The Stages of Burnout and Why it Matters

When I worked as a campus health coach, I obtained systemic stress management counseling from the American Institute for Preventative Medicine. This training was extensive and it was timely. Since then, I’ve worked with numerous clients and found that regardless of vocation, work and life balance is challenging to maintain.

Below is a bar chart of all the publications gathered on the topic of burnout from 1983 to 2022. As you can see, 2020 was a significant year, but as a subject, burnout hasn’t garnered much attention in the last fifty years. Sadly, generations have dealt with the effects of stress-induced burnout without proper tools, support, or compassion. Even in 2015, psychologists were presenting arguments that burnout was not distinct enough from stress or depression to be diagnosed and treated.

burnout research image

Thankfully, science is always evolving. While some were looking for similarities between burnout and depression, other doctors and psychologists looked for causation and prevention. One of the challenges scientists face in distinguishing stress and burnout is the definitions. Dr. Hans Selye, M.D. defined stress in 1963 as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” This leaves a lot of room for interpretation when seeking a diagnosis.

Dr. Selye also noted that humans require some stress in their lives. We need motivation or healthy tension to move forward. The challenge is discerning where the line is between healthy tension and distress or unhealthy tension. That’s why it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of the 5 Stages of Burnout.

stress and productivity curve

Burnout Stage 1

Stage one is identified as someone’s plumb line or baseline. One title for this stage is Overflowing Enthusiasm” because when someone is in stage one, they are motivated by the positive tension of stress. Whether focusing on personal or professional goals, one is characterized by one’s strong desire to succeed.

Enthusiasm may continue if an individual conserves and replenishes energy through stress management techniques. These may include self-care, relaxing regularly, healthy time management, and assertiveness.

Stage 1 energy is also conserved and replenished when someone feels that their productivity is noticed and appreciated. Depending on the ministry, job, or personal goals someone is focusing on, stage one energy will remain as long as they sustain satisfaction.

Key Points: SMART goals, accountability, and healthy boundaries are all significant parts of remaining satisfied. When someone begins to feel that they aren’t appreciated or that they are being taken advantage of, their energy levels will start to slip into stage 2 of burnout.

Burnout Stage 2

Stage two is usually defined as “Loss of Enthusiasm” and is identified when someone says they have a sense of the blahs for more than a day. When attitudes and emotions begin to grey or lean more toward negative thoughts throughout the day, it’s time to pause and ask why.

Changes in behavior and attitude may alert someone that the burnout process is starting. It becomes easier to begin the repair process when we can name our “why” behind an emotion.

Have you thought or said:

  • I need a vacation.
  • These tasks feel redundant.
  • This new project feel overwhelming.
  • I’m having a hard time concentrating.
  • I don’t feel appreciated.
  • I’m going to sneak out early today. No one will miss me.

If you read through this list and say yes to more than one of these statements weekly it’s time to evaluate the why behind them. Is there a conflict that’s remained unresolved? Are you overdue for a vacation? Do you need to look for more responsibility? Are you in need of stronger support systems around you? What do you need to delegate?

The most important part of identifying your burnout stage besides clarifying the why is working toward getting back to stage 1. Understanding what triggers our stress will allow us to practice better self-care or ask for professional help when necessary.

While we will always face stressful days, the more stress-filled days we encounter in a row without adequate support, the more likely we are to face both mental and physical health impairments.

Burnout Stage 3

This is a pivotal stage for burnout. When someone enters solidly into stage 3, they will deteriorate physically and psychologically.

Someone in Stage 3 is often described as having a “short fuse” or always on the edge of anger. So you may find yourself asking, “What’s Going on with Me?”

The critical factor in Stage 3 is the now-chronic nature of the mental or physical ailments resulting from the stress someone internalizes. Stage 3 burnout is commonly a stage where people seek support for depression.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms of Stage 3 of Burnout:

  • Rather than thinking “I need a vacation” you may regularly think “I need a new job.”
  • Someone may be oversensitive to constructive criticism.
  • It may be difficult to avoid feelings of failure even with positive feedback.
  • Someone may have a difficult time falling or staying asleep.
  • Someone may find self care unfulfilling or a completely lacking.
  • Stress in Stage 3 burnout can cause weight gain or loss.
  • This stage can impact one’s personal life negatively.
  • Emotional stability is lacking.
  • Someone may still only blame others for negative feelings rather than evaluating the true cause and confronting the root issues for their stress.

In this stage, if you can’t stop the cycle, you’ll find yourself in an endless circle of frustration. Everything will take longer to complete, and you will likely make additional mistakes at work, which brings on criticism.

If you or someone you care about is experiencing an extended season of stress, it’s natural they will seek relief. There are many ways to reduce our stress. We can look for opportunities to delegate, ask for help, or acknowledge the challenge ahead of us. Unfortunately, those who are depressed or experiencing burnout aren’t always thinking clearly or strategically. As a result, someone may find themselves paralyzed in a cycle of exhaustion, unable to make the best decision as to how to move forward.

When someone cannot de-escalate from Stage 3 of Burnout, it’s important to encourage them to seek outside professional support. 

The most important part about having burnout recognized as a medical condition is the opportunity to access medical care that many medical insurance companies will cover some or part of the treatments. If you are in a crisis stage of burnout, this could truly mean the difference between life and death. However, hopefully knowing interventions are available will allow you to access care before touching a higher stage of burnout.

Signs of Stage 4 Burnout

Stage 4 is considered the crisis stage. This stage includes intensified symptoms of Stage 3. Additionally, people often find themselves in a vicious cycle of poor health and poor self-confidence in this stage. 

Stage 4 Burnout May Include

  • Inefficient work, requiring longer hours.
  • Unending cycle leads to feeling trapped. 
  • Lack of self-care.

People in Stage 4 may have difficulty remembering common tasks for completing things on time. Many wonder if depression is present. It’s also possible that someone may become verbally abusive. There will be a noticeable difference in their personality.

Signs of Stage 5 Burnout

Stage 5 of Burnout is called the “Devastation & Inability” Stage, and it always requires medical intervention.

Results of Stage 5 Burnout Include:

  • Severe depression
  • Heart attack
  • Incapacitation
  • Hospitalization

While some people become used to the rush of cortisol that comes with last-minute deadlines, our bodies adjust to the cortisol levels. Ultimately, our bodies cannot handle sustained stress, and we will have physical symptoms telling us we need to slow down and rest.

Why You Need to Remain Aware of Your Stage of Burnout

Reviewing this list, you’ve likely become aware of the dangers of ignoring escalating burnout. However, there are many additional reasons why knowing your stage of burnout is important.

When you know what stage of burnout you’re in, you can manage your emotions better. You will also have a better idea of why you are challenged by tasks that are normally easy to complete.

You may discover that your need to rebalance work and life time in order to reduce burnout. Or you may find that you need to spend more time on self-care. Whatever the solutions, you’ll only know how to reduce your stress when you are attentive to your stage of burnout.

Check out This Short Video to Learn About All 5 Stages of Burnout:

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