The Difference Between Stress And Burnout (And How To Tell Which You Have)

Is your mental health, energy and motivation completely zapped? Read this.

You’ve been feeling exhausted, depleted and disengaged from work for a while now. Is it job stress? Or is it burnout?

The terms “stress” and “burnout” are sometimes used interchangeably. They exist on the same spectrum, but there are some key differences.

For one, stress that’s temporary or tied to a particular event is a normal part of life that we all experience from time to time.

“We feel stress when our mental, physical or emotional reserves are pushed past our comfort level,” Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California, told HuffPost. “It’s important to note that stress can be negative, like trying to please a demanding boss or pushing to meet a deadline, or positive, like working out or throwing a party. Each of these push us out of the comfort zone, but the effort seems temporary and may actually help us grow and achieve a desired goal.”

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.

“Suppose we continually experience stress for a prolonged period of time, without being able to change it,” said Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant. “In that case, we can begin to feel empty, lacking motive, pessimistic and generally careless about life. This is burnout.”

When you’re dealing with burnout, you may feel hopeless about your situation. You have trouble seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

“The overarching feeling is scarcity of energy, motivation and purpose, and feeling like it won’t change,” Chambers said.

Another way to look at it? “Stress can be characterised by over-engagement — or doing too much — whereas burnout often leads to disengagement — or not doing enough — and feeling emotionally blunted,” said Zainab Delawalla, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta.

In 2019, the World Health Organisation classified job burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” (not a medical condition) in its International Classification of Diseases. Generally, the term burnout is used in the context of work, but it doesn’t just happen to people who are overworked. It can also occur when you’re being under-challenged professionally or because of unfair treatment in the workplace.

Burnout can also apply to other areas of life, such as parenting — and more recently, the coronavirus pandemic. Whatever the source of continued stress may be, you’ll start to feel like you’re running on fumes, making it more difficult to handle basic responsibilities and enjoy the once-pleasurable aspects of your life.

There's a difference between stress and burnout, and it's important to have healthy coping mechanisms for both.
fizkes via Getty Images
There's a difference between stress and burnout, and it's important to have healthy coping mechanisms for both.

Signs You May Be Experiencing Burnout

Some symptoms of burnout are similar to those that pop up during times of stress. With stress, however, the symptoms generally subside when the event (like a big presentation at work, for example) has passed. If the symptoms are more severe and persist over a longer period of time, they could be indicative of burnout.

“This is because the difference between stress and burnout is a matter of degree,” psychologist and author Sherrie Bourg Carter wrote in a blog post for Psychology Today. “So the best way to prevent burnout is to identify the symptoms as close as possible to the less severe end of these continuums, because the less severe the symptoms, the easier they are to relieve.”

Here are some signs you’re experiencing burnout:

1. You have sleep issues.

You’re permanently tired — physically, emotionally and mentally. But no matter how much sleep you get, you never feel rested.

You might be oversleeping or you might struggle with insomnia because thoughts of work keep you up at night, Delawalla said.

2. You dread going to work.

Just thinking about your job fills you with angst.

“You know you’re starting to feel burned out when the Sunday Scaries are your least favourite time of the week. When the idea of being fired or made redundant seems like a positive outcome. When your first thought when you begin your work day is how good it will feel to leave work at the end of the day,” said Howes, author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.”

3. You get sick a lot.

The prolonged stress can tax your immune system, which means you get ill more often and it takes longer to recover when you do, Delawalla said.

You may also experience other physical symptoms like frequent headaches, digestive issues and muscle tension.

4. You’ve lost your motivation and sense of purpose.

The physical and mental exhaustion wear you down over time. You have trouble pushing yourself to complete tasks and assignments because your work feels pointless.

“The overarching feeling is scarcity of energy, motivation and purpose, and feeling like it won’t change.”

- Lee Chambers, environmental psychologist

“This comes with a feeling of pessimism with everything in life, negative attitudes towards others in our lives, continued low mood and feeling detached from reality,” Chambers added. “We have low morale and ask ourselves: Is it worth bothering?”

5. You’re isolating yourself.

Chatting with co-workers and making plans with friends and family used to be a bright spot in your week. Now you feel like you can’t afford to take a break, nor do you have the wherewithal to engage with other people. (And now, with the coronavirus, it’s much harder to do those things anyway.)

“You have no desire to seek help or even socialise, often fuelled by feelings of guilt,” Delawalla said. “Like, ‘If I can’t find the time to do X, I certainly don’t have time to hang out with my friends.’”

6. Your work performance is suffering.

Your concentration and creativity are shot, which means you’re less productive and making more mistakes.

“You may find yourself having to re-read things or asking colleagues to repeat themselves,” Bourg Carter said. “Because you can’t focus, it takes longer to get your work done, so things begin to pile up, causing more stress. At its worse, these symptoms prevent you from getting anything done, and you simply can’t keep up.”

You may also find it difficult to maintain positive relationships with your colleagues, romantic partner and friends.

“Cynicism and poor emotional regulation also lead to increased conflict and feelings of frustration and irritability,” Chambers said.

Advice On Dealing With Burnout

Experts recommend checking in with yourself often so you don't get to the point of complete burnout.
Geber86 via Getty Images
Experts recommend checking in with yourself often so you don't get to the point of complete burnout.

The earlier you recognise the signs of burnout, the better. Unfortunately, it’s often not until things get dire that people realise just how burned out they really are. So remember to check in with yourself often.

Think you’re dealing with burnout? Here’s what experts recommend doing to combat it.

Look for ways to make your work feel meaningful.

Some aspects of your work life (like the company culture or project deadlines) may be outside of your control, so focus on what you can change. Are there any steps you can take that might make your job more enjoyable and fulfilling? Have a conversation with your boss about tackling a project that actually excites you and delegating some of your other responsibilities. Perhaps there’s another role at the company that would be a better fit for you.

“Maybe your actual job description doesn’t align with your passion of bringing joy to others, but is there another way you can bring joy to co-workers or clients that could scratch that itch?” Howes said.

Carve out time to do the things that make you feel good.

When you’re burning out, taking time for yourself may feel impossible, but it’s even more essential. Incorporate whichever activities feel enriching and restorative to you: journaling, running, doing yoga, going to the beach or playing guitar, to name a few.

“Looking at what you do as hobbies and interests: Are these things which recharge you both from enjoyment and the people you are surrounded with?” Chambers said. “Sometimes we can burn out because we feel we have to be everything, or can’t say no, and we end up doing lots of things that other people enjoy. It is vital that we find the things that make us smile, laugh and feel warm inside.”

Creating a self-care routine can also be beneficial, but don’t put undue pressure on yourself to execute it perfectly each day.

“It’s important that we don’t try to rigidly shoehorn self-care into our lives, as this can potentially cause us to fire the perfectionism, which might have been a factor in burnout,” Chambers said.

Take some time off work, if you’re able to.

That may include incorporating regular breaks throughout your day, keeping more consistent work hours or requesting time off to regroup.

“Taking an intentional break is vital to rest and recharge the body and mind,” Chambers said. “Taking yourself away, especially into a natural environment, induces feelings of grounding and serenity, and the solitude can give us the headspace to start to process the bigger picture.”

Reach out for support.

It’s not uncommon to withdraw from friends and family when you feel burned out. But during this time, you need to be reminded that you’re not alone and that there are people in your life who want to help — and may have even dealt with burnout themselves.

“Planning where to turn in challenging times is also essential,” Chambers said. “Having the knowledge that there are people who can support you, resources you can access, and a whole network out there to use makes us feel more connected and that we no longer have to find all the solutions ourselves.”

In addition to talking to people in your circle, you may also want to consider speaking with a mental health professional.

“Leaving a position that burns you out may be the best decision you ever made.”

- Ryan Howes, psychologist

“Stress can often bring underlying anxieties to the surface and burnout shares many of its characteristics with clinical depression — like disengagement, lack of motivation, fatigue, sleep problems,” Delawalla said. “Therapy can not only offer a neutral lens through which to evaluate your current circumstances, but also teach you the skills to manage stress before it leads to anxiety or depression.”

If the situation isn’t improving, it may be time to look for a new job.

Tried implementing some of these strategies and still miserable? That may be an indication you need to explore other career opportunities.

“Your job isn’t as important as your health, and facing burnout means it’s time to accept a change is needed,” Chambers said.

Start by taking small steps like updating your CV, making a list of what you’re looking for in a new job, connecting with a mentor or researching available positions to get some momentum going. Taking action feels empowering and makes you more hopeful about the future, Chambers said.

“Leaving a job can be a scary thing, but recognising a poor fit and seeking out something else that brings meaning to your life is sometimes the best choice,” Howes said. “Keep looking for the type of job that aligns with your passions and seek out a connection there. Leaving a position that burns you out may be the best decision you ever made.”