Why Stressed Out Is NOT Burned Out (but it should be taken as a warning sign)

Stress in red with blurred words

The pandemic introduced burnout into our common lexicon.

Burnout was rarely talked about openly before the Covid pandemic.  After the pandemic, people began using the term “burnout” to describe everything from too many Zoom meetings to too little time spent with colleagues. 

The drastic changes in lifestyle demanded by the pandemic increased stress levels in multiple areas of daily life.  Home was no longer physically separated from work, but had become the location of where we worked.  The natural work-life boundaries were obliterated and few workers were well-equipped to make the physical and psychological separations necessary to minimize work-associated stress from interfering with their personal lives. 

Perhaps as a result, nearly everyone seemed to profess that they were beyond “stressed out” from the drastic changes associated with Covid…they were feeling burned out: 

  • They were burned out from the lack of boundaries between their work and personal lives. 
  • They were burned out from trying to work in a make-shift office in their homes. 
  • They were burned out with the increased demands of childcare and home schooling. 
  • They were burned out from loneliness and isolation associated with quarantine. 
  • They were burned out from fears associated with an unknown disease that could be deadly. 

But “burned out” might not be an accurate characterization of these high levels of stress.  Perhaps (fortunately) they were “stressed out.” 

While it may be accurate to assert that the pandemic increased the number and severity of stressors in our lives, it is both simplistic and short-sighted to say that the pandemic created burnout. 

But what’s the difference between “burned out” and “stressed out?”  And, perhaps more importantly, does it really matter? 

“Stressed Out” vs. “Burned Out”

Because stress and burnout are very closely related, it can be difficult to determine when “normal” stress escalates into the über stress of burnout.  The difference between the two lies primarily in the severity of the experienced symptoms as well as the time necessary to regain a feeling of peace and calm. 

Let’s first consider the differences in the definitions and characteristics of stress and burnout: 

  • Stress is your body’s reaction to an immediate challenge or demand; burnout is a prolonged reaction to one or more continuous stressors. 
  • Stress is acute, experienced for a relatively short period of time (usually with a clear end in sight); burnout is chronic, evolving, and lasting for months or even years (usually accompanied with a belief that there is NO end in sight). 
  • Stress is inherently neutral and can either be positive (eustress) or negative (distress); burnout is inherently negative and leads to exhaustion, cynicism, and a sense of futility. 
  • The responses to both stress and burnout are physical, emotional, and psychological – the difference lies in intensity. 

Few people would disagree that the modern workplace can be a highly stressed environment characterized by hyperactivity and hyper competitiveness.  Some people excel in these highly charged environments (at least for a while), while others quickly feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and depleted. 

However, burnout is NOT an individual’s maladaptive response to stress: 
it can be an organizational problem arising from
poor management practices and processes.

Because feeling stressed out is temporary, the symptoms can be mitigated through remedial actions or “hacks.”  Taking time off for a much-needed vacation.  Getting more sleep.  Exercising.  Meditating.  All of these have been found to be effective in battling stress. 

However, these same “hacks” are generally NOT effective if your feelings of stress have escalated to the level of burnout: 

  • In burnout, your self-talk incessantly reminds you of what needs to be done but that you still haven’t done; this “monkey mind” can undermine the escape of a vacation, often creating heightened feelings of stress rather than relaxation. 
  • In burnout, you can’t overcome the stress by a good night’s sleep – or even a weekend of sleep.  Burnout drastically affects your sleep patterns through prolonged problems falling asleep or staying asleep.  Burnout is more than just feeling tired; it’s incapacitating exhaustion that renders you incapable of solving problems, making decisions, or even interaction with the people around you. 
  • In burnout, you might feel like a simple walk around the block is demanding too much – and meditation’s call to just “let go” is seemingly impossible (if not outright stressful).  Your burned out mind paradoxically can’t concentrate, yet also can’t stop an unending stream of thoughts and worries.  Your burned out body feels like any type of movement requires too much of an effort. 

Perhaps most importantly, you can still find the resolve to focus and move forward even if you are stressed out.  In sharp contrast, burnout is characterized by hopelessness and apathy, making forward movement all but impossible. 

In other words, the key differences between “stressed out” and “burned out”
lie in the duration and intensity of the feelings of distress. 

Burnout in the Post-Covid Workplace

The phenomenon of burnout was first identified by Herbert Freudenberger, a Freudian psychoanalyst describing what many of his patients were experiencing in 1974. 

He named this phenomenon “burnout” because his patients reminded him of the burned out remains of a building:  some of the outside walls still existed, but the individual felt isolated and dead on the inside.  Its key characteristics were an “extinction of motivation or incentive” arising when “one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results” (1974). 

Freudenberger’s shocking discovery of burnout occurred nearly 50 years ago.

Because denial is a predominant response during the initial stages of burnout, it is unsurprising that we have 50 years of denying our feelings of unrelenting stress – often ignoring the warning signs until it manifests in physical or psychological malaise impacting not only work performance, but also personal lives and overall well-being. 

But it’s not just the individual who has been in denial for 50 years.  It has also been the organizational leaders whose policies and demands created a culture in which employee burnout may be inevitable. 

Modern organizational leaders are only now beginning (perhaps spurred by the workplace changes initiated by the pandemic) to acknowledge that burnout exists and that they had a responsibility in creating and sustaining a workplace culture that is conducive to burnout. 

50 years since burnout was identified…
50 years of little (if anything) being done
to address it in the workplace. 

It is undeniable that the pandemic significantly increased the frequency and intensity of daily life stressors.  Perhaps Covid exacerbated the already building feelings of burnout in workers. 

But Covid may also have created a positive impact on the workers who were already burning out before the pandemic.  Remote work combined with the initial deadliness of Covid-19 led many employees to psychologically separate from work and begin to self-reflect on their priorities – as well as where their work lives end and their personal lives begin. 

It was a wake-up call that had largely been ignored prior to the pandemic. 

According to my research-based Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B‑Doc), this physical or psychological separation from the relevant stressors is the first step in recovering from burnout.  When accompanied with introspective inquiry, it can move you far along the path toward full recovery. 

By working from home, many workers had (perhaps for the first time) the physical and psychological distance from work to finally acknowledge how the high stress levels related to their work were impacting their well-being.  And once they had this separation, they resolved to do something to alleviate the stress in the post-pandemic future. 

My hope is that you are experiencing the temporary feelings of being stressed out and that you are not battling the debilitating effects of burnout.  If you can still get excited and energized about something in your life, if you still have hope about the future, then you are probably feeling temporary stress.  Taking time for yourself.  Committing to getting the sleep that you need.  Engaging in hobbies, exercise, or meditation.  All of these can help decrease your stress levels. 

But if you can’t sleep.  If you can never seem to turn off the endless, repetitive thoughts in your “monkey mind.”  And if you feel increasingly apathetic, irritable, and cynical, then you might be burning out.  I urge you to take the time to physically and/or psychologically separate from the stressors associated contributing to your burnout so that you can engage in honest self-reflection.  Your goal should be the willingness to build a life that nourishes (rather than depletes) you. 

Be patient.  Be kind to yourself.  And be aware that you CAN recover from burnout. 

You CAN recover from being stressed out or burned out:  the difference is time. 

Dr. Geri Puleo is the creator of the Burnout During Organizational Change (B-DOC) Model, a research-based solution that defines the descent and recovery of workplace burnout.  Her current project is focused on gender differences in workplace burnout.  A frequent and popular keynote speaker, her TEDx Talk on Burnout v. PTSD:  More Similar Than You Think has been viewed over 600,000 times on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI).

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