Stress vs. Burnout

By Jojo Furnival

Smile, Breathe And Go SlowlyI’m really tired. Like, REALLY tired. It’s confusing to be so tired when I’m only working 2 hours a day.
I used to work from the moment I opened my eyes at 7 in the morning – answering work emails, checking client social media and scanning the papers on the train to work for industry news, ideas, or opportunities to exploit – until I left the office at around 6 or 7pm – addressing emails I never got around to throughout the day on the way home or en route to the pub, and sometimes beginning a project once I’d reached the relative peace and quiet of my flat (because the chaos of the office the next day would be sure to take all my time away again) before a final pre-sleep check-in on the mobile phone and lights out.

I didn’t know what ‘burnout’ was until I came to New Life. I didn’t really think it was anything at all. Maybe it meant being overly stressed, or perhaps it was a weak person’s syndrome, or even a euphemism for not being able to cope.

“At work, I felt as though I was always ‘fighting fires'”

I dealt with stress every day. At work, I felt as though I was always ‘fighting fires’, forever chasing my tail. I didn’t have enough time, or enough hands, to do everything that was expected of me. And in a small team of two or three people, if one person drops the ball, there aren’t that many more to keep the juggling going, so I did everything I could to avoid letting anything slip through the net. I kept tabs on my ‘balls’ and everyone else’s, just in case.

The term burnout in psychology was coined by Herbert Freudenberger in his 1974 book, Staff Burnout. However, it was social psychologists Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson that developed the most widely used instrument for actually assessing burnout, namely, the Maslach Burnout Inventory.

But what’s the difference between burnout and stress?

Hans Selye defines stress in terms of the response your body makes to any demand on it. There is ‘good stress’ (eustress) – associated with feelings of joy, fulfilment, achievement – and ‘bad stress’ (distress), which is prolonged or too-frequent stress. Your body is designed to give warning signals of stress overload, including sleep disorders, digestive problems, headaches, low energy, chronic tiredness, muscle tension, teeth grinding, high blood pressure, etc.

Arch Hart describes stress as ‘hurry sickness’, the symptoms of which are often seen by the victim as obstacles to performance that he or she needs to overcome. Seldom does the disease of over-stress slow the victim down – not until the final blow (for example, a heart attack) is struck.

For Hart, burnout is, in contrast, akin to ‘compassion fatigue’. Christina Maslach described burnout as ‘a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and by development of a negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people’.

“I guess it comes as no surprise that I need rest. The surprise is realising that it’s allowed.”

So, although burnout may sound a lot like stress, they are not the same. While stress is characterised by over-engagement, burnout is characterised by disengagement. Stress ultimately produces urgency and hyperactivity, whereas burnout produces helplessness or hopelessness. Stress may cause a loss of energy and anxiety disorders, burnout often involves loss of motivation, ideals, and hope. And although stress is an essential prerequisite for burnout, burnout will not necessarily be the result of too much stress.

I can now see that I was in considerable (di)stress, even verging on burnout. I didn’t rest, not even when I was asleep. I ground my teeth, my muscles were permanently tensed, I was always tired but adrenaline and caffeine pushed me through the day, while alcohol got me through the night. The more my body cried out ‘STOP!’ with infection after infection, the more my mind dissociated from it, not trusting it, resenting it even – after all, it was always letting me down – until, finally, I felt that stopping work entirely was the only way forward. The situation was pretty hopeless.

That happened mid-February. On 3rd March, I arrived at New Life.

So, I guess it comes as no surprise that I need rest. The surprise is realising that it’s allowed.

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