The words stress and burnout are sometimes used interchangeably – especially in workplaces.

But while they share some similarities, there are key differences.

What is stress?

"Stress is the response felt by your mind and body in relation to an event or situation," says our member Susan Carr.

"It’s part and parcel of daily life - whether it’s the frustration of being caught in the morning rush hour, unexpected visitors or trying to juggle various commitments."

She adds: "It can be both positive and negative. A small amount of stress can motivate you, however, when the stress is sustained or coming from multiple sources then it can affect your wellbeing."

Everyone is different when it comes to stress. What may cause one person stress, may actually have a positive effect on another person.

Stress is normally short-term, while burnout take place over a longer period.

Prolonged stress can sometimes lead to burnout. But this doesn’t always happen.

Susan adds: "Stress tends to be characterised by over-engagement and is associated with overactive emotions, whereas burnout is characterised by disengagement and emotions that are muted."

What is burnout?

Burnout is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a syndrome “as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The WHO says it can be characterised by feeling of energy depletion or exhaustion, feelings of negativity or cynicism towards your job or reduced professional effectiveness.

Burnout is considered to be an occupational phenomenon rather than a medical condition.

Therefore if the root cause of your burnout is your work situation, it’s important to talk to your employer – whether that’s your manager or HR department. They need to understand how your work is affecting you.

Employers have a duty to provide support to staff.

What are the signs of burnout?

"We all have days when we feel stressed and overloaded but when you feel like this most of the time you may be burned out," says Susan.

She warns that the signs of burnout can be subtle at first.

Symptoms to look out for include: headaches, aches and pain, sleep issues, fatigue, muscle tension, concentration difficulties, anxiety, low mood or emotional numbness, reduced productivity, lack of purpose or motivation, increased cynicism, feeling detached and absenteeism.

Susan also adds that everyone will have an individual response.

Susan adds: "These symptoms can also be related to other conditions such as anxiety or depression and so it’s important to talk to your GP or a mental health professional particularly if you experience them over a sustained period of time."

What can you do about burnout?

Susan has put together a list of steps you can take if you wish to prevent burnout or if you realise you’re already affected by it.

Set boundaries

Learn how to say “no” and where possible delegate tasks. Set realistic expectations around working hours.

Take breaks

Taking a break is important in all areas of our lives, whether this is at work, home, or just taking time away from social media. We can take breaks in all sorts of ways whether that’s simply finding five minutes for ourselves, making sure that we have our lunch break, or going on a relaxing weekend away. Breaks are also important in our personal lives. It’s especially important to make time for ourselves when we are feeling emotionally drained.

Try to find some value in your work

It can be helpful to identify the parts of the job that you do enjoy. Reframing the way you think about your work can help you regain control and a sense of purpose.

Develop strong coping mechanisms from the start

A good place to start is the “Five Ways to Wellbeing”, developed by the New Economics Foundation. These are connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give.  

Get plenty of sleep

Sleep is important to both our mental and physical health. Prolonged lack of sleep can lead to tension, irritability and low mood and can affect both concentration and our ability to make decisions.  

Make self-care a priority

When we feel stressed, we may not find time for hobbies, but these are the things that help to relieve stress. Activities such as yoga, meditation, relaxation or breathing techniques or massage can all help to reduce the physical symptoms of stress.

Get support

A therapist can offer professional support such as helping to identify possible causes of burnout as well as exploring coping strategies. 

Find a therapist who can help you if you're affected by burnout using our Therapist Directory.