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Stress or burnout? The difference and how to avoid them

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Earlier this month burnout was officially recognised by the World Health Organisation. Previously it was listed under “problems related to life-management difficulty” but It is now referred to officially as an occupational phenomenon.

This puts a more a serious lense on the issue and recognises the serious struggle of anyone who suffers from burnout at work.

Within the WHO burnout is defined as:

“…a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  2. increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  3. reduced professional efficacy”

In layman’s terms, it’s when the demands of your job consistently exceed the amount of energy feel you have to give, a feeling of worthlessness and an overall negative attitude.

It’s a layered issue and there is no quick singular fix.

Are you burned out?

Are you skipping lunch? Are you working more than ever but your outputs haven’t improved? Has your attitude darkened with a cynicism you didn’t have before? Are you struggling to sleep even though you feel exhausted?

In an article by The Guardian sufferers of burnout complain of a variety of symptoms including blurred vision, lack of sleep, grinding of teeth and the inability to do simple tasks like writing a coherent email.

While in an article by Siobhan Kelly on the Cpl Office Support recruitment team she described her experiences of interviewing candidates in the midst of burnout who “literally shed tears because the idea of going back to their jobs was so overwhelming.”

Symptoms vary and can impact both your physical and mental health. What makes things even worse is keeping them to yourself and working through it.

According to Orla O’Neill, the coordinator of the stress clinic at St John of God Hospital, severe stress or burnout is usually caused by “a change in pace of work, a change in their degree of control, a lack of clarity about their role, or job insecurity.”

Whereas those who feel a strong sense of purpose in their job tend to embrace workplace challenges and even benefit from them.

What’s the difference between stress and burnout?

Stress is one component of burnout. Stress can, in fact, be good for us. It can improve our productivity levels, give us a sense of motivation and increase our energy levels.

Burnout, on the other hand, reduces our productivity, lowers energy levels and causes workers to feel negative and down.

If stress is not coped with it can lead to burnout – which is an accumulation of stress, exhaustion, negativity towards your work and reduced productivity.

How to manage stress and avoid burnout

Everyone has their own stressors at work, and a degree of stress is normal. Some of us have a strong inner critic, some can’t say no, others have a need to be liked by everyone.

Stress can come from external sources too – a lack of sleep, relationship troubles, family members being ill or other major life events.

Whatever your stressor is it’s vital to recognise it and address it. By learning your triggers and accepting what can’t be controlled (other people’s opinions) while address what can be controlled (your attitude) you’ll reduce stress and the risk of burnout.

Build your resilience, talk to people and act on warning signs the same way you would with a physical health issue.

If you’re starting to notice any of the physical, psychological or social signs of burnout the WHO advises:

  • Regular exercise
  • Healthy eating
  • Adequate sleep
  • Limiting your alcohol intake
  • Talking about it

Talk to your manager

The WHO definition of burnout refers to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

If you’re struggling to manage your stress and workload on your own speak to your manager. Part of the role of a manager is to support you in your career and if you are struggling, they will be able to help. They won’t know that you’re struggling until you tell them so make sure to speak up.

If you feel like you can’t approach your manager, reach out to someone within the company that you can trust. They might have had a similar experience and provide some insight.

Take more breaks

The more breaks you take during the workday, and over the course of the year – the better equipped you are to tackle the stress that faces you.

If you feel like you can’t take week-long holidays, then arrange a long weekend. Breaks restore your mental energy as well as physical energy. That’s why those at risk of burn out can be quite cynical or negative.

Taking breaks also means making sure you’re not always on when you leave the office. Smartphones mean that we can never truly escape the office. You can do this by planning activities that you enjoy – tennis with friends, dinner with your family.

Whatever it is, make sure you can engage, switch off, and most importantly enjoy.

Learn to say ‘no’

It’s something not a lot of people can do. Saying yes without considering the quality of work that you can realistically produce is not a good idea. That is how you lose people’s trust, sour working relationships and increase stress.

So when is it appropriate to say ‘no’? If it doesn’t fall into your job description. If it doesn’t align with your priorities or goals. If the time limitations are not realistic for your current workload. These are all valid reasons.

Being overworked and overcommitted will only hamper your career and your quality of work. While you might be loyal to certain people and projects, you also need to look after yourself.

If you’re already suffering burnout more serious action will be needed, and you’ll have to learn new ways of working and thinking to avoid repeat issues in the future. The World Health Organisation is taking burnout seriously and it’s time employers and employees do likewise.

If your feeling on the brink of burnout and are interested in hearing about alternative career options please get in touch.

This article was originally published in 2017 and has since been updated and republished.