Burnout Stages and How to Identify Them

3 min read
Evidence based
Psychiatrist and Sensa consultant dr. Monisha Vasa
By Monisha Vasa, MD Updated on 2024 Jan 22

In the last few decades, the idea surrounding burnout has been debated and argued among health professionals. 

In 2019, the World Health Organization provided some clarification by definitively classifying burnout as a syndrome that stems from an occupational phenomenon. 

Put simply, it’s a syndrome, not a medical diagnosis, caused by chronic stress that is not or cannot be appropriately managed.

Burnout can affect not only your mental health but your physical and emotional state too.

The feelings that come with burnout typically occur when you feel overwhelmed at work or feel as if you can no longer keep up with your daily tasks.

First talked about in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, Burnout was used to describe medical professionals – doctors and nurses – who felt “burned out” from their endlessly tiring work. Later, the term evolved to include any working professional experiencing exhaustion and the inability to cope with their daily requirements.

The impact of COVID-19 on burnout

The magnification of people experiencing burnout was severe during the pandemic – especially among healthcare workers. A survey by Indeed found that over half of the 1500 workers surveyed across various industries responded that they had experienced burnout symptoms. 

In fact, the 52% response was up nearly 10% from the same time the year before (March 2020 vs. March 2021) – showing the rise and attribution of COVID-19 and its aftermath.

The 5 stages of burnout

Burnout is not a sudden realization – it’s a gradual process where your feelings, thoughts, and actions progressively advance through stages. 

While the initial stages may not feel like much, they can eventually lead to a chronic phase that, once you’re in, is very hard to escape from – never mind carry out your daily tasks.

Honeymoon stage

The Honeymoon stage comes along with energy and optimism – whether you’re beginning a new job or taking on a new task, it’s common to experience satisfaction – eventually leading to periods of high productivity and the ability to tap into your creative potential.

The onset of stress stage

After a while, the honeymoon stage begins to dwindle, and stress starts to creep in. You don’t feel stressed every moment of every day, but stress begins to be more frequent than not. As this stage begins, try to take notice of any physical or emotional signs. You may begin to lose focus more quickly or easily – or become less productive when attempting to complete tasks. Physically, fatigue can begin to set in, making sleep or activities outside of work more difficult. 

Chronic stress phase

Stress starts to become chronic at this point – in other words, more persistent. As the pressure grows, the stress is more and more likely to affect your daily work. 

Examples of this can include feelings of apathy, being late, or even procrastinating. 

Socially, you may begin to withdraw from your everyday conversations around work or become angry and lash out at coworkers, friends, or family. 

Burnout phase 

When you reach the burnout stage, you essentially find your limit and can no longer function as you usually would. Problems and issues at work begin to consume you to the point where you obsess over them. 

Sometimes, you may feel numb and experience extreme self-doubt. Physical symptoms become far more intense, eventually leading to chronic headaches, stomach problems, and gastrointestinal issues. You’ll see that your closest friends and family begin to notice your behavioral changes at this stage.

Habitual burnout phase 

If left untreated, burnout can become a mainstay in your life and eventually lead to serious issues like anxiety or depression. You can even begin to experience chronic mental or physical fatigue that prevents you from doing your job, thus jeopardizing your employment.

What are the symptoms of burnout?

Burnout symptoms can vary, depending on which phase of burnout you’re in. 

Generally, there are three symptoms you should be aware of: 

  • Exhaustion
  • Depersonalization
  • Reduced personal accomplishment

Exhaustion: Fatigue presents itself both mentally and physically, sapping you of your usual energy.

Depersonalization: Indifference is a state of not caring about things that previously made you feel strongly. For example, you may become more cynical in your inner workings or lack the ability to communicate effectively with people.

Reduced personal accomplishment: When you feel your work is insufficient and you think you’re incapable of performing your work, you might lose pleasure in the work you used to find joy in. It can become harder to concentrate, and your usual creativity may wane.

By going through the Sensa quiz, you’ll be able to find out what stage of burnout you currently sit in and receive a personalized plan to combat this. So, what are you waiting for?

Psychiatrist and Sensa consultant dr. Monisha Vasa

Dr. Monisha Vasa is a board-certified psychiatrist and wellness consultant with a thriving private practice in Newport Beach, California. She’s actively engaged in supporting physician mental health at UC Irvine and City of Hope National Cancer Center.