Many people ask, what is the difference between stress and burnout? Is there one? There is. And it’s important to understand that. Because there is a difference in how each syndrome presents itself, there is a difference in how each should be approached and treated. Stress that’s temporary or tied to a particular event is a normal part of life that we all experience from time to time. And can be either positive or negative. Burnout, however, is a response to extended, excessive stress that leaves you mentally and physically drained, cynical, detached and less effective as a result. Left unresolved, burnout can give way to mental health conditions like clinical depression.
Stress vs. Burnout.
To simplify, let’s think of stress as involving too much and burnout not enough. With stress, too many pressures demand too much of you physically and mentally. But you can still imagine things being okay once you get everything under control. Burnout, on the other hand, means feeling empty and mentally exhausted, completely without motivation, and beyond caring. It involves a loss of accomplishment and loss of personal identity. People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations. And while you’re usually aware of being under a lot of stress, you don’t always notice burnout when it happens.
According to Brittany Buxton of the Birkman blog you can identify the feelings brought on by each syndrome.
Often, stress consists of the following feelings:
- Persistence: “I am going to keep putting all of my energy into this!”
- Overwork: “I am so overwhelmed and have so much to do!”
- Obsession: “I will make a difference! No matter what the impact is on me! “
Because stress feels like there is an end in sight, it’s easy to get trapped into putting all of your physical, mental, and emotional energy into the situation or project. However, if stress is left unmanaged or unresolved for too long, it can quickly build up and turn into burnout.
Burnout results from prolonged feelings of stress, and often results in:
- Exhaustion: “I am so tired.”
- Cynicism: “I don’t care anymore.”
- Inefficacy: “I’m not even making a difference.”
Burnout is caused by having invested too much, not taking time for yourself to recoup, and not seeing any difference in the result. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared burnout as a syndrome linked to chronic workplace stress in 2019, revealing how important it is for organizations to play an active role in preventing and reducing burnout among the workforce.
Workplace Causes of Burnout
While burnout is not caused solely by stressful work or too many responsibilities, it can often stem from your job and the environment in which you work. Some causes may include:
- Feeling like you have little or no control over your work.
- Lack of recognition or reward for good work.
- Unclear or overly demanding job expectations.
- Doing work that’s monotonous or unchallenging.
- Working in a chaotic or high-pressure environment.
And thePossible Results
Left unchecked and untreated, severe burnout can lead to ominous results including:
- Excessive stress
- Sadness, anger or irritability
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
- Vulnerability to illnesses
Signs of Burnout
With such dire consequences, it is imperative to look out for signs of burnout in both your employees and yourself. While there are a myriad of warning signs, be sure to look out for the following:
- You can’t stand the idea of going to work, just thinking about it makes you anxious. Once you arrive, all you can think about is going home.
- You get sick a lot. Prolonged anxiety wreaks havoc on your immune system. You may experience constant headaches, digestive issues or muscle tension. And everything takes longer to recover from.
- Sleep issues. You’re constantly exhausted whether you’ve had too much sleep or too little.
- You’ve lost your sense of purpose. Physical and mental exhaustion have you feeling you work is pointless.
- You’re isolating yourself. No desire to socialize or seek help. Not that we can socialize right now anyway.
- Your work performance is suffering. Concentration and creativity are out the window because … who cares?
Keep an eye out for people who just don’t seem like themselves, who are more irritable than normal or quick to make harsh comments or argue with fellow employees. Listen for such comments as, “I just haven’t been feeling like myself lately”, “I just need to get through this busy season, and then I’ll slow down”, or “I’m just tired—I’m sure a vacation will take care of it.” These may be signs they are on their way from stress to burnout.
Once you recognise an employee is on their way to, or already enveloped in burnout, it is time to take action. In addition to recommending professional help, perhaps through your company EAP, here are a few things you can suggest they incorporate into their lifestyles (or you into yours) to help deal with or ward away burnout:
- Establish a healthy sleep schedule. Turn off screens and get the sleep you need.
- Find a “Restoration Practise” and stick to a routine. Something that ignites your spirit and feeds your soul. Yoga, Tai Chi or mindfulness.
- Spend time in Nature. There are volumes that speak to its health benefits.
- Get some exercise. Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.
- Reach out. Either to co-workers, friends or loved ones. This kind of support and collaboration might help you cope.
- Go over your options. Discuss specific concerns with your supervisor. Maybe you can work together to change expectations or reach compromises or solutions.
- Eat healthy. What you put in your body can have a huge impact on your mood and energy levels throughout the day.
In the end, it may come down to making a change. There are worse things than parting ways with an employer. Particularly if your mental well-being is at risk.