What Is The Difference Between Burnout and Stress?
Have you ever asked yourself this question?
For most folks, you probably haven’t – and that’s a great thing to realize! It means that you most likely have never been in a place where you needed to know the difference.
For the rest of us though – it was most likely learned….
-You’ve realized it after you came out of burnout
-You were told you were burnt out by someone in your life (a professional or other person)
-Maybe you googled your symptoms
-You watched someone you love experience it
-You are going through it right now and are looking for help
No matter how you have come to learn about burnout, chances are, you might benefit from knowing a bit more about it, and what to do about it. Plus, it is always helpful to know how it looks different from stress, so that you can support yourself if you end up heading toward burnout again.
So what is Burnout?
The World Health Organization defines Burnout as:
a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- 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
Now workplace is anywhere you are conducting work:
Burnout is the place we can get to when the stress level in our job is too high, for too long, and we can no longer sustain the capacity at which we were working.
So how is Burnout different from Stress?
Burnout and stress can look and feel very similar, so it’s natural that there might be confusion on how they are different.
Stress is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as:
- A response to an external cause, such as taking a big test or arguing with a friend.
- Goes away once the situation is resolved.
- Can be positive or negative. For example, it may inspire you to meet a deadline, or it may cause you to lose sleep.
- You may experience symptoms such as:
- Excessive worry
- Headaches or body pain
- High blood pressure
- Loss of sleep
Stress is a natural response our body has in response to a threat. It is helpful to motivate us to move, and keeps us safe.
What isn’t helpful, is when we are experiencing a lot of stress over a long period of time, without any real break or reprieve. We may not even know when the expectations of the job will be over, and it may seem as though there is no immediate ‘end in sight’.
So this is where you might find yourself mentally ‘checking out’ for longer periods of time. You might feel constantly exhausted, with no amount of sleep making it better. You might be making more mistakes, or forgetting important things. It may be that you even start to think or speak negatively about the role you are fulfilling.
Burnout is a lot. And it needs a lot of change to get better.
Ok, so what can I do about it?
As with all mental health, the first step is learning to recognize the signs. Are you experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above?
Once you can name the concerns you are having, now you need to figure out the source. This might seem like a no-brainer, but naming the source and admitted to yourself (and others) what is causing burnout, means you can start problem solving the issues. Because burnout is not something that is wrong with you- it is something that is happening to you.
Start to figure out what can be changed immediately. The importance here is to figure out what are some quick and even small steps you can take to change what is happening for you. For example, giving tasks back to others instead of trying to do everything yourself. Will it be done to your standard? Maybe not, but if it can still get done, then it is one less thing you have to try to squeeze in your limited time.
Talk to your supports. Share your concerns and struggles with those who are supportive. Utilize these folks to help brain storm other ways you can get support and share the load of what you are trying to manage. *Talking to a counsellor is very helpful here as they are not involved in the current situation bringing on your burnout.
Look at your options. Do you have to keep doing this role? Can you change something about it? Is there a time limit you can see and work within?
Set boundaries with yourself and others. Do what you can and have agreed to do, hold firm (even to yourself) on not taking on more. Delegate other needs to folks or services available. You may even need to prioritize tasks and leave what is not a priority.
Prioritize your well-being. This means giving yourself compassion for what you are going through, have gone through, and are about to go through. It means committing to self-care: move your body daily, spend time with your favourite people or animals, go to bed early without finishing all the chores in the house, get back to your hobbies, and at the bare minimum – take the time you need to get your basic needs accomplished. And, if you want to fill your cup up the fastest: do fun things! Whatever it is that makes you smile or laugh or simply enjoy doing – do as many of those as you want.
Take home message:
Burnout is stress that has been pushed too far. And the way to get better: is to let go of what you can and add as much fun as possible back into your life as soon as possible.
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photo cred: Naomi August