Experiencing stress at work is inevitable; in fact, a certain amount of stress can be helpful to motivate us to get things done. However excessive amounts of stress can be detrimental and lead down a path towards burnout and depression.
So how do you know when stress is leading – or has progressed – to burnout?
Psychological burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, characterised by emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and reduced personal accomplishment (1).
Whilst burnout is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is a useful concept in describing the major characteristics of many employees with work-related chronic stress (2).
Burnout is progressive. It begins as a stress reaction which can easily turn into burnout if this stress is not effectively managed. Burnout causes impaired cognitive function (attention and memory), is associated with depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and physical symptoms and is linked to increased job turnover, absenteeism and sick leave (3).
Once stress has progressed to psychological burnout, it is more difficult to fight. For this reason, it is important to recognise when you are feeling stressed and do something about it, in order to avoid burning out.
Stress is a normal physical reaction that occurs when you feel threatened or overwhelmed (4), and the signs and symptoms of stress vary from person to person. Listed below are some common symptoms of stress (5):
- Headaches, chest pain or muscle tension;
- Upset stomach, indigestion, diarrhoea;
- Sleep disturbances, insomnia, fatigue;
- Memory problems, thoughts of escaping or running away;
- Confusion, irritability, increased fear of failure;
- Over-sensitivity or frustration;
- Arguing with people;
- Isolating yourself from others;
- Feeling overwhelmed;
- Difficulty concentrating.
The Difference between Stress and Burnout
So what is the difference between stress and burnout? The table below (4) outlines some of the main differences to be aware of.
How to Manage Stress
The best way to treat burnout is to prevent it, by recognising when you are stressed and implementing stress management strategies. Some ways of doing this are:
- Looking after yourself by getting enough sleep, exercising, eating well, reducing caffeine and sugar and not self-medicating.
- Prioritising, having realistic expectations, re-framing problems and expressing your feelings.
- Improving time management, connecting with others, scheduling time for work and recreation activities.
- Relaxation strategies, such as a warm bath, using aromatherapy or keeping a journal.
- Seeing a psychologist or counsellor to debrief regarding stressors, and improve coping strategies.
How to treat Burnout
Whilst it is more difficult to treat burnout, it is definitely not impossible. The same strategies that you use to combat stress can be applied to managing burnout.
In addition to this, connecting with other people is one of the best ways to reduce the impact of burnout (4). Making sure that you nurture your closest relationships (for example, those with your partner, children, or closest friends), developing casual relationships with people at your workplace, and practicing healthy communication are all positive ways to deal with burnout.
Engaging in psychotherapy is another way in which you can develop strategies to manage the effect of burnout. Studies have found that individuals experiencing burnout who received psychological treatment reported feeling less emotionally exhausted, had fewer physical and mental complaints, and reported a decrease in cognitive failure compared to before engaging in treatment (2).
Psychological burnout, like stress, is better dealt with than ignored. By acknowledging signs and symptoms, and implementing strategies to manage them, you can prevent or overcome burnout and enjoy work again.
Author: Amanda Hansen, B Psych, MAPS.
Amanda Hansen is a psychologist with nearly a decade of experience in working with adults, adolescents, and couples experiencing a range of life challenges such as stress, depression and burnout. Amanda is passionate about helping her clients develop therapeutic goals, and working together to achieve lasting change.
To make an appointment, freecall 1800 877 924 or you can book Amanda Hansen online now.
- Maslach, C., Jackson, S.E., & Leiter, M.P. (1996). Maslach Burnout Inventory. In C.P. Zalaquett & R.J. Woods (Eds.), Evaluating Stress: A book of resources (pp. 191-218). Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press.
- Oosterholt, B., Van der Linden, D. (2012). Burned out cognition – cognitive functioning of burnout patients before and after a period with psychological treatment. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, 38.4: 358-69
- Soares, J., Grossi, G., & Sundin, O. (2007). Burnout among women: associations with demographic, socio-economic, work, life-style, and health factors. Archive of Womens Mental Health, 10: 61-71.
- Smith, M., Segal, J., & Segal, R. (2014. Preventing Burnout: signs, symptoms, causes, and coping strategies. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/preventing-burnout.htm
- The Australian Psychological Society. (2012). Understanding and Managing Stress. Retrieved from http://www.psychology.org.au/Assets/Files/StressTipSheet.pdf