Burnout’s Five Stages

Since the American psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger described burnout syndrome first in the 1970s, further research has been done and it shows that burnout does not happen suddenly, rather it occurs in different stages. Each stage is characterized by different factors and by being aware of them, one might prevent worst-case scenarios.

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Just like in a marriage, the honeymoon stage is characterized by motivation, a high level of energy, and dedication to either a new job, project or commitment. During this period, you experience satisfaction which leads to being productive and creative. 

Do you feel like your honeymoon stage has passed already? Have you managed to establish positive coping mechanisms for upcoming more difficult times whilst still being motivated and optimistic during this stage? If not, stage two might start at some point.

Onset of Stress 

During the honeymoon phase and more so once it fades, you start experiencing stress consciously at some point. While your job/project/commitment is not constantly stressful, the stress takes over frequently which can lead to losing focus more easily and being less productive than before. You may experience fatigue which can slow you down in your life outside of work. 

Are you making sure that you take regular breaks during working hours? Are you reminding yourself what made your job/project/commitment so attractive in the first place? By doing this, you would prevent entering the third stage.

Chronic Stress

As the name of the third stage suggests, you start experiencing stress and exhaustion regularly if not constantly, and withdraw from social activities you enjoyed before. This stage can be characterized by escapist coping mechanisms such as drinking alcohol to relax and to ‘switch off’. Most likely, your work is affected – you might be late and/or not meet deadlines anymore, you take the frustration about not performing well home, and your connections with family and friends are impacted negatively at this stage. 

You are very close to burnout. 

In this situation, who can you turn to as a support system? Ideally, you take some time off to bounce back. 


Once the above-mentioned symptoms become chronic, burnout occurs. You are not functioning normally due to reaching your limits and may feel numb. You will notice strong physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach issues. On a mental level, your self-doubts will increase, you may try to escape reality, think pessimistically about work and life in general, and feel depressed. During this stage, you might also neglect your personal needs and isolate yourself – this would not go unnoticed by loved ones. 

Reach out for professional support! Counselling/therapy can help you re-evaluate your goals in life, reflect on your career choices, and eventually help in figuring out the way forward. 

Habitual Burnout 

Without professional treatment, your burnout becomes part of your daily life and leads to mental health issues. This last stage is characterized by chronic exhaustion and depression as well as chronic behavioural changes – you may experience suicidal thoughts frequently. The fatigue takes over and prevents you from working – your work/project/commitment is in jeopardy.

Once you reach burnout stage five, it is time for clinical intervention to treat the symptoms mentioned and revive yourself. 

Being aware of possible symptoms and checking in with yourself regularly can prevent you from reaching stages three, four and five described above.

Pay attention to the signs your body shows such as changing appetite, sleeping problems, headaches, and/or muscle pains due to what happens in your work environment. Apart from the physical symptoms, you may experience intensifying a lack of motivation, self-doubts, and overall dissatisfaction – all signs that you may need to step back now and then and/or make sure to get some (professional) support.

If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.

Franziska Richter is a transcultural counsellor with the Willingness Team, offering counselling sessions to individuals and couples. She is particularly interested in sexuality, relationship issues, trauma and general mental health