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Burnout: Stages, types, causes, signs

Reviewed by Kirsten Davin

A male doctor exhausted in his car.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion. It’s caused by chronic and excessive stress that the individual cannot successfully manage.

While burnout was once considered a stress syndrome, it has been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a syndrome of its own.1 The WHO defines burnout as a syndrome that can develop from workplace stress. However, the effects of burnout can extend beyond the workplace to a person’s home and personal life.

The 12 Stages of Burnout

Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North identified 12 stages or phases of burnout.2 These include:

  1. High drive, ambition, or need to prove oneself: Individuals with certain personalities may have a greater risk for burnout than others, such as those who readily accept responsibility or are high performers. Circumstances can also increase a person’s risk for burnout-inducing behaviors, such as those who are starting new jobs or are up for a promotion. 
  2. Working harder: The second stage of burnout is experiencing a push to work harder. This may be from external factors, such as the need to meet a deadline or get a raise, or internal factors, such as perfectionism.
  3. Neglecting to care for oneself: Working harder often results in neglect for other needs. People on the path to burnout may neglect to eat or exercise, miss out on social opportunities, and experience a lack of sleep
  4. Displacing conflicts: At this stage of burnout, it may be difficult to recognize or properly face conflicts as they arise. Problems may be dismissed or ignored, while others are given a high priority that does not accurately reflect their importance. 
  5. Heightened work focus: At this stage, work becomes the sole focus, and there is no time for non-work activities or needs.
  6. Denial: Denying that you are experiencing burnout is, in fact, a stage of burnout. People often blame others for their problems, or become impatient or irritable. It often becomes more difficult to consider new thoughts or problem-solve with new behaviors that could alleviate stress.
  7. Withdrawal: Withdrawal may occur from a variety of aspects of life. A reduction in socialization with family and friends, disregard for work responsibilities or regression to old, sometimes poor habits or hobbies may occur. Often, withdrawal is accompanied by a level of cynicism that is uncharacteristic of the person experiencing burnout. They may also feel as though their life lacks direction. 
  8. Behavioral and mood changes: People experiencing burnout often become more aggressive and more depressed. Their mood may fluctuate from irritable and angry to lethargic and hopeless. This can affect relationships with family, friends, and coworkers.
  9. Depersonalization: At this stage of burnout, a person feels detached from their daily life and their sense of self. They may no longer see themselves or others as valuable, and they are typically disconnected from their own needs and desires.
  10. Inner emptiness: The emptiness that accompanies this stage of burnout can lead to increased anxiety and addictive behaviors.
  11. Hopelessness: At this stage of burnout, most people feel completely detached from the meaning of life. They may struggle to imagine life ever getting better.
  12. Collapse: This final stage of burnout results in mental and/or physical collapse due to unsustainable levels of exhaustion. At this stage, emergency medical care may be required.

Different Types of Burnout

While we tend to think of burnout as something that happens when working too hard, psychologists suggest that there are several different types of burnout. They include:

  • Overload burnout: This is the type of burnout that people are most familiar with. Someone works harder and harder to keep up with demands or achieve success.
  • Boredom or under-challenge burnout: This occurs when someone isn’t being challenged, or they are bored with their work responsibilities. They may feel stuck, unable to advance, and lack enjoyment in their work.
  • Neglectful burnout: This occurs when people feel helpless, incompetent, or unable to keep up with a job’s demands. Individuals may become worn out, passive, and unmotivated in the workplace.

Causes of Burnout

The causes of burnout may vary. Stressors created within the workplace can be worsened by lifestyle and personality factors. 

Anyone who experiences a high level of stress in their job is at risk for burnout. Other work factors include having little or no control over work responsibilities, not feeling valued, unmanageable workloads, unfair treatment, and unclear responsibilities or duties.

Although work stress is a significant risk factor for burnout, not everyone in high-stress roles experiences burnout. Psychologists have found that a person’s lifestyle and personality factors can help a person cope more effectively with high-stress roles—or put them at a greater risk of experiencing burnout. Some of these higher risk factors include:

  • Reduced opportunities for social interaction
  • Excessive responsibilities and limited assistance in the workplace
  • Lack of supportive relationships
  • Having a pessimistic view of life or self
  • Perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors
  • Having a high drive for success
  • Lack of sleep

Caregiver Burnout

Along with those who experience burnout in a traditional job, people who are caregivers in either paid or unpaid roles may experience burnout, too. This can include parents of young children, adult children taking care of aging parents, caregivers of people with disabilities, and other caregiving roles.

Burnout can occur within the role of a caregiver if one is unable to get the assistance needed or if the responsibilities of caregiving become overwhelming. Some additional factors that can contribute to caregiver burnout include unrealistic expectations, unreasonable demands, lack of control, and role confusion due to being both a caregiver and a loved one.

Work from Home Burnout

Work from home burnout combines both the usual work burnout causes and experiences with the factors that occur because someone is working remotely. In particular, work from home burnout can become a greater risk if someone is experiencing social isolation and loneliness from working at home. 

Other factors that can contribute to work from home burnout include an inability to disconnect. Working from home may come with constant work reminders, like emails and other communication, even when someone is off the clock, resulting in a perceived need to respond.

Some people find that working from home doesn’t inspire them in the same way that they are inspired in an office environment, which can also increase the risk of burnout. Additionally, people who may be combining remote work with additional family responsibilities can feel additional stress and overload.

COVID Burnout

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to burnout for some. Overall, about half of all workers reported feeling symptoms of burnout during the COVID pandemic.3 Frontline workers, such as those in hospital or health care settings often worked long hours in high-stress environments. Those working from home may have also experienced COVID-related burnout. During the pandemic, teachers faced the additional stress of trying to remotely teach children, who were also experiencing stress. For teachers, factors such as anxiety over communicating with parents and the implementation of online or virtual teaching practices were significant predictors of burnout during the pandemic.4 Parents who were able to work from home had the additional stress of performing childcare and home management duties while tending to children during the workday.

Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

Symptoms of burnout can feel like stress. You might feel tired or exhausted, have negative feelings about your job, and/or not be able to perform your job responsibilities. However, the signs and symptoms of burnout go beyond simply feeling stress. 

One way to wrap your head around this difference is to think of stress as being about “too much” while burnout is about “not enough.” While you might feel stress over too much work, you can experience burnout when that is combined with not enough self-care and time away from work.

Some of the other burnout symptoms include:

  • Anxiety
  • Frequent or recurring illnesses
  • Headaches or muscle pain
  • Detachment from work or home
  • Increased isolation
  • Use of food, drugs, alcohol, etc., as a coping mechanism
  • Missing work or frequent tardiness
  • An increasingly negative outlook on your job and life
  • Loss of motivation
  • Irritability
  • Reduced performance at work and home

How to Deal with Burnout

The most effective step to combatting the effects of burnout is to seek help. Talk to your supervisor if burnout is work-related, ask friends and family for support, and connect with people in your community with whom you have meaningful connections. A therapist can also be beneficial if you are experiencing burnout.

It’s also important to take care of yourself. Get adequate sleep, meditate, exercise, and eat a balanced diet to help reduce the effects of burnout and protect your health. Remember that burnout can have a negative effect on physical health, so taking care of yourself is vital.

Reframing how you think about work and re-examining your values and priorities can help you make changes in your life that will help you deal with burnout. You may find that creating a better work-life balance, taking time off, altering your approach to work tasks, setting boundaries, and finding creative leisure activities can help you reduce the symptoms of burnout.

Ways to Prevent Burnout

As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.” If you’re worried about developing burnout in your current work environment, here are some steps you can take to prevent it:

  • Speak with your supervisor: Whether you’re overloaded, unmotivated, or underappreciated, it’s important to have an honest conversation with your supervisor or manager so you can brainstorm solutions together. Of course, this depends on how healthy your work environment is, so this may not be a successful option for everyone.
  • Take time off: If you have paid time off (PTO), use it. If you don’t have PTO, make the most of the time you aren’t scheduled to work. Make sure you don’t work too many days in a row without time to rest and recharge.
  • Unplug: When you are out of the office, whether for a long vacation or a typical weekend, make sure to completely disconnect. Silence your phone, turn off your email notifications, and prioritize time doing things you love.
  • Say no: Practice saying no to unrealistic deadlines or workloads. It’s okay to be honest about your own limitations. Often, the work will still get done without having to sacrifice your mental and physical health.
  • Resist becoming indispensable: Some people confuse job security for being completely indispensable in their current role. They create bottlenecks by hoarding information, micromanaging others, and failing to train a wider team to carry the load. This is typically unsustainable for both the employee and the company as a whole. Prioritize becoming highly valuable in your role, not indispensable.

Look for something better: Prevention can be limited if your work environment is unhealthy or highly toxic. Most of the time, good employees are influenced by poor workplaces. If you cannot put the advice listed above into practice without risking your job, it may be time to transition to a healthier work environment.

When to Get Help for Burnout

Because burnout can have many negative effects on your personal life, professional life, mental health, and physical health, it’s important to know when to seek help for burnout. Often, the very conditions that lead to burnout can discourage people from seeking out help. 

If you find that talking with friends and family members isn’t enough, or you are feeling stuck, finding a therapist who specializes in burnout can be helpful. See our list of therapists who specialize in burnout, and make an appointment.

Helping Others with Burnout

If someone you know is experiencing burnout, here are a few ways to help:

  • Listen: While it might be tempting to try to solve the problem, listening to your loved one can be even more helpful. 
  • Offer validation: Rather than diminishing your loved one’s experiences or offering platitudes, validate and acknowledge their feelings and concerns. 
  • Offer to help with specific tasks: Ask if you can bring in a meal, pick up groceries, or do another specific task that will help the person. You can also use small gestures like notes or gifts to remind the person of your support.
  • Help find resources: If your loved one needs additional or professional help, offer to find resources or create a list of resources for them. This might include everything from childcare options to a list of therapists who specialize in burnout.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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