Burnout vs. Stress: What You Need to Know

Do you force yourself to go to work and then have difficulty staying focused and productive? Are you critical at work, irritable and frustrated with co-workers or clients? Are you disenchanted and feeling trapped in your job like there is no way out? Do you feel overwhelmed and dread with way too much to do? Are you self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, or food?

If you said yes to any of these questions, you might be experiencing burnout. Perhaps you know others possibly suffering from burnout. Many of us were raised with the adage, “work hard to get ahead.” Taking this statement taken to the extreme can result in high levels of stress that can have debilitating consequences.

We have all felt the effects of stress in our lives. Burnout is different. In 1974, American psychologist, Dr. Herbert Freudenberger, defined burnout as, “The extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

Stress and burnout are not interchangeable terms. They each have individual characteristics. Stress is our response to situations, whereas burnout is a serious health concern. Burnout begins as stress. As the stressors build and add up, chronic stress is created, which can lead to burnout over time. Burnout is more than being exhausted after a long day or grueling week at work. It’s more than needing a break and to get away on a vacation.

As reported by Science Alert in May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced that by 2022, burnout will be reclassified and listed as an “occupational syndrome”. WHO now claims that burnout syndrome is only due to and attributed to chronic workplace stress. The organization characterizes burnout as, “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

Burnout deals more with emotional consequences, whereas stress has more physical reactions. Stress can lead to anxiety, while burnout can cause depression. Hyperactivity is to stress as a feeling of hopelessness is to burnout. It is not easy to recognize until it hits us like a brick to where we feel helpless. It’s imperative to notice the signs and symptoms early on to prevent falling down a slippery slope. Stress management intervention needs to be a priority when dealing with burnout.

Possible causes and factors of burnout:

  • Demanding and unmanageable workload with long hours
  • Feeling underpaid equal to work responsibilities
  • Working for an unrelenting, micromanaging employer
  • Lack of clarity and control over work tasks
  • Negative or chaotic work conditions
  • Working in a monotonous, non-challenging enough job
  • Your core values are not consistent with your employer’s beliefs
  • Being a member of the “helping others” professions, such as doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers

Burnout can lead to feelings of indifference, anxiety, despair, and depression. People have reported feeling emotionally and physically drained with difficulty falling asleep. This syndrome can result in a lack of motivation and purpose and can lead to the use of antidepressants and psychotropic medications.

Burnout can also result in physical symptoms like chronic fatigue, insomnia, heart palpitations, tension headaches, shortness of breath, obesity, and increase susceptibility to colds and flu.

Employee burnout is on the rise.

A 2018 Gallup study, The Effects of Employee Burnout, found:
Employees who say they very often or always experience burnout at work are:

… 63% more likely to take a sick day
… Half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager
… 23% more likely to visit the emergency room
… 2.6 times as likely to leave their current employer
… 13% less confident in their performance

9 Ways to Reduce Burnout

There is no one approach to deal with burnout. The following are suggestions to help reduce stress.

  • Know your stressors. Identify the root cause of your feelings of burnout. Knowing your stressors in life is the first step to resolving them. You cannot change what you do not know.
  • Self-care. Taking care of yourself first is paramount. Meditate, eat well, and get an adequate amount of sleep. Exercise has been proven to reduce stress and help alleviate depression. Find time for daily relaxation. It’s helpful to get a self-care accountability partner to help you stay on track.
  • Reprogram the mind. How we perceive a situation determines our response to its outcome. Spend moments in silence, and connect with your inner wisdom to help you cope with stress. Be aware of and connect with your inner voice. Rediscover your initial passion and find the enjoyable aspects of your work. Develop your strengths and understand your weaknesses.
  • De-stress. Prevent the accumulation of stress by making small changes in your workday that give you time to relax and regroup. Apply effective coping strategies.
  • The power of no. Learn to say no to others. Speak up for yourself without criticizing or judging others. Do not take on more than you can handle. Be honest with your employer or direct supervisor about how you are feeling mentally and emotionally about your unmanageable workload. Through transparency and mutual respect, co-create possible solutions.
  • Supportive relationships. Nurture personal and professional relationships with like-minded people. Connect with those individuals who share the same values and opinions as you. Develop good communication skills to avoid misunderstandings and promote clarity.
  • Engage in the arts. Tap into your creative side through music, dance, art, or creative writing. Research shows engaging in artistic expression increases creativity.
  • Take a break. Schedule regular time off from work to connect with yourself and family. Arrange days off, a long weekend or a full 1 or 2-week destination vacation. Take this time to rest, relax, and rejuvenate. Indulge in fun and playful activities.
  • Change career. If you continue to have chronic stress and burnout, and dread going to work, you may want to consider a career change or new job. If necessary, consult a career counselor.

Note: If you are experiencing persistent symptoms of unresolved long term stress or burnout, you may want to seek professional assistance. If you know of anyone who can benefit from this article, please feel free to share it.

Note: The information contained in this article is for educational purposes and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult with your doctor first before starting any new practices or health programs.

Copywriter Notice: No part of this article may be used without written permission of Jan Kinder.

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About Jan Kinder

Jan Kinder, RN, BA, HN-BC, HWNC-BC, CMT, a leader in the wellness paradigm and the healing arts, is a board-certified holistic nurse and health and wellness nurse coach, international speaker and author. Her private practice specializes in holistic stress solutions and resiliency, meditation and spiritual mentoring, and vibrational sound and color therapies. She is a transformational leader and among the first certified Chopra Center instructors. Ms. Kinder has been featured in publications like Palm Beach Illustrated, Travel and Leisure, Organic Spa, The Wall Street Journal and LA Confidential.

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