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What is the Difference Between Stress and Burnout?

In today’s world, stress and burnout surround us all. Both come from all angles; work, relationships, family, finances, physical health, and mental health. You name it, and it can probably cause someone some stress! Everyone has their own ways of dealing with stress and burnout at their own pace, but it’s important to know the differences between each, as they are very different. Below is a breakdown of both stress and burnout and how to prevent each from causing a major disturbance in our everyday lives. 

What is Burnout?

Burnout is defined as the exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation, usually because of stress or frustration over long periods of time. Burnout is often synonymous with stress as it relates to the workplace, and compassion fatigue among helping professionals, like healthcare workers and first responders. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) added burnout to the International Classification of Diseases, due to the severe consequences and its global health concern. 

There are many causes of burnout, and most include the lack of basic things set in place for people to thrive at work. This includes workload, lack of control, no rewards or recognition, poor working relationships, and unfair treatment. Additionally, certain people with certain personality traits and characteristics may experience burnout more frequently than others. 

What is Stress?

Stress is a physiological response to challenges or threats, which evoke our fight-or-flight instincts. This kind of response is an instinctual connection from your brain, telling your body whether you should fight or run to protect yourself when facing a stressor. Some people can confuse stress with burnout, and while there are many similarities, the two are not inherently the same. 

There are also different types of stress we can experience in our lifetime, and can typically be narrowed down into three categories. You can experience acute stress, which is short-term and usually triggered by being nervous about an event or preparing for an exam. You can also experience chronic stress, which is more long-term, like worrying about finances. Then you can experience eustress, a positive type of stress that comes with breaking out of your comfort zone, but in a good way. 

Burnout v. Stress 

The two terms seem to go hand-in-hand, however, there are some distinct differences. Stress is having too much on your plate, including feeling like there’s too much to handle, too many responsibilities, or too many hours spent working. With stress, it is often more mental than physical and has to do with being constantly overwhelmed.

Burnout is the accumulation of unchecked and unmonitored stress over a period of time. All you feel is drained, no motivation to do anything, not enough energy, and not enough care to change those things. Burnout can be more physical than mental, as you can experience a lack of energy and constantly being tired. While stress is also a very common feeling among us all, burnout is the older, meaner brother of the two. 

How to Prevent Stress and Burnout

Job stress may be unavoidable, but burnout can be preventable. Exercising daily, eating a balanced diet, and getting good rest every night can be beneficial to giving you some peace of mind. Setting boundaries at work can also help prevent burnout and help take some pressure off of your everyday role; without feeling guilty or disappointed when those boundaries are set.  

Additionally, see my E-book, The Compassion Conundrum: Strategies for First Responders and Service Providers to Prevent Compassion Fatigue, where I discuss the differences between stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue. 

  1. Source: Craig Dike (2022) Stress vs. Burnout - What’s the Difference?

  1. Source: Jill Suttie (2021) Six Causes of Burnout at Work

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