Stress and burnout are concerning - especially regarding our work lives. A recent Deloitte study found that 91% of people say that having an unmanageable amount of stress negatively impacts the quality of their work. Additionally, 77% say they’ve experienced burnout at their current job, with more than half citing more than one occurrence.
But is there a difference between stress and burnout? Is burnout a kind of stress? Is stress at work always bad? And what can be done about both? In this article, we look at what the research says about the difference between stress and burnout, and how to prevent chronic stress from becoming burnout.
What is burnout? What is stress?
In 1974, psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first coined the term “burnout” - which he said usually occurs within the context of work - to mean emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and feelings of inefficiency or lack of accomplishment. His studies found that burnout diminishes productivity and ultimately leads to a lesser quality of work.
Stress is a physical or mental response to any external cause. A stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can happen repeatedly over a long time (chronic stress). Stress can be a negative factor (scientists call this dysfunctional stress) or a positive one (called functional stress or eustress).
Surprised about that last part? Yes, stress can be good - in the right context. The American Psychological Association defines functional stress as “stress that involves optimal levels of stimulation resulting from challenging but attainable, enjoyable or worthwhile tasks. It has a beneficial effect by generating a sense of fulfillment or achievement and facilitating growth, mastery, and high levels of performance.” So for example, functional stress can help you perform better in an athletic event or get a job done more quickly at work.
When too much stress becomes burnout
However, if stress interferes with your everyday life, causes you to avoid doing things you normally like, or seems to be always present, you may have tipped the scales over into burnout. A recent research review suggests burnout is on the extreme far end of the stress continuum. When you are stressed, although it may feel miserable, you can still take steps to cope with pressures. But once burnout takes hold, you’re emotionally fatigued and have more than likely given up hope of overcoming obstacles. You have less ability to cope with regular stress. Your interests and motivation dry up, and you may fail to meet even the smallest obligations.
Here are additional symptoms of burnout:
- Lowered immunity to illness
- Withdrawal from coworkers and social situations
- Job absenteeism and inefficiency
- Sleep deprivation
- Foggy thinking and trouble concentrating
- Lack of joy
Recent research on the relationship between stress and burnout found that work stress and burnout are mutually reinforcing; however, the effect of work stress on burnout is smaller than the effect of burnout on work stress. This means that the more severe a person's burnout becomes, the more stressed they’ll feel at work.
Try these tactics for keeping burnout in check
Bottom line, don’t let negative stress tip over into burnout if you can help it. Experts suggest these self-care tips for keeping burnout in check:
- Focus on very short-term and realistic goals and wins
- Make time for yourself
- Take a break from the situation, if at all possible
- Exercise, and make sure you are eating healthy, regular meals
- Stick to a sleep routine, and make sure you are getting enough sleep
- Avoid drinking excess caffeine
- Identify and challenge negative and unhelpful thoughts
- Reach out to friends or family who help you cope in a positive way
If none of these tactics work, speaking with a mental health professional is your next step before you experience severe burnout. They can help you develop new coping skills and provide a safe space to vent. They may suggest trying a combination of medication with your therapy. Each person is unique and will respond differently to each technique. Your therapist can help you find the right combination for you.
Journal Personality and Individual Differences: Stress and burnout: The significant difference
NIH: Work Stress and Burnout Among Nurses: Role of the Work Environment and Working Conditions
Frontiers in Psychology (Journal): Is Burnout Primarily Linked to Work-Situated Factors? A Relative Weight Analytic Study