stress and burnout

When are you ‘burnt out’ instead of just tired or stressed?

stress and burnout

When are you ‘burnt out’ instead of just tired or stressed?

We all go through periods where stress is constant. During these times it is natural to feel more fatigued, out of sorts, short tempered and that life is less ‘rosy’. During these periods we might have more trouble connecting to those we care about and stop wanting to socialise. Our sleep may become disrupted and our focus and concentration harder to maintain.

You know that chocolate bar or bottle of wine that previously you could we give or take? During times of stress we are more prone to seek out comfort as our self control is weakened by the stress we are experiencing.

So what is the difference between burnout and stress?

The term ‘burnout’ has been reclassified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. This clearly makes the connection between ‘work’ and the experience of ‘burnout’ as a work based syndrome caused by chronic stress.

Burnout used to be classified as a problem related to life management. This is understandable given the impact it has on all areas of life – personal and professional. The problem with the previous label is that it was not pointed enough to reflect the source of stress and the associated work environment. This previous classification may have also failed to accurately reflected the responsibility that employers have to help mitigate the effects of stress associated with the workplace and instead transferred or apportioned the blame more broadly.

The distinction I would like to make is that the ‘workplace’ can be classified as anywhere you work regardless of location or number of people.

Therefore it includes not only workplaces that involve large numbers of people or big organisations but also those of us who work for ourselves or even by themselves. This is often missed as a valid distinction and therefore may mean smaller businesses dismiss the idea of burnout.

Burnout is associated with chronic stress which implies a high degree of stress over an extended period of time. This can occur regardless of where you work, what you do or how many people you do it with.

It is my experience that self employed and small business owners ignore symptoms of stress because they feel they have to. With only themselves or small teams to support them there is little to no backup. Additionally, they have fewer people around them to check in with as a sort of ‘compare and contrast’ for their feelings. This is a very unhealthy situation.

Stress becomes burnout due to the length of time you have been experiencing high levels of stress associated with your work.

Below is the WHO definition for burnout:

‘Burn-out is 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.

It is easy to see how we might ignore considering the more serious syndrome of burnout and relegate our feelings to simple tiredness, going through a difficult period or stress.

The problem with trying to decide for ourselves whether we are experiencing stress or more seriously burnout include the following dilemmas:

  • we are unlikely to want to admit we are not coping or that things are as difficult as they are – the ‘I will be fine’ approach
  • when we are busy experiencing life and things are hard it is particularly difficult to have perspective,
  • we tend to have extremely high expectations of ourselves – the ‘I just need to toughen up’ approach.

Sometimes we are not the best person to be assessing ourselves.

Dr. Evangelia Demerouti developed the Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (OLBI), which was used to develop a questionnaire about burnout. This is a great way to remove our critical bias and let the objectivity of a questionnaire do the heavy lifting.

If you think you might in fact be suffering from burnout do not ignore it. We are all well aware of the negative health impacts of stress. However burnout takes a more serious toll on our nervous system. If not attended to can lead to complex impacts on our mental and emotional wellbeing. The longer it is left, ignored or avoided the more delayed the healing and recovery process.

If you work for an employer your workplace may be able to support you through this process. If you work for yourself and suspect you may be suffering from burnout do not delay getting professional guidance. Many of my previous blogs also offer insight into healthy self care practices to mitigate both stress and burnout.

You can build your resilience to burnout by setting non-negotiable boundaries around work hours, work load, work responsibilities and thinking about work. This is not easy to do. For some it is a skill that is learned only after the impacts of stress and burnout are high.

Don’t be that person, put your mental health first.

Make your wellbeing an absolute necessity if you wish to avoid or recover from burnout.


Dr Linda Wilson is a Mindflow Mentor, Author and Presenter. From neuroscience to energy psychology, habits change to emotional management – let’s have a chat about you, your team or your business. Are you looking to find your way through, around or over something? Are you in need of a course correction and need support?

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WHO definition of burnout:

Burnout questionnaire: