Is It Just Stress, or Is This Burnout?

May 1, 2024

There’s lot of talk about burnout these days, but it is often misunderstood.  You might be wondering:  Is this what burnout feels like?  Or is this just stress?

Let’s take a minute to look at the difference between stress and burnout.

Stress is a natural and normal response to perceived threats and demands in our environment.  We experience it in big and small ways on a regular basis. Stress is not inherently bad for us.  On the contrary, stress gives us important signals about what’s happening in our world and helps activate us into a response.

Imagine a life with no stress… day after day, week after week, year after year.    Sounds good for a minute…but when you imagine this existence over time, it begins to feel, well, meaningless.  We humans are not built for a life entirely free of stress.  In many ways, stress is an indication of a full, meaningful, connected life.  Psychologist Kelly McGonigal explores this, and the importance of our mindset around stress, in her book, The Upside of Stress.

If you were to list your stressors, right now, I’m guessing that many of them are directly connected to the most precious things in your life – the things you dreamed about having, or creating, or being “when you grew up.”  The things you, in fact, signed up for.  There is in fact, no point to a life without a certain amount of stress.

But here’s the thing.  Many of us, especially those of us who are wired to overachieve, lead, and care for others, find that at some point in our lives, the accumulation of responsibilities and demands of our work in the world, and the volatility and complexity of the world we navigate, has resulted in levels of stress, and a multiplicity of stressors, that outpaces our ability to manage.

This in fact, is the definition of burnout.  According to the World Health Organization, burnout is “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”  This sets in motion a slow, often invisible wearing away occurs over time.  Burnout researcher Christina Maslach calls this “an erosion of the soul.”

While stress feels like a power switch being thrown, burnout feels like a slow, gradual dimming of our inner light.   While stress levels rise and fall, burnout gets inside of us.  Burnout affects our thinking and our sense of identity.  We can think of burnout as an injury that occurs after a period of chronic, protracted, unmitigated stress.

Let me ask you a few questions:

  • In recent times, have you felt exhausted in a way that a good night’s rest can’t help?  Has “tired” become your new normal?
  • Do you find yourself feeling numb, shut down to your emotions?
  • Do you feel disconnected from your passion at work, the meaning you once derived from it? Are you more cynical than you once were?
  • Do you feel less productive, less effective – procrastinating more, less confident in your ability to find solutions and tackle challenges?

If any of these questions resonate with the way you’ve been feeling, it’s possible that you’re experiencing burnout, or it’s out there on the horizon.  I encourage you to seek support, whether from someone like me, your doctor, or mental health professional.  You don’t have to feel this way, and seeking help early on is paramount.

If you’re like many of my clients, your impulse is to just push on, to soldier through.  You hope it will get better on its own, that some change in your environment will make things better.  All the while, you feel trapped in a kind of limbo, wondering if you should leave your job, wondering how long you can keep doing this.  In my experience, this is a recipe for more burnout.

So often, we wait too long to seek help because we’re judging ourselves, telling ourselves we should be able to just “figure it out.”  After all, we’re smart and capable, right?  Let me tell you: some of the most burned out people in the world today are the most high-functioning.  They’ve been the go-to employees, the stars, the formal and informal leaders.  In the turbulence and disruption of recent years, the world has leaned on them, hard.  They’ve  been digging deep for a very long time, and their reserves are depleted.

If this resonates with you, you are not alone.

You don’t have to just keep pushing through.  You don’t have to choose between your job and your well-being.

Let’s set up a time to talk.


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