Cartoon of employees suffering from burnout in stages, there are four silhouettes of people with varying battery level symbols on their heads. The colour scheme is yellow and white.
Image: © Vikky Mir/

What are the stages of burnout?

4 Jul 2023

From the honeymoon stage to the habitual burnout stage at the other end of the scale, burnout syndrome is an occupational hazard according to WHO.

Burnout can strike anyone at any time; it is often mistaken for stress, but in fact, stress is a stage of burnout.

Burnout is more serious than stress, which is a fleeting feeling. With burnout, people are mentally and physically affected and they often require medical intervention to deal with the most severe symptoms at the latter end of the scale. But while stress and burnout are different, chronic stress ­– or stress symptoms that last for several days on end ­– is a stage of burnout and if you aren’t able to deal with the cause of the stress then it could progress to burnout.

A short history of burnout

The phrase burnout was first used in the 1970s when a US psychologist called Herbert Freudenberger used it to describe what some of his patients were experiencing. He used it to refer to doctors, nurses and medical staff who were left chronically exhausted by long hours of demanding work. Nowadays, we know that burnout syndrome affects people in all industries – and the sci-tech industry is definitely not immune.

In 2019, the World Health Organisation categorised burnout as a chronic condition or syndrome that occurs in working people ­– so, in other words, it is an occupational hazard.

While burnout was certainly a problem before the pandemic, the onset of that shock event led a lot more people to suffer from it. Reacting to the drastic changes in working life and in life in general, lots of people began to suffer. As resilience coach Siobhán Murray pointed out in May 2020, burnout doesn’t necessarily occur because someone is overworked. In a lot of cases, it can be triggered by environmental factors, like a global pandemic.

Writing in in 2021, Hays’ global head of technology James Milligan looked at “how the added pressure” of getting organisations to work remotely could have contributed to an increase in tech workers feeling burned out.

By taking their work home with them, some people found it more difficult to draw the line between home and work and relaxing time and working time. On the other hand, more workers felt less burned out than they had been in the office thanks to the reduction of commuting times and the chance to spend more time at home.

Of course, the pandemic merely influenced burnout for a time. Now that it has ended, the syndrome is still pervasive, and Irish workers are some of the most burned out in Europe if the results of a survey from last year by Gallup and Workhuman are anything to go by. That survey found that three in 10 Irish workers polled felt burned out very often or always.

Stages and symptoms of burnout

Once you know what the different stages of burnout are, you will recognise that it is different from stress and it is something that should be avoided if at all possible. There are things employers can do to help employees avoid burnout, such as offering employee assistance programmes and even simply listening to workers’ concerns.

Honeymoon stage

What a lot of people might not know is that the first stage of burnout is called the honeymoon stage. Yes, really. Obviously, it’s ridiculous to suggest contented workers are married to their jobs, but the phrase is used to describe those who feel happy and productive at work. It’s the kind of enthusiasm people feel when they first start a job, which again, doesn’t last forever but ideally, it should not wane as time goes on.

Onset of stress stage

A certain amount of stress is inevitable at work and it can even be stimulating and challenging. You want the stress to dial back though because constant stress is not sustainable. An ideal situation would be somewhere between stages one and two, where an employee is challenged by their work but also not put under adverse amounts of pressure.

Chronic stress stage

Dipping from infrequent stress to chronic stress is the point at which things can do downhill. The irritability, tiredness and lack of enthusiasm for your work that you may experience when you are stressed come to the fore here. Chronic stress affects your life outside of work and you might be angry or less interested in things you used to enjoy such as hobbies or spending time with loved ones. A recent survey of Irish workers by recruitment firm Robert Walters found that 33pc of people are stressed ‘very often’ at work.

Burnout stage

When you cannot escape the symptoms of chronic stress and you find yourself getting progressively worse and less able to cope with daily life, you are burned out. Your mental health and physical health are affected, with sufferers likely to experience headaches, stomach pains, loss of appetite, extreme fatigue and anxiety.

Habitual burnout stage

Burnout is not sustainable for anyone and if an intervention doesn’t take place you may need clinical help to treat some of your symptoms.

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Blathnaid O’Dea
By Blathnaid O’Dea

Blathnaid O’Dea worked as a Careers reporter until 2024, coming from a background in the Humanities. She likes people, pranking, pictures of puffins – and apparently alliteration.

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