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What Are the Stages of Burnout?

When we suffer from psychological symptoms, the need often arises over time to find out  whether they are caused by a mental illness. Such a diagnosis may bring some relief, as it usually comes with proven treatment options and a body of knowledge about how the symptoms are likely to progress. The progression of an illness is often described in phases. This article is specifically about the phases we typically go through when suffering from burnout. So, what models have been proposed for the phases of burnout and what can we learn from them?

Burnout stages: the dilemma of models

When stages of physical or mental illness are described, we should always bear in mind that these are theoretical models. They do give us an indication of how certain symptoms can develop, but we must be careful, as patients and healthcare professionals, not to fall into the trap of categorically placing ourselves or someone else in a certain stage of a particular model. Fears and anxieties about an illness worsening tend to run high in any case, so being pigeonholed can lead to a feeling of helplessness. Having said that, a model of burnout stages can help us to reflect on our own situation, to gain an overall awareness of the related symptoms and to seek support where necessary.

It’s important to know that symptoms can develop in different ways and, crucially, we always
have the opportunity to influence them.

There are many different burnout phase models. So far, none of them have been validated in a scientific study; in most cases they are based on observations from mental health practice.

Freudenberger’s 12 stages of burnout

The psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger first mentioned the term burnout in the professional literature in 1974, also describing 12 stages of burnout. Since this is a model, the following burnout phases do not have to proceed in this order and may also differ in

Stage 1: The compulsion to prove oneself

In this stage, the very idea of not being able to achieve everything at work is difficult. Those affected try to perform every task to perfection and suffer from fear of failure.

Stage 2: Working harder

The perfectionism of the first stage intensifies; sufferers think they have to do everything on their own and as quickly as possible.

Stage 3: Neglecting one’s own needs

Necessity becomes a virtue, as sufferers in this stage often describe overwork in a positive light (“workaholic”). However, their own needs take a back seat, and this can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle, for example through lack of sleep. They begin to make uncharacteristic mistakes at work.

Stage 4: Displacement of conflicts and needs

Insomnia and psychosomatic complaints may occur, and conflicts may arise, for example with a partner – yet little notice will be taken of these developments. Lapses at work become more frequent, for example being late or forgetting appointments.

Stage 5: Revision of values

Work comes first, while family, friends and hobbies fade into the background. Sufferers set
aside absolutely no time for themselves. They come across harsher and less empathetic to

Stage 6: Denial of emerging problems

Sufferers become more cynical and bitter; they isolate themselves. Their tone can become more aggressive; performance at work degrades significantly. Physical symptoms intensify.

Stage 7: Withdrawal

Sufferers are no longer able to take criticism; they are fundamentally dismissive, yet feel disoriented and hopeless themselves. In the workplace, only the most necessary tasks get done, as sufferers are depleted of energy.

Stage 8: Odd behavioural changes 

Sufferers grow increasingly indifferent, but at the same time react sensitively, inappropriately, or with great suspicion. They perceive everything as an attack. Their job feels like a great burden.

Stage 9: Depersonalisation

In this stage, sufferers no longer feel like themselves, their lives seem meaningless to them. They feel that they just have to “function”; even personal hygiene may be neglected. 

Stage 10: Inner emptiness 

In this stage, sufferers mainly feel empty inside. They feel useless, they are anxious and may also experience panic attacks. 

Stage11: Depression 

Sufferers may experience self-loathing, feel completely drained and despondent, they may have suicidal thoughts.

Stage 12: Complete burnout

Complete burnout is a mental breakdown, possibly accompanied by physical illness. Sufferers find themselves in an emergency situation and need to seek professional support immediately.

Other models and how to use them to your benefit

Freudenberger’s burnout stage model is not the only description of burnout phases. Psychologist Matthias Burisch, for example, has divided burnout syndrome into 7 phases and identified the typical symptoms of each phase. As in Freudenberger’s model, the transitions can be fluid and the condition progresses from mild “warning symptoms” towards a state of despair.

Regardless of which stage model we take as a basis, we can benefit by gaining an awareness of what symptoms burnout may involve. 

Ultimately, however, the stage we find ourselves in after a self-assessment or an assessment by others is not the crucial point. If we realise we are suffering, we must act now by taking extra care of ourselves

This may take the form of burnout self-help or we may seek support. And by the way, there are also things we can do to prevent burnout even before we begin to show any of these symptoms.

Want to get some support? 

Do you feel stressed, maybe even suspect you’re heading towards burnout, and want to take some positive steps to prevent it? Our online psychological course Stress and Burnout is available on prescription in German and is a cost-free way to acquire many effective strategies for coping with stress. Head over to our course page now and take a look. You don’t understand German? Then try our online course on stress management – it’s available in English.

Do you want to actively and self-determinedly increase your well-being? Get to know our clinically proven online course and regain your energy.

Start now

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Our articles are written by psychologists and reviewed by psychotherapists.