The difference between work related stress and burnout

Let’s take a look at both stress and burnout so we gain some understanding of what we are dealing with.

A person is said to be Stressed when they are under too much pressure, either physically or psychologically. In a business context, this may be caused by constantly working to tight deadlines or difficult targets, in difficult or dangerous circumstances, or with an unreasonable manager.


Stress is the body’s physical response to pressure, whether it is mental or emotional. Many factors can add to our stress levels. Common stressors are work, relationships, family life and money.

Stress is a fairly common experience, and as we have already discussed, some stress is good for us and is not harmful. It keeps us at the top of our game, helps us achieve goals, and makes us feel exhilarated.

“Fight or flight” hormones are released when we feel under attack. They are intended to get us out of danger by preparing us for attack. In Caveman days, this danger would be in the form of an animal or enemy attack.

Athletes, Runners and Sports people actively seek this kind of bodily stress as they love the endorphin release it gives them.

Once the danger has passed, the body usually returns to normal. However, if a person is constantly under pressure, this might not be the case.

The symptoms of stress may manifest as; –

  • Constantly worrying about problems at work, never ‘switching off’
  • Feeling tired, because the body and mind are in overdrive, leaving you drained
  • Not getting a good night’s sleep, especially at the end of your days off
  • Dreading going to work
  • Becoming less effective at work, because being stressed makes you indecisive, and also affects short term memory and concentration.
  • Low mood, depression
  • Lack of enjoyment of leisure time.
  • Feeling like you are on a treadmill
  • Spending less time with your family and friends begins to affect relationships


Burnout often takes place over a longer time period, and is thought to be a result of excessive stress. The build-up of too much stress without let-up may cause a person to shut down or burn out.

Although stress is an essential pre-requisite for burnout, burnout is not necessarily the result of too much stress. For burnouts to occur there must be an additional psychological factor.

It is a cycle of negative emotions, paralysis and withdrawal caused by mental, emotional and physical exhaustion.

Physical symptoms can include low energy, headaches, muscle tension, digestive disorders, frequent colds and changes in sleep patterns. Its mental symptoms include feeling sad, inadequate, frustrated, unappreciated and irritable. These symptoms can result in withdrawal, accidents, increased sick days and crying. One may increase their consumption of food or alcohol to soothe themselves.

Difference between stress and burnout

The thing you need to appreciate as a Manager is that you have the potential to intervene and prevent stress from turning into burnout.

To reverse the negative cycle, the person needs to relieve the exhaustion of stress by taking control of the situation, getting appropriate support and overcoming the sense of hopelessness. Exercise and relaxation is helpful.

How can the manager recognize stress?

Stress is defined in terms of how it affects a person’s physical and psychological health, and occurs when the demands on a person exceeds their ability to cope, when they view a situation as too strenuous to handle, and it disrupts their psychological equilibrium.

By definition, what is stressful for one person is not stressful for another, who may find it challenging, but not stressful.

Whether a person experiences work-related stress depends on factors such as their job, their psychological make-up, their personal life and general health.

This presents a problem for management, as it makes it difficult to judge what is likely to cause stress at work for an individual.

So, the manager’s role must be to be aware of what is happening with their staff, watch out for stressful situations developing, try to defuse them, and be open to people looking for support. Then to offer support to reverse the situation and reduce the stress by re-allocating work or otherwise removing or reducing the cause of the stress.