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Stressed or Burnout - What is the difference?

Let's look at two cases together.

Case #1: Jane is a high school teacher who is feeling stressed because she has a lot of grading to catch up on after a busy week of teaching. She is feeling anxious and overwhelmed and is having trouble sleeping at night.

Case #2: John is a marketing manager who has been working long hours and dealing with a lot of pressure at work for several months. He is feeling emotionally exhausted, cynical about his job, and has lost interest in his work. He is also experiencing physical symptoms such as headaches and digestive issues.

They look similar, in particular the common experience of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, but Jane and John may be experiencing different responses to their work situation.

Stress and burnout are both related to the experience of feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, but they are distinct concepts with different causes, symptoms, and treatments. Stress is a normal response to challenging situations, and it can be both positive and negative. Positive stress, also known as eustress, can motivate and energize you, while negative stress, or distress, can lead to anxiety, irritability, and physical symptoms such as headaches and digestive issues. Burnout, on the other hand, is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. Burnout often arises from a prolonged experience of chronic stress that is not effectively managed or addressed. Burnout is characterized by feelings of emotional exhaustion, cynicism or detachment from work, and reduced professional efficacy.

To continue with the story, Jane decides to take a day off to catch up on her grading and practice some relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and yoga. After taking some time to rest and recharge, she is able to return to work feeling refreshed and ready to tackle her workload. Her stress was due to a specific situation and was manageable through self-care and relaxation techniques. On the other hand, John, despite trying to take some time off to rest, was unable to shake the feeling that he is burnt out. He had been under prolonged stress and pressure. He decides to seek support from a therapist and make some changes in his work environment, such as delegating more tasks and setting clearer boundaries around his workload.

The message to take away is to increase your awareness of where your stress level is at. Stress and burnout, though, different concepts, are on a spectrum. One can easily shift from mild to moderate to chronic stress and eventually burnout. Check in with yourself regularly, notice warning signs, and intervene where appropriate. Get in touch if you want to know more.


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