The Classic Stages of Burnout


Adapted from my bestselling book Rise and Shine: recover from burnout and get back to your best which is out now on Amazon.

Herbert Freudenberger was a German-born psychologist who dedicated much of his work to studying stress, burnout and substance abuse. He and a colleague, Gail North, put together a twelve-phase process to explain how burnout occurs. I think it’s interesting to see the slide into burnout divided into phases, as it might create greater awareness around the process, and help you to recognise the signs.

Note that the phases are not necessarily always followed in sequential order:

1.   The compulsion to prove oneself – excessive ambition, perhaps at all costs

2.   Working harder – high personal expectations and a tendency to take on too much coupled with a reluctance to delegate

3.   Neglecting your needs – family, friends and personal care are side-lined

4.   Displacement of conflicts – you might be unaware that what you’re doing isn’t right, and become frustrated as you can’t see the source of the problem

5.   Revision of values – your value system becomes your job, you might become emotionally blunt, and you fall into a basic state of denial

6.   Denial of emerging problems – you might start to have less social contact, and blame work for the changes in your personality and manner

7.   Withdrawal – social contact might now be minimal, and alcohol or drugs might be sought for release from feelings of hopelessness

8.   Obvious behavioural changes – colleagues, friends and family can no longer ignore the changes that have occurred in you

9.   Depersonalisation – you lose track of your personal needs and ‘lose yourself’, performing mechanical functions only and viewing life only in the present time

10. Inner emptiness – possibly manifesting itself in damaging behaviours such as overeating, undereating, casual sex, alcohol or drugs

11. Depression – you are exhausted, and can see little or no meaning in life

12. Burnout syndrome – this is a physical and mental collapse which requires immediate medical attention.

Stress and burnout are not the same


Some levels of stress are normal, necessary and can act as a safety net, ensuring we don’t get complacent. When everyday stress becomes chronic stress, this is where the problems start. For the executive, low levels of stress ensure that your deadlines are met, presentations are prepared for and you stay focused on your role and responsibilities. This type of stress is often linked to a specific event, such as a project, deal or situation, and usually, once the project or deal is concluded, the stress dissipates and you recover. Research done in 2009 by Professor Ayala Malach-Pines of Ben-Gurion University in Israel found that if executives feel that their work is valuable and meaningful, then they are less likely to burnout. She says:

‘The root cause of burnout lies in people’s need to believe that their lives are meaningful, that the things they do are useful and important. For many people, the driving force behind their work is not merely monetary but the belief that they can have an impact, and it is this idea that spurs them on.’ She goes on to add that, ‘ …it is possible to be very stressed but not burned out if you feel your work is worthwhile and you are achieving the desired goals.’

Perhaps we should be focusing on encouraging executives to achieve a balance in their lives, and reduce the unswerving focus on short-term goals and monetary benefits rather than running people down like batteries.


When stressors become prolonged and continual, the risks of burning out become much greater. Where stress might be characterised by over-engagement, burnout becomes characterised by disengagement. Where stress produces a sense of urgency and hyperactivity, burnout produces feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Stress causes a loss of energy, whereas burnout causes loss of motivation, ideals and hope. With stress, the primary damage is physical, and with burnout the primary damage is emotional. If you’re burned out, you will continue to feel stressed even after the stressors have gone or lessened. You have also lost your sense of self-efficacy and can no longer see the value in what you do. In some cases it results in a total breakdown of the central nervous system, which requires medical intervention and several months or even years to fully recover.

The symptoms of burnout are often similar to that of depression. In a study by Bianchi, R., Boffy, C., Hingray, C., Truchot, D., & Laurent, E. (2013). Comparative symptomatology of burnout and depression: Journal of Health Psychology, 18(6), 782-787, there were no observable differences between clinically depressed workers and workers suffering from burnout. Diagnosis is often made by the GP; all of the people I interviewed for this book had visited their GP in the first instance (with mixed results). Commonly, the visit to the GP has been deferred until too late, and any assistance the GP might have been able to offer is too little, too late. I personally waited until the red flags were impossible to ignore before taking action, and I suspect I’m not alone in that.

This article has been adapted from my bestselling book Rise and Shine: recover from burnout and get back to your best. You can buy a copy here.

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