What are the 5 stages of burnout?

Where do you find yourself across these five stages of burnout?

In an ideal world, nobody would experience burnout. It’s the state of mind that comes with long-term, unresolved stress, and it can negatively affect your work and your life.

In our guide, How to Deal with Stress at Work, we discussed how stress can be both a positive and negative state of mind. With burnout, the best option is to take regular steps to prevent it.

Have a read of this guide to understand burnout’s five stages, and join us on our free e-course, The Reignite Project, to start preventing burnout from affecting you.

What is burnout?

Burnout is the loss of meaning in one's work, coupled with mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion as the result of long-term, unresolved stress.

Burnout can affect anyone, however there is a growing number of entrepreneurs, business owners, and freelancers who are reporting symptoms of burnout - up to 60% in the UK.

General symptoms of burnout include:

  • Lower resistance to illness

  • Pessimistic outlook on work or life

  • Physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion

  • Time away from work

  • Demotivation and detachment from your work

  • Depleted energy levels

  • Detachment in personal relationships

  • Lower productivity

The 5 stages of burnout

Burnout can affect anyone, at any time in their lives. However, burnout is most common in people between the ages of 25 and 44. Our guide is inspired by Winona State University’s burnout study, as well as our own psychological research.

As with any illness, symptoms of burnout change from person to person, however these five stages are commonly observed:


1. Honeymoon Phase

When we undertake a new task, we often start by experiencing high job satisfaction, commitment, energy, and creativity. This is especially true of a new job role, or the beginnings of a business venture.

In this first phase of burnout, you may begin to experience predicted stresses of the job, so it’s important to start implementing positive coping strategies, such as taking practical steps in your job, or prioritising your mental health through one of Calmer’s programmes.

The theory is that if we create good coping strategies at this stage, we can continue in the honeymoon phase indefinitely.

Common symptoms include:

  • Job satisfaction

  • Readily accepting responsibility

  • Sustained energy levels

  • Unbridled optimisim

  • Commitment to the job at hand

  • Compulsion to prove oneself

  • Free-flowing creativity

  • High productivity levels


2. Onset of Stress

The second stage of burnout begins with an awareness of some days being more difficult than others. You may find your optimism waning, as well as notice common stress symptoms affecting you physically, mentally, or emotionally.

Common symptoms include:

  • High blood pressure

  • Inability to focus

  • Irritability

  • Job dissatisfaction

  • Lack of sleep or reduced sleep quality

  • Lack of social interaction

  • Lower productivity

  • Unusual heart rhythms

  • Anxiety

  • Avoidance of decision making

  • Change in appetite or diet

  • Fatigue

  • Forgetfulness

  • General neglect of personal needs

  • Grinding your teeth at night

  • Headaches

  • Heart palpitations


3. Chronic stress

The third stage of burnout is chronic stress. This is a marked change in your stress levels, going from motivation, to experiencing stress on an incredibly frequent basis. You may also experience more intense symptoms than those of stage two.

Common symptoms include:

  • Lack of hobbies

  • Missed work deadlines and/or targets

  • Persistent tiredness in the mornings

  • Physical illness

  • Procrastination at work and at home

  • Repeated lateness for work

  • Resentfulness

  • Social withdrawal from friends and/or family

  • Uptake of escapist activities

  • Anger or aggressive behaviour

  • Apathy

  • Chronic exhaustion

  • Cynical attitude

  • Decreased sexual desire

  • Denial of problems at work or at home

  • Feeling threatened or panicked

  • Feeling pressured or out of control

  • Increased alcohol/drug consumption

  • Increased caffeine consumption


4. Burnout

Entering stage four of burnout is where symptoms become critical. When burnout is talked about more generally, this is the stage that is often referred to. Continuing as normal is often not possible, and it’s key that you seek intervention (for clinical issues, please refer to our partner Thrive Your Life).

Common symptoms include:

  • Development of an escapist mentality

  • Feeling empty inside

  • Obsession over problems at work or in life

  • Pessimistic outlook on work and life

  • Physical symptoms intensify and/or increase

  • Self-doubt

  • Social isolation

  • Behavioural changes

  • Chronic headaches

  • Chronic stomach or bowel problems

  • Complete neglect of personal needs

  • Continuation or increase in escapist activities

  • Desire to "drop out" of society

  • Desire to move away from work or friends/family


5. Habitual Burnout

The final stage of burnout is habitual burnout. This means that the symptoms of burnout are so embedded in your life that you are likely to experience a significant physical or emotional problem, as opposed to occasionally experiencing stress or burnout.

Common symptoms include:

  • Chronic sadness

  • Depression

  • Burnout syndrome

  • Chronic mental fatigue

  • Chronic physical fatigue


How to prevent burnout from affecting you

While burnout can cause issues at work, at home, and in life, it is always possible to take action and move towards Stage 1. Even if you are not experiencing stress or burnout now, the wisest course of action is to proactively take up self-care and build your mental resilience.

Join The Reignite Project for free

If you are particularly interested in preventing burnout from affecting you, we recommend joining in with The Reignite Project, our free online course that will enable you to identify and prevent burnout, as well as reignite your passion for work and life.

We believe everyone deserves support with their enterprises, especially when working alone. With more than 5.7 million entrepreneurs and small businesses in the UK, we’ve made it our mission to support at least 10% of these freelancers, lone workers, and business owners through The Reignite Project.

With the right support, you are more likely to succeed in business and in life.


Become a member of the Calmer Community

If you have already experienced The Reignite Project, or you wish to create good strategies for stress management on a long-term basis, we invite you to join the Calmer Community. This is our membership platform, designed for entrepreneurs, freelancers, and impactful business teams.

Within the Calmer Community, you will receive new content each month including:

  • Evidence-based stress management techniques

  • Guided meditation and affirmation audio files

  • Quarterly live webinars with mental health experts

  • Discounted access to Calmer events

  • Free access to recorded Calmer events library

  • Reading prompts and access to the Calmer book club

  • Free e-book of This is Calmer, written by Calmer Founder Tania Diggory

  • Wellbeing recipes to inspire self-care and mental health check-ins