Burnout vs Stress
Burnout vs Stress
Dear Tacit,

With all the changes happening these days, I am finding myself stressed at work – I don’t seem to like my job anymore – everything and everyone is annoying me.  How do I know if I am just stressed out or if I am burning out?

Signed: Burnout vs Stress

Dear Burnout vs Stress,

Stress and Burnout are similar in many ways – but not exactly alike.  One leads to the other if it is not dealt with appropriately and in a timely manner.

Feeling stressed at work is a common occurrence for many of us, especially if we are in a job that requires a lot of energy (physically, emotionally or mentally).  Being stressed at work is something that we feel as a result of a particular situation or task.  We are pushed to the edge of our abilities; we get tired and worn down; we sometimes feel the situation is larger than our problem-solving skills or levels of resiliency.

But stress at work is finite – there is an ending point (for example, when the task/situation stops, even just for the day) and if we are taking care of ourselves properly, we can step away from the stress we are experiencing and still enjoy other aspects of our lives.  We likely see work stress as a challenge – something to overcome or fix.  Or to just hunker through, because we know things will get better when the situation changes.  Typically, this kind of stress that we are under shows itself in physical ways – we get headaches, muscle tension, problems eating or sleeping, tummy aches, etc.

Stress in the workplace can actually be a very positive thing – it helps us grow as a person – it allows us to develop new skills and relationship connections with the rest of our team or with supportive and guiding resources that help us address the issue at hand – and it teaches us to trust ourselves.  But if we don’t manage or handle this stress appropriately, on a daily basis, it snowballs and becomes consuming.

We can begin to be over engaged with the work problems, and the stress can infiltrate our personal lives.  It can have a negative impact on our energy levels and on the focus we want to have for the other things in our lives that should be just as important to us (family, friend’s, our self).  It can cause a blurring of the boundaries that allows us to keep who we are as a whole person separate to how we identify ourselves at work.  When/If this starts to happen, we can begin to experience burnout.

Burnout is more than just bad stress.  Burnout creates a disengagement from our work.  It is a global feeling of overwhelming exhaustion or frustration with work that is no longer specific to just one situation.  It cannot be resolved with one simple workplace solution.  It causes us to feel a lack of control or hopelessness with our work overall, and results in our disengagement/shut down from the job that we do.  We may start avoiding work, performing less, or simply being apathetic when we are there.  Burnout changes who we are – we can become more negative, more toxic, more conflicted (with others and with our self).  Typically, burnout damages us more on an emotional/mental level (although the physical effects of the earlier stress may also still be happening too).

Left untreated, burnout causes us to lose faith in our abilities.  The impact is never contained just within the work environment, but rather the changes have a direct impact on our personal lives as well.  Eventually, we can expect to need to have to leave the workplace, usually permanently, and not always of our own volition. Our support relationships (in and out of work) can break down, our self esteem falters and we can often struggle in our ability to bounce back again.

If you feel you are stressed because of work related issues, reach out and focus on finding some help.  Create and maintain a healthy work/personal life balance for yourself (this is seldom a 50/50 formula) on a daily basis (not weekly or monthly).  And connect to people/resources who can help you alleviate the source(s) of your stress.

If your stress has started to manifest itself into a state of burnout, recognize that you might need to step away immediately from your job, just temporarily/to some degree, to try to get things under control again.  Take action before it is too late and the decision is made for you, either by your workplace bosses or as your own physical and mental health disintegrates.  Because the stress you ignore now becomes the burnout that takes over completely in the end.

Take care!

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