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5 Stages of Occupational Burnout: Assessing Where You Are

Learn the five stages of burnout so you can identify and address your symptoms.

Key points

  • Occupational burnout appears when the accumulation of stressors goes unmanaged or unrelieved.
  • There are five stages of burnout that anyone can experience at any point in their life.
  • Understanding the stages of burnout can help you address any symptoms before they become problematic.

Occupational burnout is a critical concern in the modern world of work. While the term “burnout” was originally coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s to describe the effects of extreme stress placed on “helping professionals,” it has now evolved to include the loss of our ability to cope and is becoming more recognized across professions.

Unlike stress, which is a response, burnout is a very real condition. Psychologist Jeremy Sutton explains that burnout is the accumulation of stressors over time, resulting in unmanageable stress levels. Burnout is the natural evolution of chronic stress that has gone unchecked and unrelieved.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes burnout as an occupational phenomenon, defining it as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Burnout is generally characterized by three symptoms:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Cynicism
  • A sense of personal inefficacy

Freudenberger and his collaborator Gail North originally outlined the development of burnout in a 12-stage model. A simplified 5-stage model is now commonly seen in the research today.

Here is an overview of the five stages of burnout:

Stage 1: Honeymoon

Like the honeymoon phase, you may begin a new job, role, or task with high energy and enthusiasm. You feel creative and productive. It’s easy to be optimistic at this stage. While it is ideal to stay within this stage, you also need to be careful. Your excitement, commitment to the job, and drive to prove yourself can sometimes lead to taking on too many responsibilities and overworking yourself. Without positive coping strategies, you may find yourself moving into the next stage.

Stage 2: Onset of Stress

As the honeymoon stage dwindles, you may notice that some days are more difficult than others. Work still feels rewarding, but stress begins to creep in. You may find your optimism waning and your productivity diminishing. You may also notice other common and unpleasant stress symptoms affecting you and your work, such as tiredness, irritability, anxiety, losing focus more easily, changes in appetite or diet, poor sleep, or headaches. While some stress is good for motivating and moving you to action, if you are using maladaptive coping strategies to manage and you begin neglecting your own needs, this stage can give way to the next.

Stage 3: Chronic Stress

At this point, stress becomes more persistent—more of an everyday thing. With your nervous system constantly on high alert, you begin to push past healthy stress levels and experience more intense symptoms than before. You may notice small things triggering feelings of anger, and you may be persistently tired and getting ill more frequently. This chronic stress can bring feelings of apathy, resentfulness, cynicism, and powerlessness. Socially, you may withdraw and distance yourself from friends, family, and colleagues. You may deny the problem at this stage, which can expedite the progression toward burnout.

Stage 4: Burnout

This is when the symptoms of burnout become critical. Your nervous system has been operating out of survival mode for a prolonged period of time, and you are no longer functioning as you normally would. It is more difficult to cope with the demands of work and life and hard to see a way out of your current circumstances. You are overwhelmed by exhaustion—physically, mentally, and emotionally. You might be increasingly cynical and pessimistic towards work and life. Feelings of emptiness, self-doubt, and a desire to isolate from others may grow. Your physical symptoms might also intensify or increase. The people in your life may notice changes in your behaviour. Without making the necessary changes at this stage, you may find it even harder to recover as symptoms persist.

Stage 5: Habitual Burnout

If left untreated, the symptoms of burnout may become so embedded in your life that you experience significant and ongoing mental, physical, and emotional problems, like chronic sadness or depression. It can be more difficult than it has ever been to bring yourself back to baseline. The chronic mental and physical fatigue you experience may push you to stop working to be able to recover. It is likely that you would need to seek out intervention and support from a healthcare professional.

Final Thoughts

All too often, symptoms of burnout are unfortunately only addressed once they become severe, making it harder to recover. Understanding the stages of burnout and knowing some of the signs is important in ensuring that you take the necessary steps and make the necessary changes to support your well-being. It is also important to understand that we all have our own unique limits of tolerance and signs and symptoms may differ from person to person.

Remember that burnout doesn’t happen overnight; it is a slow, steady erosion that happens over time. Let this be your gentle reminder that exhaustion is not a badge of honour, but rather a signal to slow down, reassess, and reprioritize.

Note: This is intended to be for educational purposes only. Please seek the advice of your physician or a mental health professional with respect to any symptoms that may require attention.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Sutton, J. (2018, February 23). 10 techniques to manage stress & 13 quick tips. Positive Psychology.

World Health Organization. (2019, May 28). Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International classification of diseases.

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