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Understanding burnout and the differences between stress

Stress and burnout are still hot topics in wellbeing - our stress levels have been on the rise 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 its Stress Awareness month, what better time to make note of some key differences between them? Keep reading to spot the differences in yourselves and others.

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, more absenteeism and presenteeism in the workplace, and more of us experiencing a lack of enthusiasm for life. Perhaps you’ve faced symptoms, like feeling completely fried, exhausted and possibly cynical, or even noticed a drop in your productivity and performance.

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

While we used to think burnout was a ‘workforce’ issue, caused by highly demanding jobs that might reap low rewards for the effort we put in (doctors, nurses, teachers for example) and a lot of burnout is caused by our occupations. There are a number of ‘workloads’ unrelated to the ‘working’ environment that we consider to also cause burnout. Parents, students, remote workers, and people living through ongoing stress, like the pandemic or the cost of living crisis. 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:



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

Typically, stress causes a physical impact mostly, meaning we need to slow down and reduce stress to combat it. However, burnout tends to have a more emotional impact, which is why we might need further intervention or professional support than simply resting to recover from it.

When stress becomes burnout

When facing stress, these red flags (above) are telling us to slow down, manage our stress levels, and reduce the amount of stress we’re trying to handle at once. But they can be easily missed or even ignored when we have a sense of urgency, we’re overly engaged in something or feeling under pressure to complete tasks. 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 can lead 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, and functioning becomes more frustrating. And after a while, it might even become unresponsive and we have to force quit and restart.

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 that's 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. You can learn more about this in the latest webinar. 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 simply get rid of it.

It’s about paying attention to how our workload (wherever that's found) 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 from occurring.

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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