a hard time experiencing joy or happiness even doing an activity they love: “It's like ‘everything feels like too much,’ while believing that nothing they are doing is ever enough.”

What is the difference between stress and burnout?

Despite some shared traits, stress and burnout are two different states. Most often, stress is temporary and tied to an event or circumstance; it activates our fight-or-flight response which can mobilize us to take action, whether to meet a work deadline, win a sports game, or think fast in an emergency.

“When we’re under stress, we can often see the light at the end of the tunnel for the stressor,” Kay says. It won’t affect your self-worth or self-esteem, and you maintain the belief that the stressor is manageable and that you can overcome it.

Burnout, on the other hand, is a byproduct of prolonged and repeated stress. It often leads to a person questioning their self-worth, and their capabilities, can lead to imposter syndrome, and make someone feel like they aren't good enough at what they’re trying to accomplish, Watson says.

“Stress is actually a helpful tool if we don’t ignore it,” Kay says. But if you let it build up, over time without addressing it, you end up being burned out. “You can manage stress. When you’re in burnout you need a complete overhaul of how you’re living your life,” she says.

What happens if burnout goes untreated?

“If burnout goes untreated, it can often lead to serious consequences to your physical and mental health,” Dr. Amin says. Research has linked burnout to mental health consequences4 including anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction with life, low self-esteem, insomnia, irritability, and difficulty with concentration, memory, and decision-making; physical health consequences, including musculoskeletal pain, GI issues, cardiovascular disorders, headaches, increased vulnerability to infection, chronic fatigue, high blood cortisol levels, and increased risk for type 2 diabetes; and behavioral consequences including job dissatisfaction, absenteeism, reduced performance, aggression towards others, and substance abuse.

“If you continue to try functioning while you are burned out, you risk long-term effects outside of just health problems,” Kay adds. “I’ve seen people land in the hospital—this was my story— throw away successful businesses, destroy their relationships, the list goes on.”

You don’t necessarily need to see a professional to deal with burnout, especially if it’s on the milder side of the spectrum, but you need to make lasting changes—and learn to implement coping skills for stress—in order to truly recover and prevent yourself from going down the road toward burnout again.

How long does it take to reset from burnout?

“Just like burnout looks different for everyone, so does recovery,” Kay says. It depends in part on how severe your symptoms are and what steps you are able to take to recover.  Some of us have to work through burnout, for example, even if work is the thing that causes us stress—and that might make recovery take a little longer. “Context really matters in the length of recovery,” Kay says. “For example, a single, corporate executive with no kids is going to be able to put a different level of time and energy into recovery than a married mom of five who is also a corporate executive, and that will be different than it is for someone who is a caregiver to an elderly parent or child with special needs.”

Studies have found that people can recover from burnout within a few months5, especially in milder cases or situations of short-term stress. However, in more severe instances, it can take more than a year to fully recover; a person can have lasting effects up to four years later6.

How do you fix burnout?

The single best way to start addressing burnout is by prioritizing self care. Before you roll your eyes, hear us out: “Self care is not wine and bubble baths,” Watson says. “True self care is authentic and sustainable. It is empathic discernment in how you are investing your time, energy, and emotions.”

There are a lot of individual actions that can go into this, including setting better work-life boundaries, advocating for yourself, and leaning on support from friends and family. But Watson recommends first taking an emotional approach to look at what’s on your personal and professional plate. “We are often so goal-oriented and time-directed that we don't slow down and consider the aspects of our work and our lives that we do enjoy,” Watson says.

Try this: Create two to-do lists for your life. One is a list of activities that are “high output, low emotional reward.” The second list is “low output, high emotional reward.” From here, consider if there’s an opportunity to prioritize the high emotional reward activities in your days, Watson says. “Is there an opportunity to delegate the low emotional reward tasks? Burnout is not about having too much to do, it's about how we feel about all of the things we have to do,” she says. (In fact, there’s even a type of burnout7 characterized by feeling under-challenged by your work.) Having a balance that tips the scales in favor of emotionally rewarding tasks and events can make a huge difference in whether or not you finish the day with a sense of accomplishment and emotional fulfillment.

When to seek professional help

Burnout is not only brought on by life circumstances like unhealthy workplace culture or a demanding job and home life but also by how you relate with yourself. “Everyone can get burnt out, but I do believe perfectionists and high-achievers are at a bigger risk. Not only are they often facing work stressors, but they have a constant internal pressure and voice driving themselves to be perfect at everything,” Dr. Amin says. “Self-compassion and giving yourself grace is not something we were taught growing up in hustle culture. Internal perfectionism induces much more stress.”

These deeper issues likely won’t be solved only by making time for rest or rearranging your priorities—and that’s where a professional can help. “Sometimes, the pressure is coming more from ourselves than others. If that’s the case, obtaining a coach and/or therapist can be extremely helpful in figuring out whether some of our burnout is coming from our own internal pressures,” Dr. Amin says.

Even if you think you’re dealing with mild burnout or more general stress, seeing a professional is never a bad idea. "It's never too early to seek professional help and put together a plan for a more balanced life,” Watson says. “Early intervention is a preventative treatment. After that, once someone exhibits physical symptoms it is definitely time to reach out. Our brain and soul whisper to us when something isn't right, but our bodies scream.”

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Freudenberger, H.J. (1974), “Staff Burn-Out.” Journal of Social Issues, 30: 159-165.
  2. De Hert, Stefan. “Burnout in Healthcare Workers: Prevalence, Impact and Preventative Strategies.” Local and regional anesthesia vol. 13 171-183. 28 Oct. 2020, doi:10.2147/LRA.S240564
  3. Edú-Valsania, Sergio et al. “Burnout: A Review of Theory and Measurement.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 19,3 1780. 4 Feb. 2022, doi:10.3390/ijerph19031780
  4. Salvagioni, Denise Albieri Jodas et al. “Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies.” PloS one vol. 12,10 e0185781. 4 Oct. 2017, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0185781
  5. van Dam, Arno. “A clinical perspective on burnout: diagnosis, classification, and treatment of clinical burnout.” European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology vol 30,5 July 2021, doi: 10.1080/1359432X.2021.1948400.
  6. Dalgaard, Vita L et al. “Cognitive impairments and recovery in patients with work-related stress complaints – four years later.” Stress vol 24,3. July 2020 doi: 10.1080/10253890.2020.1797673.
  7. Demarzo, Marcelo et al. “Frenetic, under-Challenged, and Worn-out Burnout Subtypes among Brazilian Primary Care Personnel: Validation of the Brazilian “Burnout Clinical Subtype Questionnaire” (BCSQ-36/BCSQ-12).” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 17,3 1081. 8 Feb. 2020, doi:10.3390/ijerph17031081

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