Burnout is insidious.  Its causes –chronic stress chief among them – are cumulative and it’s easy not to realize burnout is happening.  In other words, it can be difficult to know where stress stops and burnout starts.

But the main difference between burnout and stress is that burnout is characterized by ‘not enough’ and stress by ‘too much’.  Here’s what I mean:                                                                                                

Stress Burnout
TOO MUCH  (eg pressure) NOT ENOUGH (feeling empty, beyond caring, devoid of motivation)
Over-engagement Disengagement
Emotions over-react Emotions are blunted
Urgency and hyper-activity Helplessness and hopelessness
Anxiety Depression, detachment, loss of ideals
Risk of premature death Life seems not worth living
Primary damage is physical Primary damage is emotional
You may be aware of what’s happening You may not be aware of what’s happening

Stress is inevitable in life and a reasonable degree of it can be productive but when there’s too much of it for a long time it can lead to burnout.  While you can have stress without burnout you can’t have burnout without stress.  And burnout, unlike stress, is classed as a disorder.  If you’re feeling helpless, demoralized, cynical and constantly exhausted and if it feels like everything is a mountain to climb and it’s hard even to care, you may be suffering from burnout.

More symptoms of burnout

There are physical and emotional indicators of burnout.  The physical ones may include the permanent tiredness already mentioned plus increased frequency of illness, aches and pains, difficulty in sleeping (less than six hours a night is a risk factor) and not eating enough or eating and drinking too much of the wrong things.

Among the emotional indicators are a lack of motivation and enthusiasm.  You may feel like you have to drag yourself into work and you may be aware that your job performance is declining.  There may be resentment at or avoidance of demands placed on you, a feeling of failure, a pessimistic outlook and a sense of being trapped.  Detachment, withdrawal and isolation may occur, together with irritability, frustration and argumentativeness.  There may be difficulties concentrating and making decisions as well as memory problems.  Overall, life seems heavy going and no fun.

Causes of burnout

A classic cause is being overworked and undervalued.  Other factors may include not having control over your work, doing relentlessly boring work, working in a disorganized or very pressurized context and giving insufficient time to personal relationships and recreation.  Link all these to a tendency for perfectionism, control and thrusting success and you may have the ingredients of a perfect storm.

Combatting burnout

Fortunately burnout is reversible but first you need to be aware that it’s occurring.  Sometimes a change of job would be the ideal solution – doing something you love.  But you may already be doing something you love and if you’re not it’s not always possible to up sticks and move on.  So it may be a case of finding new ways of approaching the work you currently do.  That may involve:  getting better at organizing and prioritizing your work and better at planning your time so you’re back in control; increasing delegation; learning to set reasonable boundaries for yourself including saying ‘no’ politely; improving relationships and making friends at work to relieve stress; and finding greater value in what you do – eg seeing how an even apparently mundane end product of your organization can make a real difference to people.


Above all, finding a balance of work and relaxation is essential.  Time off in each day, in each week and in holidays is essential for human beings not a luxury.  Adequate sleep is a critical part of that and so is exercise.  And all of it without guilt.  Cemeteries are full of indispensable people.

Social contact

We all need individuals around us who we can be ourselves with so try and find at least one person who’s a good listener and to whom you can really talk.  It has a calming effect.  If you have a partner, children or friends, try and increase the time you spend with them and enjoy yourself.


Really important, this.  Do the things that refresh, delight, fulfil and amuse you.  They can be hobbies you’ve neglected or ventures you’ve always wanted to try out.

What are your goals?

The online Mind Tools Editorial Team make the excellent recommendation that someone facing burnout should reassess their personal goals.  They write:  ‘Burnout can occur when your work is out of alignment with your values or when it’s not contributing to your long-term goals.  You can also experience … burnout if you have no idea what your goals are.’  They suggest identifying your values, thinking about what gives meaning to your work and using this to ‘give you a deeper understanding of what you find most important’ and to ‘show which elements … are missing from your life or work’.

That fundamental advice means taking the floorboards up.  But it might be worth it.


Related pages which may be of interest

All stressed up and nowhere to go