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Stress vs Burnout: what’s the difference?

Stress and burnout are hot topics in wellbeing right now, and have been for a while since the pandemic began. Our stress levels have risen and burnout rates have rocketed over the last few years, but do you know the difference? Being so closely linked, we often overlook how stress and burnout differ so as it’s stress awareness month, Life Coach Grace McMahon shares the differences between what stress and burnout look like.



You probably know that burnout rates have rocketed over the last few years, with more people searching the internet for ways to cope with how they are feeling. Perhaps you’ve faced symptoms, like feeling completely fried, exhausted and possibly cynical, or even noticed a drop in productivity.


Burnout is a state of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion caused by excessive stress. Excessive being the keyword here.


We used to think burnout was a ‘workforce’ issue, caused by highly demanding jobs that provide little reward for the effort we put in. Doctors, nurses, teachers for example. A lot of burnout is caused by our occupations, but there are a number of ‘workloads’ unrelated to the ‘working’ environment that we consider to also cause burnout. Parents, students, remote workers, people living through a pandemic. We’re all at risk of burnout when our stress levels become excessive.


But you may be wondering where the line is. How do we know when our stress has turned into burnout?


Stress vs burnout


We each have a threshold for the amount of stress we can tolerate before it tips over and becomes problematic. Like our pain threshold, it differs from person to person. We can all successfully handle some stress, our stress response kicks in helps us to tackle the stressor, and once we believe the threat to have passed, our brains and bodies resume usual functioning and return to a state of calm - or calmer at least.


Now, stress can wreak havoc on our ability to function as does burnout, our emotions, our mental state, and our physical health can all take a hit. Below are some of the key differences between stress and burnout:


Stress Burnout


Characterised by over-engagement Characterised by disengagement


Emotions are over-reactive Emotions are blunted


Produces urgency and hyperactivity Produces hopelessness and helplessness


Loss of energy Loss of motivation, ideals and hope


Leads to anxiety disorders Leads to detachment and depression


Primary damage is physical Primary damage is emotional

When stress becomes burnout


When facing stress, these red flags (above) are telling us to slow down, to manage our stress levels, to reduce the amount of stress we’re trying to handle at once. But they can be easily missed or even ignored when we have that sense of urgency and we’re overly engaged in something. Many of us throw ourselves into whatever it is we need to do to get past the stress and finish the task. But this overexertion and overworking is what leads us to burnout.


Burnout is similar to an overworked computer. Like when you’ve got too many tabs open and things slow down, it takes longer to load information, can be difficult to find what we’re looking for, and functioning becomes more frustrating. And after a while it becomes unresponsive and we have to force quit and start again.


When we face burnout, our brains essentially force us to rest, because we need to. Those missed signs of problematic stress force us to stop, and is why we can become disengaged, lose motivation and start to feel cynical or resentful.


We can prevent this from happening when we can successfully manage our stress levels. Now, this doesn’t mean banishing stress or being untouched by it. It means keeping track, monitoring how we are and how we are coping with our stressors. Because unfortunately we all face stress and there’s no way to just get rid of it.


It’s about paying attention to how our workload (whatever that may be) is impacting us, whether we’re taking on too much responsibility or pushing ourselves too far. It’s about taking care of ourselves (doing the annoying self-care habits like eating, moving and sleeping well) to help us feel better able to cope with the challenges life throws at us. And then taking the time to rest or slow down, or reduce our stress-load when things feel difficult.


Stress and burnout can feel quite similar, but there are key differences. And while recovery from burnout is more than doable, it’s easier to prevent it occurring than try to recover. So, keep an eye out for our next blog for stress awareness month, all about managing stress levels and keeping burnout at bay.


Burnout bugs: When we’re in burnout, or we’ve faced chronic or prolonged stress, and the impact is interfering with our ability to function as usual, seeking support from a professional might help you to feel able to get back into the swing of things, or to find helpful ways to cope with stress. We all need some support and help when tackling burnout, and recovery is achievable even when you feel totally lost. Check out our tips on finding a therapist if you think you would find it beneficial.


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