Stress vs burnout – What’s the difference?

The big difference between the two and the signs to look out for according to a certified stress management consultant

When we feel exhausted, it is important to distinguish between stress and burnout, as we often disregard our symptoms and emotions in the hope that they will pass. But burnout is a serious issue, one that can develop very quickly as a result of chronic stress. 

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout as a diagnosis, due to the condition’s increasing prevalence. Burnout is a consequence of chronic stress. Although this has gone a long way toward encouraging people to take burnout seriously, it is not just a workplace problem. It’s a result of severe stress that manifests across someone’s entire life. 

Read on to learn more about the distinction between feeling extremely stressed about a situation and experiencing total burnout.

Stress vs. Burnout

Stress and burnout are two entirely distinct mental states. Stress is a mental or emotional state that occurs when a person experiences tension as a result of unfavourable circumstances associated with any circumstance in which demand exceeds supply. Burnout, on the other hand, is a physical and psychological condition characterised by exhaustion, apathy, and a feeling of hopelessness.

Both can be caused by pressures in the workplace, the classroom, or interpersonal relationships. Stress is typically transient, and the unpleasant side effects subside when the stressor is eliminated. Burnout is a prolonged state of total exhaustion that occurs when you have exhausted all of your energy and are operating on fumes. 

Can stress lead to burnout?

Yes, if the stress persists for an extended period of time, it can certainly lead to burnout. Burnout is typically the result of stress that has accumulated over time without adequate measures to combat or reduce it, leaving the sufferer exhausted and unable to meet the demands of daily life.

Although it is possible to learn how to deal with burnout without quitting your job, it has severe consequences, including physical ailments and a mental and emotional void.

According to research, chronic stress is a major predictor of serious medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and other cardiovascular disorders, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, and premature mortality. 

Similarly severe are the psychological effects of burnout, with prolonged stress being a major contributor to depressive symptoms. Burnout patients are significantly more likely to take psychotropic and antidepressant medications. Therefore, it is essential to address the early signs of stress as soon as they appear. The first essential step is to initiate contact. 

Communication is essential for establishing limits and ensuring your needs are met. If you want to speak to a professional, consider getting help from a qualified stress management practitioner or psychotherapist.

Stress Turning Into Burnout-What it looks like

You’re physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted

The fatigue and exhaustion that come with stress are real, but the chronic exhaustion that comes with burnout is something else entirely. This is especially prevalent in exercise-related burnout, but it occurs across the spectrum of burnout types.  

Burnout may be the cause of physical symptoms such as headaches and migraines, as well as a persistent feeling of exhaustion. The physical effects of burnout can deplete your energy, making you more susceptible to viral infections, colds, and the flu. It’s also unlikely that you’ll feel better after sleeping if you’re experiencing burnout. 

Insomnia and other sleep disorders were found to be significantly more common among nurses and doctors experiencing chronic stress leading to burnout than among those without the condition.  Unsurprisingly, they also discovered that the severity of burnout correlated negatively with the quality of sleep. 

You experience a sense of failure and self-doubt

It’s common to believe that putting in more time or effort at work will help alleviate stress, especially if the source of that stress is related to your job. This is the last thing you should do, as it can be the trigger for stress to switch to burnout. 

When you are emotionally and physically exhausted, it is difficult to see the positive aspects of a situation.  Self-doubt can worsen a situation because it increases pressure and makes it easier to strive for perfection, which of course is impossible. When you don’t value yourself, you push yourself harder to improve, which increases stress and eventually burnout.

One of the first signs that someone is transitioning from chronic stress to burnout is a lack of interest in activities that once brought them joy. 

Loss of Motivation

Then, when you’re burned out, and especially if you’re experiencing chronic burnout, you’re likely to experience a complete loss of motivation, while feeling so defeated and unmotivated that you lose the will to try. This exacerbates feelings of alienation and isolation, even in the presence of coworkers or family. 

Inability to complete normal tasks

When you’re under a lot of pressure, you probably won’t be able to concentrate, and you might find that you start to forget things more frequently. Forgetfulness on a total scale is one of the most reliable indicators of burnout in a person. It stands to reason that if you are experiencing low feelings on both an emotional and a physical level, it will be increasingly difficult to navigate the tasks of daily life. Your ability to concentrate wanes, making it difficult to take care of your responsibilities and be creative in the usual manner. 

If you’re confused about the distinction between stress and burnout, or if you’re dealing with chronic stress, you should seek the advice of a professional trained in stress management.

If you want help sorting out what is possible versus what is probable...please click here and set up a free 30 minute meeting and I’ll tell you if I can help. 

Here’s to mastering your stress. 

The Stress Master 

Ches Moulton 

About Ches Moulton, The Stress Master 

Ches Moulton, a certified stress management consultant, is the UK’s leading authority on stress management. 

His career has spanned more than 25 years, during which time he has been a much sought-after executive coach, psychotherapist, and trainer. His most recent work has focused on helping those with elevated levels of stress overcome their problems and enjoy productive lives, free from both the physical and mental consequences of chronic stress. 

During his time as a business performance consultant, Ches has served as an advisor to both private businesses and government in Canada, the Caribbean, United Kingdom, Africa and the Middle East. He is the author of ‘How to Get control of Your Stress: Instead of Stress Controlling You’, and the international best-seller ‘Choice and Change – How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Ourself and Others’. 

For more information…including video’s, resources to download and an opportunity to join Ches when he is live…please visit him at 

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