Stress helps us to respond to the challenges we face, and most people experience manageable, if higher, levels during crises. When the challenges don’t let up though, stress goes beyond manageable levels. We need to become better at noticing stress, reducing overwork and increasing wellbeing at work to prevent chronic stress and burnout.
One way to do that is to understand the difference between ‘stress’ and ‘burnout’: they are not the same, even though the terms are often used interchangeably. How we understand them makes a difference to how to best respond to each.
Real definition of stress
We automatically react to stressful situations – such as feeling uncertain about what will happen next, getting irritated in a traffic jam and rushing from one meeting to get to the next on time – with a fight-or-flight response. This is a highly adaptive response that serves to protect us from harm.
Under threat, a network of brain structures, nerves and hormones is automatically activated to prepare us to avoid it. A surge of hormones boosts the body’s alertness and heart rate to prime us for action. Adrenaline is the first hormone surge, and it triggers the sweating, rapid heartbeat and short breaths that we associate with stress.
The more often stress is experienced, and the more stressors that cause it, the greater its potential to become chronic. Chronic stress means that we maintain our alertness, we don’t relax even after the threat has gone away: we may remain in fight-or-flight mode without realising it. People experiencing chronic stress have more intensely negative reactions, and they last longer.
There are many causes of stress in everyday life, such as disrupted sleep, arguing with a spouse or family member, getting stuck in traffic, being late for an appointment, being angry at a specific person, watching others yell or shout, or worrying about something that might not turn out well. And of course, the uncertainty and disruption of the pandemic have been major stressors for many.
Real definition of burnout
Burnout is chronic stress caused by a mismatch between a person and their work. It applies specifically to chronic stress that results from workplace stressors that are not successfully managed.
The term ‘burnout’ was first coined in the 1970s, when Herbert Freudenberger and Christina Maslach began writing about its prevalence among mental health workers.
"Burnout negatively affects mood, learning and memory."
In 2019, the World Health Organization recognised burnout as an official diagnosis, which is characterised 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.
Often the term burnout is used as if it were interchangeable with ‘exhaustion’, which it’s not. The three elements interact with each other; as you feel more worn out, you have less effort to contribute, which leaves you feeling less effective, contributing to increased burnout. Burnout negatively affects mood, learning and memory.
Maslach and fellow researcher Michael Leiter point out that burnout is not an individual health problem: the term was created to highlight workplace issues so as to encourage employers to support the health and wellbeing of their workforce. It’s helpful to keep this distinction between burnout and stress clear, so as not to burden individuals with the responsibility of fixing workplace issues that require management attention.
Burnout reduces people’s ambitions, aspirations and sense of worth, and it interferes with their engagement in their work. Maslach and Leiter identify a very useful continuum that contrasts the three dimensions of burnout with five levels of engagement:
- engaged – positive in all three areas: energetic not exhausted; optimistic not cynical; and feeling professionally effective
- disengaged – negative in the area of cynicism, but not exhausted or ineffective
- ineffective – negative in professional efficacy only
- overextended – negative in exhaustion only
- burned out – negative in all three areas.
The solution to burnout lies in reducing overwork, promoting a more human work culture, strong proactive stress management and emphasising recovery and renewal. Workload demands need to be manageable, employees need to have a sense of control over their work, they need to be appropriately recognised for what they do, feel supported in their work and have a sense that the workplace is a fair one.
Dr Karen Morley is a distinguished executive coach, an authority on leadership coaching and a thought leader on gender and inclusion. She has led a broad range of leadership development, succession, and talent management assignments throughout her career.