12 Stages of Burnout: Identifying and Overcoming Exhaustion

12 stages of burnout, what are the 12 stages of burnout, recovering from burnout
Self Improvement

12 Stages of Burnout: Identifying and Overcoming Exhaustion

This post explores the concept of burnout and the stages of burnout, which indicates the state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged or repeated stress.

Although not a medical condition, burnout is a significant occupational phenomenon that can lead to decreased job satisfaction and productivity. It can occur in any area of life, not just work, and is often caused by unrealistic expectations, unmanageable workloads, and excessive time pressure.

What Does Burnout Mean?

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion resulting from prolonged or repeated stress. It is not a medical condition but an occupational phenomenon where employees experience physical and psychological symptoms, leading to decreased job satisfaction and productivity.

Burnout can occur in any area of life, not just work. It can be caused by problems at work, such as unrealistic work expectations, unmanageable workloads, unrealistic deadlines, and unrealistic time pressure. 

Symptoms can vary from person to person but commonly include physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, and trouble sleeping. Mentally, burnout can manifest as negative feelings about work, detachedness, cynicism, inadequateness, anxiety, frustration, or irritability. Burnout is a gradual process that doesn’t happen overnight and can worsen over time.

To prevent burnout, it’s recommended to incorporate self-care measures into daily routines, such as planning for stressful days or events, creating a to-do list, and managing workload. If you’re experiencing burnout, it’s crucial to recognise the signs and address the cause.

How to Identify Burnout: Symptoms of Burnout

Identifying burnout involves recognising the warning signs. Here are some key symptoms:

  1. Exhaustion: This is a feeling of being physically and emotionally depleted. You may experience loss of energy, fatigue, and physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, or changes in appetite or sleep.
  1. Feelings of Dread and Lack of Motivation: If you’re experiencing burnout, you may have anxiety or a sense of dread related to your job, especially after a couple of days off. Procrastination is another key sign, as you may be more unwilling to address tasks at work.
  1. Cynicism and Irritability: Burnout often coincides with increased cynicism or a blow to one’s confidence, along with decreased productivity and focus. You may find yourself more frustrated or irritated, which can affect both personal and professional relationships.
  1. Decreased Productivity and Focus: Burnout can lead to a reduction in work efficiency and a feeling of inadequacy or inability to accomplish tasks. You may feel less productive or capable and may lack the motivation to engage in work tasks.
  1. Increased Physical Health Complaints: Burnout can result in physical symptoms such as headaches, joint pain, and other health complaints. Chronic or long-term stress, which is the underlying mechanism of burnout, can increase the risk of heart disease, infection, and other illnesses.
  1. Isolation: People with burnout often feel overwhelmed. As a result, they may stop socializing and confiding in friends, family members, and co-workers.
  1. A Lack of a Sense of Purpose, Joy, or Identity from the Role: Burnout can lead to a lack of a sense of purpose, joy, or identity in one’s work or role, leading to a decrease in job satisfaction

What Are the 12 Stages of Burnout?

  • Stage 1: Excessive amount of ambition.

The first sign of burnout is a seemingly innocuous: increased enthusiasm towards one’s work. An unhealthy amount of inner drive can be stifling, even though many sensitive Strivers recognise their desire as a quality that contributes positively to the development of their careers. It mutates into an obsession with proving one’s worth, both to oneself and to other people. Because you don’t believe you are “good enough,” you take on additional duties and are constantly under the impression that you need to do more quickly.

  • Stage 2: Putting in more effort

When you say “yes” to new jobs and responsibilities, you soon discover that you won’t be able to complete everything during your typical office hours. As a consequence of this, your work starts to interfere with your personal life. To stay on top of your to-do list, you can choose to answer emails on the weekend or work days that are 10 to 12 hours long. You can still derive fulfilment from your work, and your recognition for your hard work provides a welcome shot of self-satisfaction. In the meantime, your job starts to feel increasingly like an addiction, and you have difficulties shutting off or disconnecting when you go home in the evening.

  • Stage 3: Ignoring your requirements and needs

In this stage, you are neglecting personal needs and well-being due to increased work pressure. This can manifest in skipping meals, missing social opportunities, and sleep issues. Prioritizing work over personal needs can lead to an imbalance between work and personal life, causing further stress and escalating the cycle of burnout. Recognizing signs early and taking appropriate measures to manage stress is crucial. In this stage, seeking help from a mental health professional, engaging in self-care activities, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can help manage stress and reduce burnout symptoms.

  • Stage 4: Moving the problems elsewhere

Because you focus so intently on your work, you tend to ignore evident disagreements and problems that are going on around you. On some level, you are aware that something is off, but the prospect of finding a solution or making a change appears too daunting. You choose to avoid thinking about your worries and instead redirect your attention to the responsibilities you have in your professional life. However, when you repress your emotions, you end up feeling more tense and anxious as a result. You tend to overreact to seemingly insignificant slights and disappointments.

  • Stage 5: A reevaluation of core values

You start realising that you’ve wandered away from the most important things to you. But rather than confronting that truth squarely, you revise your moral compass so it is solely centred on your work. Friends, family, and interests are relegated to a lower priority. It is considered pointless to practice self-care. Your sense of self-worth is based on the work you put in and the results you achieve.

  • Stage 6: Denial of new difficulties

Because of the shift in your priorities, you find that you frequently disagree with other people. You may think your coworkers are too slack or your customers are too demanding. You show growing intolerance, a lack of empathy, and cynicism. Instead of acknowledging how much you’ve evolved, you place the responsibility for your stress on the passage of time and the demands of your job.

  • Stage 7: Withdrawal

During this stage, you become less involved in interpersonal connections. Likely, you can’t recall the last conversation that didn’t involve your work. You have very few friends, or none at all. You isolate yourself and try to find relief in savouring your guilty pleasures.

  • Stage 8: Impact on other people

Your exhaustion is becoming a concern for your family. They have observed that you have become more angry and impatient. You can make mistakes that have consequences for other people, such as forgetting to pick up your child from daycare or skipping a meeting.

  • Stage 9: Depersonalisation.

You have the impression that you are a mere shadow of your previous self. Depersonalisation is the experience of feeling disconnected from one’s body as if one were an observer looking in on one’s life from the outside. Going through the motions happens daily, so you might get used to it. You were excited about your work when you first started, but now you’re just not interested in it.

  • Stage 10: Feeling internal void.

You no longer recognise the value of who you are. You start feeling worthless, as if your efforts will be wasted no matter what you do. You are no longer motivated and often fantasise about quitting your job, moving, or changing careers altogether. To numb yourself even further, you could resort to harmful coping techniques such as binge eating or drinking too much alcohol.

  • Stage 11: Depression.

Everything starts to merge. The world used to be full of vivid colours, but now everything is dull and lifeless. You are entirely spent, both mentally and emotionally. You get a confused and disoriented feeling. The work that I do has absolutely no meaning or purpose.

  • Stage 12: Complete burnout syndrome.

When you hit your limit, you are said to be suffering from complete burnout syndrome. It’s possible that your body will give up on you or that you’ll suffer a mental breakdown. At this point, you must get medical assistance. Many people in professional occupations discover that to heal, they need to take a lengthy leave of absence.

Steps to Recovering from Burnout

Recovering from burnout involves various steps and strategies, and the process may vary for each individual. Here’s a tips to help you recover from burnout:

  • Identify the cause of your burnout. Burnout can be caused by excessive workload, lack of control, poor rewards, lack of community, or work that goes against your values. Understanding which of these factors is causing your burnout can help you take appropriate steps to recover.
  • Seek professional help: If you’re experiencing severe burnout, seeking professional help is essential. A therapist can offer professional guidance by helping you identify causes, explore possible coping methods, and navigate any life challenges contributing to burnout.
  • Take a break: Consider taking a break from your work. This can help you recharge and regain a sense of perspective. 
  • Focus on self-care: practice self-compassion, monitor your stress levels, and journal to understand your feelings and track your progress.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene: Ensure you’re getting enough rest. Aim for between seven and nine hours of sleep a night.
  • Set boundaries: Establish clear boundaries between your work and personal life. This can help you maintain a healthy work-life balance. 
  • Change unhelpful patterns: identify the patterns that contribute to stress and work towards changing them. This can include reducing the time spent at work, finding balance with other activities, and taking regular breaks.
  • Do things you enjoy: Engage in activities that make you happy. This can help you recalibrate your stress levels and reconnect with yourself emotionally.
  • Reflect on personal values: Reflecting on your values can remind you of what matters most and what aspects deserve your full attention.
  • Explore new opportunities: If your current roles and responsibilities are more draining than fulfilling, consider exploring new options that suit your lifestyle and ideals.

Remember, recovery from burnout can take time and may require a combination of these strategies. It’s essential to be patient with yourself and recognise that recovery is a gradual process.

How Long Does the Average Burnout Last?

Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion caused by long-term stress, particularly in the workplace. It is a continuous process and cannot be cured by itself. Factors contributing to burnout include unfair treatment, an unmanageable workload, unclear roles, a lack of support, unreasonable time pressure, and a disconnect between personal and workplace values.

To manage and recover from burnout, individuals should get enough sleep, engage in physical activity, stay connected, and be creative. Employers can prevent burnout by providing a healthy work environment, offering flexible work arrangements, and promoting work-life balance. Recognising burnout signs and taking steps to manage and recover from them is crucial.

How Does Your Body React to Burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion resulting from prolonged or repeated stress. It is not a medical condition but a response to a specific environment or situation, such as working more hours or dealing with life-related issues. Common symptoms include physical fatigue, mental and emotional exhaustion, decreased motivation, reduced performance, negative attitudes, headaches, cynicism, and inefficacy.

Burnout is often confused with depression, a diagnosable mental health condition. Symptoms of burnout can resemble those of more serious medical conditions, but the cause can be pinpointed. It can impact relaxation and well-being, leading to poor physical and mental health, isolation, and anhedonia. If you suspect you’re experiencing burnout, it’s crucial to recognise that you’re not alone and consider strategies such as taking a break, communicating your experience to your superior, speaking with a mental health professional, or considering long-term change.


Burnout is a common issue ranging from mild to severe, affecting employees in various ways. A 12-stage model by Freudenberger and North identifies stages of burnout, including obsessive self-promotion, neglecting needs, dismissing conflicts, skewed values, rejection of relationships, denial of emerging problems, withdrawal, depersonalization, inner emptiness, and depression. Symptoms can range from mild behaviors to complete collapse, and early detection is crucial for effective management. Tips on coping with stress, even in high-pressure jobs, are available.


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