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We often claim to be so very busy, off our feet, but is it chronic stress or is it burnout? We all suffer from stress from time to time but when stress becomes burnout, it is more problematic. Stress and burnout are common and we need to address them before they escalate and negatively impact our whole life including our physical and mental health.

Stress and burnout are closely related and yet they are very different. Stress management techniques don’t necessarily work entirely, for dealing with burnout. In this article, we will explore the differences and why it matters to successfully deal with burnout.

When does stress become burnout?
You started this job enthusiastically. This was the job you wanted. You had high expectations of yourself and you committed yourself to achieve it. At the start you were engaged, there was a lot to do and you did it, you handled the demands, you worked hard.  But after a while you started having doubts, you became cynical about the value of your work, you became critical of your colleagues, you felt inadequate and the workload was overwhelming. So, when did stress end and burnout begin?
The experience of stress is everywhere. Stress can come from our workplace where there are too many demands, or from our home life with family responsibilities or sickness.  We all have our own way of dealing with stress to overcome our challenges. But when we are exposed to stress for a long period of time, it becomes chronic stress if unchecked, it can lead to symptoms of burnout. The difference between stress and burnout is not clear cut and it can be difficult to know where stress end and burnout begins. We know that burnout is the accumulation of built-up stress over a period of time. Burnout is definitely more problematic psychologically and physically.

Is the stress burning you out?
When we talk about feeling stressed, we usually mean the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual impact of an ongoing challenging situation. We feel stressed when we feel an overload of demands: too much work to do and not enough time. As a consequence, we can take on the challenge and become over-involved emotionally believing that if we could just do more, be better, we could ease the stress.   The more demands, the more we respond by working harder, trying to meet the challenge, but also creating tension and worry in the process. So, we recognize the stress and decide to manage it by calming our mind and body. We choose a healthy lifestyle and a good work-life balance: we eat well, sleep well, think well,  exercise, belly breathe, meditate, practice gratitude, talk to a friend, socialise, do something we love and so on. These strategies work because they reduce our stress by reducing the built up of tension and anxiety. These strategies may help also in alleviating burnout, but sometimes they are not enough.

Stress can look very much like burnout. The feeling of stress over a long period of time may develop symptoms of anxiety which then can lead to burnout where we may begin to experience symptoms of depression. It can be as follow:

Challenge => Stress => more stress => a lot of stress => too much stress =>anxiety => burnout=> depression

Above you can see that stress accumulates, it can lead to burnout after a period of time. It is important to say that not all stressful situation cause burnout. One can stay in the stress mode for a long period of time, without becoming burnout. Stress is not so much a maladaptive condition but once in we are in the burnout mode we become dysfunctional. When we are in an advanced phase of burnout, we feel depressed and we begin to feel that we are not the person that we used to be or want to be.

So what is burnout?

Burnout was originally defined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberg as, “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.” When we burn out, we pull out emotionally from our work or relationship, that is we become disheartened, unmotivated, feeling exhausted. We disengaged from what we use to care about. We withdraw from our relationships, from our work, and even from ourselves, which can make way for feelings of depression and isolation.

We spend a great deal of time working each day.  Therefore, if we hate our job, dread going to work and feel dissatisfied about what we are doing, it follows that our physical and mental health will be impacted. We need to recognise the difference in ourselves between stress and burnout, so we can manage each one in our lives more effectively. Burnout shares some similar symptoms of mental health conditions. Individuals suffering from burnout are at greater risk of suffering from depression which impacts all aspects of their life at home as well as at work.  Burnout can include depression symptoms such as loss of interest, low motivation, poor sleep, feelings of hopelessness, cognitive and physical symptoms, even causing thoughts of suicide.

How to Tell if You Have Reached the Point of Burnout?

Do you struggle to cope?
Do you often feel exhausted, empty?
Do you feel cynical about your work?
Do you doubt the value of your role?
Do you feel increasingly unable to cope with demands?
Do you identify less and less with your role?
Are you are enjoying your work less and less?
Are you feeling dissatisfied with your work?
Are you critical of your performance?
Do you find it difficult to get on with your colleagues at work?
Do you feel unsupported by the higher management?

Signs and Symptoms

Here are common signs of burnout:

•    Disengaging from work-related activities: job is increasingly stressful and frustrating,
•    Being cynical about our role, devaluing our efforts and being critical of co-workers.
•    Physical symptoms: insomnia, headaches and intestinal issues.
•    Emotional exhaustion: feelings drained, unable to cope, and tired all the time.
•    Reduced performance at work and at home: affects everyday tasks at work but also less caring about family members.
•    Negative views of ourselves, others and our future.
•    Cognitively impaired; low concentration and motivation

Experiencing large amounts of stress is a valid reason to seek out assistance from a psychologist. However, if it is burnout, it is much more important to seek out professional help before the symptoms escalate to become depression.  Whether you are feeling stressed, fatigued, or burnout, your GP or a psychologist can help you with an assessment and treatment.

Risk Factors

A high-stress job doesn't necessarily lead to burnout.  But some people and those in certain occupations are at a higher risk than others such as medical practitioners, nurses, social workers, psychologists, school teachers, school principals, lawyers, police officers, paramedics, firefighters, fast food and retail workers. If you work in a workplace where there is a high volume of demand, pressure on time and poor support from your peers or managers, there is a risk of chronic stress and burnout.

Cause of burnout
There are many factors that can contribute to burnout such as chronic stress due to a period of high volume of demands at work.  In addition, stress from our personal lifestyle can add to this, such as the stress of having children, caring for sick parents or a difficult relationship at home. Other factors such as personality characteristics like being overly critical of ourselves, blaming others, having unrealistic expectations or being a perfectionism and pessimism, can contribute as well.

Summing up here are common causes of chronic stress and burnout

•    Unreasonable time pressure.
•    Lack of communication and support from colleagues and manager.
•    Lack of role clarity and consistency of duties
•    Unmanageable workload.
•    Experience of trauma or vicarious trauma
•    Unfair treatment
•    Perfectionistic attitudes
•    Pessimistic outlook
•    Unrealistic expectations
•    Being overly critical of ourselves and others
•    Responsibilities outside work
•    Conflict at home

Prevention and Treatment

Since chronic stress can lead to burnout, as we said, stress management techniques can be helpful in dealing with burnout. But sometimes there is not enough time left in the day to do them. When we feel burnout, we begin to feel depleted, tired, hopeless and stuck, so it may be increasingly difficult to begin to engage in a healthy and balanced lifestyle. The motivation and energy may have left us, to even help ourselves. In a burnout state of mind, we may find that thinking of doing more of anything is completely overwhelming, even if we know that it would be good for us. So, then we feel even more frustrated, guilty and helpless, feeling a failure. We can dig ourselves into a hole and not know how to get out.

The way out is to rebuild ourselves starting with modifying our frame of mind and perspective. We can begin to explore different ways to think and to relate to ourselves. By becoming more present in our lives and beginning to befriend ourselves in a supportive and compassionate way we can restore our sense of wellbeing and resilience. There are many strategies in Mindfulness, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Acceptance Commitment Therapy and Compassion-Focused Therapy that can help us to improve our state of mind to enable us to find more satisfaction in our lives.

Burnout is reversible, you can “unburn” yourself. You can keep the flame alive without burning yourself. A holiday and time away can offer some temporary relief, but a week away is not enough to help you beat burnout permanently.  Often, a change in the work situation or taking on a new position or a new job may help reverse the symptoms.  What is most helpful is to look at the psychological cause of the burnout and make changes at that level to alleviate and prevent burnout.

There are many  “unhelpful thinking habits” that can cause the experience of chronic stress or burnout, so by adopting a new mindset, we can build our emotional resources. It is beneficial to develop clear strategies, specially adapted to your lifestyle, that will help you to manage stress and burnout. Self-care strategies, like eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercises, and engaging in healthy sleep habits can help reduce some of the effects of a high-stress job but also cognitive re-structuring, gratitude, mindfulness and self-compassion will increase our capacities to meet challenges.

If you are experiencing burnout and you're having difficulty finding your way out, or you suspect that you may also have a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression, it is recommended to seek professional help. You can go to your GP for an assessment or contact a psychologist to uncover strategies that will help you to overcome stress and burnout so you can be at your best.