Stress vs Burnout: What's The Difference?
Sep 25, 2023, 10 min read
Most of us are familiar with stress, but it comes in varying levels of intensity depending on the individual person, the situation, and the coping strategies available. Burnout is often thought of as a type of stress, but what is the difference between the two?
If you’re wondering how to tell whether you are experiencing stress or burnout, and how to support others who may be experiencing them too, we’re diving into the topic here.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about stress and burnout, we’re here to help.
What is stress?
The World Health Organization defines stress as “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation”. Many of us will have felt this feeling before, as it is a typical response to pressure that triggers us to take action in order to eliminate the cause of the stress.
There are several different types of stress:
- Acute stress – This kind usually doesn’t last long. An example might be preparing for a big presentation at work.
- Chronic stress – This kind is long-term. An example might be a parent feeling constant stress while juggling all areas of life.
- Episodic acute stress – This kind is the same as acute stress, but it may recur over and over again. An example might be a challenging job role which means a person experiences a new bout of stress every week or so as project deadlines loom.
- Positive stress – This kind can be fun. An example might be planning a wedding.
All kinds of stress – even the positive ones – can take their toll on us, and everyone handles stressful experiences differently. It is this handling of stress that either keeps us in a positive mindset or sends us into a negative one.
Stress can cause us to feel negative emotions, such as:
- Irritability, anger or impatience
- Anxiety or fear
- An inability to enjoy oneself
- A loss of interest in life
- A loss of one’s sense of humour
We also now know that stress can be responsible for physical issues that may not seem to have an obvious connection, for example, headaches, upset stomachs, sleep disturbances, chronic pain and more. In extreme cases, studies have even found that excessive levels of stress hormones could promote carcinogenesis and prevent immune cells from controlling cancer cells, which suggests prolonged exposure to stress could lead to serious health concerns if left untreated.
Learning to cope with stress is key to feeling better mentally, avoiding any physical ailments, and improving our overall well being.
What is burnout?
The term ‘burnout’ was first used in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, when he described the symptoms of severe stress that certain professions experienced, particularly caring professions such as doctors or nurses. This research was reinforced by modern studies that suggest turnover and absence due to sickness in medical professions could be caused by burnout.
In today’s language, the term burnout refers to the stress felt in all professions, and applies to situations outside of work, too. For example, a parent to young children can experience burnout, or a student studying for exams. In general, it describes the consequences of feeling overwhelmed when taking on too much mentally or physically.
The symptoms of burnout are different for everyone, but they tend to include things like:
- Trouble focusing
- Feeling tired or drained most of the time
- Sleep problems
- Feeling detached or alone
- Becoming sick often due to poor immune function
- Feelings of depression or worthlessness
- Having self-doubt and a negative outlook
- A loss of interest in doing things you once enjoyed
Burnout is often considered to be a more extreme form of stress that can sometimes be deeply impactful and debilitating.
Can stress lead to burnout?
Research suggests that stress could lead to burnout, and vice versa. One study attempted to analyse whether or not job stress could cause burnout, and found that stress and burnout are actually mutually reinforcing, meaning they can both cause each other.
While it might seem more likely that ongoing stress will eventually lead to burnout, it is believed that burnout has a larger impact on stress. It is thought that as the level of a person’s burnout increases, as does the level of their stress.
Taking work stress as an example, you may be wondering if burnout can be caused by a work environment, the nature of the work, or the individual themselves, and it would seem that all three can influence burnout. For example, people in caring professions, as mentioned earlier, may experience burnout due to a mix of these reasons; a nurse working in a hospital may experience a stressful work environment (tending to accidents, etc.), emotionally draining activities (sharing negative test results with patients), and their own compassionate personality traits meaning they are more influenced by situations around them than others might be. When a number of these factors are present, they can lead to burnout.
How do you know if it’s stress or burnout?
As many of the symptoms of stress and burnout are the same or similar, it can be difficult to differentiate the two. There are a few ways you can tell them apart. Ask yourself:
- “Can I take an extended break from the situation?” – This could be a day off or a holiday that removes you from the source of your stress. You can diminish feelings of stress by taking some time away from the situation, but you cannot tackle burnout in this way. Therefore, if a break doesn’t help, you may be suffering from burnout.
- “Can I reduce my hours?” – As above, often reducing the number of hours spent handling the thing that is causing you stress can result in lower stress, but with burnout this is not possible.
- “Can I still cope with the pressures of daily life?” – If the answer is yes, you could be suffering from stress as many people can still function normally when going through a stressful period. If you are struggling to do this, you could be suffering from burnout.
- “Am I just tired, or am I tired of life?” – While stress may cause you to feel fatigued and a bit low, burnout can cause you to experience a sense of hopelessness about life, and that you are never going to alleviate the source of your burnout. Burnout can make even small tasks feel insurmountable.
It is extremely difficult to determine how much stress and burnout someone has, as the symptoms are different for everyone. However, there are a few scales and questionnaires that can help measure the level you may be experiencing. The most widely used burnout measuring tool is the Maslach Burnout Inventory-Human Services Survey which was developed to address burnout in people working in caring professions. However, remember that burnout can occur for anyone, in any occupation and from all walks of life.
Why is workplace stress a problem?
79% of people say they frequently feel work-related stress, making it the most common source of stress, followed by money stress and family stress. Also, according to Champion Health’s Workplace Health Report, 76% of employees report moderate-to-high or high levels of stress.
Some things that could cause work-related stress include a lack of control over the workload, strenuous demands on time and energy, a lack of clarity about responsibilities, challenging relationships with colleagues, and more. And as we know, stress can lead to burnout.
Research from Mental Health Foundation and YouGov found that 74% of people have felt overwhelmed or unable to cope, which would constitute burnout. This is a problem of course for the employee, whose mental health suffers as a result, but it is also a problem for the employer for a number of reasons. Burnout is directly attributed to low job satisfaction, low organisational commitment, absenteeism, performance issues, and more. It also affects turnover, as a 2018 survey found that 40% of employees said they were considering quitting their job due to the burnout they have experienced. It is estimated that in the UK 13.7 million work days are lost yearly due to work-related stress, anxiety and depression, which costs around £28.3 billion each year. Many companies are beginning to implement initiatives to help keep their employees stress-free and loyal to the company.
Burnout is a growing concern for certain individuals in specific career sectors that involve high demands, performance metrics, and careers with a low sense of personal accomplishment. Participants in one study reported that working conditions and management practices are also common causes of work stress, such as having unrealistic demands, lacking support, experiencing unfair treatment, and more.
How to spot stress and burnout in colleagues at work
There are a number of signs of stress you can look out for when interacting with your work colleagues, such as:
- They start taking more time off
- They are frequently late for work
- They appear more nervous than usual
- They are lacking motivation and confidence
- They seem to be experiencing mood swings
- They seem withdrawn when you try to talk to them
- They are having increased emotional reactions, such as being more teary or irritable
You may also notice the signs of a stressed team, such as more arguments, and complaints about colleagues.
How to approach a colleague you think is stressed or burned out
Whether you are an employee or a manager, you can bring up the topic of stress and burnout with colleagues if you think they may be experiencing this, as often the simple act of sharing the stress can kick-start them feeling better about it and finding solutions.
If you are a manager, it is your responsibility to communicate what is required of employees clearly, offer support where needed, advocate for their wellbeing, help them prioritise, and more. If you are going to approach a colleague to discuss this, it is best to find a quiet place where you can allow them to share their current feelings, and put together an action plan that will reassure them of their capabilities, delegate projects appropriately, and help them make the workload more manageable.
Try to listen to their reasons for feeling stressed and construct an action plan together so they feel involved and not just further put-upon.
How to prevent and minimise stress at work
Even better than creating an action plan after the fact is to prevent stress at work in the first place. Some tips that might help reduce stress and burnout in the workplace include:
- Training for employees – All types of training, from technical role-specific training to personal and social skills, can be helpful for improving an employee’s self-confidence and encouraging them to think differently about the issues that are causing stress.
- Work redesign – If a particular role within a job has been done the same way for years without change, it could help to adapt the objectives, tasks and day-to-day reality of that job in order to enrich the motivation and reward.
- Reduce stress exposure – When you have identified the source of stress in a job, if it cannot be eliminated entirely, look at ways you may be able to reduce the time in which an employee is exposed to it. For example, could you spread work more evenly throughout the team?
- Incorporate more work-life balance – It is easy to forget that all employees are humans first and human resources second. If something in their home life is the main source of their stress, and work is only adding to this, then allowing a better work-life balance may help. Could work patterns be adjusted to allow them to meet certain needs at home?
- Leadership development – Supervisors and line managers can influence an employee’s level of burnout in a positive or negative way due to their leadership style, so ensuring all managers are adequately trained (including yourself, if you are one) can make sure there is consistency in management style. Certain leadership styles, such as ‘authentic’, ‘transformational’ and ‘servant’ leadership styles, have been associated with decreased burnout.
- Monitor levels of stress and burnout – By implementing regular check-ins and asking employees how they are feeling, you can keep track of the times, situations and roles where employees experience most stress, and work to catch it early and reduce it.
- Reconsider shift work if your employees do this – constantly changing shifts has been thought to impact sleep, which could then affect work performance and make employees more vulnerable to stress. If it is possible to make shifts more consistent, do this. If not, think of ways you can support your employees so they are addressing the effects of shift work, for example, resources to help them improve their sleep.
- Reconnect employees to their purpose – It is believed that effective treatment of burnout works to enhance the sense of importance and significance in the work employees are doing. In other words, if they feel they are doing something meaningful, they are less likely to feel burned out doing it.
How to get support for stress at work
If you are feeling stress or burnout in your job, know that this is a common feeling that can be addressed, and you do not need to simply live with it on a long term basis. The solution often starts with speaking to your manager to discuss your workload or whatever it is that’s causing you stress. It is always best to do this in a calm, respectful way, and go in with suggestions for how you propose to solve the issue. Can you delegate some tasks to others? Can you try a new work pattern for a while to see if you notice a difference? Can you be put into a new team to see if you are more productive there?
There are always areas to improve, so speak to them openly and honestly about what you think would help. You may be surprised by how supportive they are if your shared goal is to be more productive.
Also, many organisations include counselling and therapy as part of their employee benefits. For example, at Augmentive we work with organisations to provide employees with access to personalised mental health support . It may be helpful to ask your HR department or manager if a service like ours is offered within the business.
You can empower your employees to take control of their mental health and performance by offering your employees access to Augmentive’s network of 900+ qualified practitioners. With a holistic network of specialists, on-demand ‘ask a therapist’ functions, quick and flexible booking, a dedicated account manager and much more, we offer a service for your employees that not only helps them maintain great mental health in the workplace, but ultimately maintains and improves the performance of your teams.
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from private psychiatric assessments and reviews to broader private mental health care.