The Five Stages of Burnout

At some point or another, you have probably heard about the Five Stages of Grief, which were first proposed by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The theory is that most people don’t immediately accept the loss of a loved one. Instead, the shock of the loss takes them through five stages of emotional healing.

The five stages that Dr. Kubler-Ross described are: denial, anger/resentment, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you may remember experiencing these stages to one degree or another.

Having worked in Corporate America for the past twenty years, I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon occurs in environments that foster employee burnout. The employees go through pretty much the same five stages, only they do so in reverse order.

Allow me to explain…


When you first arrive fresh on the scene of a new job, you usually have a fairly positive attitude. After all, you made the decision to take the job, right? It must have had something going for it. If you are like most people, you didn’t base your decision strictly on money. If you did, you can probably skip this stage and go directly to the next one.

As the unpleasant aspects of your job start to affect you, you accept them thinking that things will get better. In fact, you try to figure out what you can do to help them get better. You draft sincere letters with suggestions on how to improve things. Your optimism is in high gear.


After a while, your optimism starts to wane. Although you try your best, nothing you do seems to make a dent in the established patterns of the organization.

But you don’t leave because you convince yourself that things probably wouldn’t be any better anywhere else. The last place you worked probably had similar problems. You see others around you in more advanced stages of burnout and think you really don’t have it so bad.

You accept the martyr’s mantle and suffer through the daily grind because you don’t want to move again and the prospect of job hunting is unappealing. You sigh a lot.


Unless you enjoy wallowing in depression, you eventually become impatient with your circumstances. Although you still don’t necessarily have a positive outlook for your future, you think that maybe you can just make the best of a bad situation.

You try to rationalize good reasons for staying at your job. You figure you can trade a little discomfort at work in order to have financial security and decent benefits. You think about how your family needs you to keep a roof over their head, and you’d like to avoid having to live on macaroni and cheese like you did in college.

If you still have any energy left, you might take another stab at promoting positive change in the organization’s established practices and policies. You might even prompt encouraging reactions from management and your peers. But over time, nothing changes. Unless you actually buy the business, you likely find that your improvement efforts eventually fade into oblivion or smash directly into a brick wall.


You’ve just about had enough. Everyone seems miserable and nobody seems to care about making things better. You’re wasting your time here. It can’t be this bad everywhere. The grass is starting to look greener on the other side. If you’re careful, surely you can find another job that is better than this one.

Sound familiar? Welcome to the anger/resentment stage. At this point, most people bail out. If you have a typical type-A personality, your exit is probably spectacular and memorable. If you are more timid, you write some variety of an "I’ve had enough" resignation letter and discreetly raise a significant digit toward the HR office as you drive out of the parking lot for the last time.

However, outside influences may force you to remain in your position. This choice is almost always bad for everyone involved. You become surly and difficult to work with. Your family grows tired of hearing about the debacle of the day. Your health takes a nose dive.


After a while, most people get sick of being angry all the time. It is difficult to maintain any emotion that strong indefinitely. Eventually, your anger slows to a simmer and flares up again mainly for pet peeves, about which you are almost irrational.

You start to ignore many of the problems that caused you so much grief only months before. It’s really not that bad, and it wouldn’t be better anywhere else. You can’t fix it anyway, so why bother. At least you can make your mortgage payment.

Don’t mistake this stage for acceptance. You’ve just internalized your feelings. When opportunity allows, you get great release out of sharing in bitch sessions with your peers. It doesn’t matter that you had the same discussion last week.

You still lose it once in a while when a sequence of events pushes you over the edge, but for the most part, you put blinders on when you walk into the office in the morning, and try to get through the day by focusing on what lies in front of you.

Burn Baby Burn

At your current job, if you identified with any of the above stages, you too may suffer from the Five Stages of Burnout. Don’t worry. The condition isn’t permanent. The recommended treatment is a well-written resume and some carefully-planned "vacation" days.

Be careful though: Getting a new job might do little more than start you back at the beginning stage. Some of what causes burnout comes from within. The aspects of your own personality that contribute to the problem won’t go away with a change of venue. After all, no matter where you go, there you are.