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Are You Stressed or Burned Out?

Understand what burnout is, what causes it, and how to prevent it.

Key points

  • Stress and burnout are closely related, but there are key differences between the two.
  • Recognising the signs of burnout can help you make positive changes.
  • Learning how to manage your stress and complete the stress cycle can help prevent burnout.

Burnout has become a modern-day epidemic and is an alarmingly common occurrence in workplaces that are increasingly fast-paced, complex, and demanding more of people than ever before. Not only that, but technology has significantly blurred the lines between home life and work life, making it much harder to switch off in any meaningful way.

Add in an 18-month pandemic that has driven us into our homes and onto our devices, increasing the already overwhelming juggle and skyrocketing our stress, and the flames of burnout have been fanned like never before—particularly for women. In fact, we are seeing unprecedented levels of burnout amongst professional women.

It’s important to understand what burnout is, what causes it, how you can spot if you’re on the verge of it, and how you might prevent it. If you’re already burnt out, getting the right tools to recover from burnout and reverse its effects is essential to being able to live not only a normal life, but one in which you can thrive. It’s also critical to differentiate between stress and burnout, as the actions, just like the symptoms, can be different and require their own responses.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. According to the original definition of burnout, first coined in 1975 by Herbert Freudenberger, it features three key components:

  • Emotional exhaustion—the fatigue that comes from caring too much, for too long.
  • Depersonalisation—the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion.
  • Decreased sense of accomplishment—an unconquerable sense of futility; the feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.

What Emily and Amelia Nagoski found in researching their book, Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle, is that burnout tends to manifest differently for men and women. According to a study on the gender differences in burnout, whilst men experience more of the depersonalisation of burnout, women will often find themselves feeling more emotionally exhausted.

Regardless of which component of burnout you relate to more, what we know is that burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. When you’re burnt out, you’ll likely feel that you have nothing more to give.

Equally as important as defining burnout, is pointing out what it is not. Burnout is not classified as a medical condition. It is not a diagnosis or a mental illness. Whilst there can be elements of burnout that overlap with depression, anxiety, grief and rage, burnout is none of these things. It is a condition that results from significant stress.

Stress vs. Burnout: Understanding the Difference

Stress and burnout are closely related, but there are key differences between the two. This is important because there are different strategies to address each area, so your starting point clarity is critical. Let’s look at the differences between stress and burnout. Whilst burnout is the result of unrelenting stress, it isn’t the same thing as too much stress.

When you’re experiencing too much stress, you will likely feel a lot of pressure to get things done urgently. This pressure can cause you to feel nervous, anxious, and even hyperactive. When you’re really stressed, you could get completely consumed by the task at hand because you believe that if you can get a handle on it and get things under control, you’ll feel better. We all know what that completion urgency feels like. This, of course, can deplete your energy and lead to other negative physical symptoms.

On the other hand, when you’re burnt out, you no longer feel an urgent need to act quickly and get things under control. By the time you’re burnt out, you generally feel empty, mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation and beyond caring. Burnout is characterised by a feeling of hopelessness. It’s a sense that no matter what you do, it will never be enough.

Making Sense of Where You're At

If you identify with stress ... the key for you will be taking active steps to prevent burnout. The key to preventing burnout is twofold. The first is recognising what the signs of burnout are so you can make positive changes. The second is learning how to manage your stress and complete the stress cycle so that it doesn’t lead to burnout.

If you identify with burnout ... the next steps for you are to focus on recovering from burnout, reversing its effects, and then learning how to prevent future episodes.