Workplace Wellbeing

Stress vs burnout: What businesses need to know

April 21, 2023

Naomi Lucking


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Burnout is a real buzzword these days. But what exactly is it? And what can businesses do to prevent burnout? 

What is burnout?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” That means it’s specific to work environments, and workplaces need to take notice. 

But burnout isn’t recognised as a mental health condition. It’s a syndrome, which means it’s a recognised set of symptoms without a clear diagnosis. 

The three key symptoms of burnout are: 

  1. Feeling consistently exhausted or depleted
  2. Feeling mentally removed or distant from work
  3. Feeling negative or cynical about work

Stress and burnout: What’s the difference?

People often use the term “burnout” when they mean that they feel stressed or overwhelmed. You might hear someone say something like, “I had to eat lunch at my desk today, I’m so burned out.”

Although feeling stressed or overwhelmed can lead to burnout, they’re not the same thing. 

"A useful way to remember the difference between burnout and stress is to think of stress as too much – so, too much energy coming in, too much adrenaline, too many demands. And burnout being not enough – so feeling empty, exhausted, kind of just beyond the point of caring." – Dr Sofia Gerbase, Clinical Psychologist

When does stress become burnout?

Stress is a natural and necessary human function, and some stress is a normal part of life. Stress causes the body to release a hormone called cortisol, which helps your body respond to stress by giving you energy and focus. 

But if we experience stress constantly without time for recovery, or if we don’t have proper coping mechanisms, stress can become chronic. It’s chronic stress that can lead to burnout. 

High levels of cortisol caused by chronic stress can cause the kinds of symptoms we see in burnout, such as fatigue, irritability and depressive symptoms. 

What can organisations do to prevent burnout? 

It’s good to encourage your people to develop their own coping strategies for stress and make them aware of the symptoms of burnout. But preventing burnout is about collective more than individual action – it’s no use recognising you’re burned out if you don’t feel empowered to take the time you need to recover. 

Encourage healthy boundaries. Burnout happens when people don’t have sufficient time to rest. Make sure people know that they aren’t expected to be available constantly and that switching off from work is important. If your company works flexibly and some employees like to work outside standard hours, encourage them to state in their emails or messages that they are choosing to work at the times that suit them but they don’t expect an immediate response. 

Train managers. Managers need to be equipped to prevent burnout in their teams. Training can help them learn how to have important conversations, how to manage team workload and how to notice when someone is at risk of burnout. 

Create an open culture. Encourage open and honest conversations amongst teams. This could be by starting team meetings with each person sharing how they’re feeling lately and if there’s anything they’d like their colleagues to do to support them. It’s vital that leaders role model this behaviour – when senior employees talk about how they’re feeling, it makes others feel it’s ok to do the same. 

Gather anonymous feedback. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Collect anonymous employee feedback so you can see how you’re doing as an organisation and where you need to focus your efforts – you might find some teams or areas of the organisation are more at risk of burnout than others.