Stress Vs. Burnout: Learn the Signs and How to Manage Them

What are the differences between stress vs. burnout? As our world has transformed greatly, modern life certainly has many stressors including financial challenges, relationship problems, excessive workloads and social withdrawal. There are various ways to address stress and burnout. For example, achieving a work-life balance is one of the most effective ways to manage stress in the long term.

Stress and burnout have become an increasing worldwide phenomenon. However, the differences between stress vs. burnout are not widely understood. By understanding the causes, the symptoms and the ways to cope with stress as well as burnout, you can strive to achieve balance in life and improve your well-being.

What Is Stress?

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Stress is an ongoing issue that most people face at different points in life. Photo by Татьяна Волкова -

As defined by the World Health Organization, stress is a state of mental tension that is usually caused by a challenging situation. And it’s a thing everyone has to deal with at some point in their life.

For instance, we may feel pressured or worry about an upcoming interview or missing a flight. WHO also said, “For many people, stress reduces over time as the situation improves or as they learn to cope emotionally with the situation.”

Different people react differently to stress, which contributes to how stress affects individuals' well-being. Stress is a natural human response to stressors in life. Stress can be categorised into three main types:

  • Acute stress: This type of stress is usually brief and often occurs when you are going through a new or challenging situation. For example, it might occur during an upcoming exam, an approaching deadline at work, or a close-call traffic accident.
  • Chronic stress: This type of stress continues for an extended period of time, and it might occur when you are enduring prolonged feelings of anxiety and negative emotions. For example, it might occur due to financial difficulties, health-related conditions, traumatic experiences and relationship issues.
  • Episodic acute stress: This type of stress tends to happen frequently and in the short term. It can happen when you are dealing with consecutive stressors. For example, it might occur due to work overload and overwhelming responsibilities.  

Signs Of Stress

Stress manifests in various ways for different individuals. Usually, when our body is stressed, hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released. This triggers the fight-or-flight response in most people. There are different signs and symptoms of stress displayed when our body is overwhelmed with stress-related hormones. 

  • Physical symptoms: Headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, insomnia, digestive issues, excessive sweating, increased heartbeat and more. 
  • Emotional symptoms: Irritability, mood swings, depression, anxiety, lack of motivation, constant worrying, feeling restless and more.
  • Cognitive symptoms: Difficulty concentrating, racing thoughts, issues with decision-making, negative thinking, memory problems and more.
  • Behavioural symptoms: Changes in appetite, increased use of substances, decreased performance, social withdrawal, procrastination and more. 
  • Interpersonal symptoms: Difficulty maintaining relationships, increased tensions with others, negative attitudes towards others and more. 

By looking at common symptoms of stress, you can use it for informational purposes and self-diagnosis. However, seeking a professional diagnosis for medical advice is highly recommended. 

Common Causes Of Stress

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Various reasons can cause stress. Photo by Nandhu Kumar on Unsplash

Stress can be caused by numerous factors, from new changes in life, such as starting a new job, to dealing with unexpected life events, such as losing a loved one. According to the Mental Health Foundation, even positive changes, such as moving to a better house, can cause stress. Here are common causes of stress divided into five categories. 

  • Work stress: Job insecurity, poor working conditions, overwhelming workload, lack of professional support, conflict at the workplace, lack of freedom and more.
  • Financial stress: Losing job or job insecurity, worrying about mortgage payments, having burdensome living expenses, experiencing emergency expenses and more.
  • Relationship stress: Couple issues, problems between family members, peer pressures, differences in culture, issues with colleagues and more.
  • Health stress: Having a chronic illness, experiencing health emergencies, dealing with expected injuries, being involved in a humanitarian crisis and more.
  • Life stress: Death of a loved one, becoming a parent, experiencing divorce or separation, going through a midlife crisis and more.

One matter can be considered a stressor to one person but not another. Good examples of this are getting married or divorced, starting a new job or retiring, moving to a new place or having a new baby. 

Effects Of Stress

Stress is something that people experience at various points in life. To some extent, stress can motivate us to perform better. However, with too much stress, it is known to cause medium and long-term effects on people's medical health and mental health. Here are a few common effects of stress on our body and mind.

  • Physical effects: Cardiovascular health problems, decreased immune system, digestive health issues, weight fluctuations and more.
  • Emotional effects: Depression, mood swings, anger, constant worrying, anxiety, feelings of overwhelm and more. 
  • Cognitive effects: Memory problems, poor judgement, cognitive decline, decreased cognitive flexibility, reduced attention and more.
  • Behavioural effects: Substance abuse, reduced productivity, decreased sex drive, overeating or undereating, impulsive behaviours and more.
  • Interpersonal effects: Negative interactions, social withdrawal, decreased relationship functioning, misunderstandings and conflicts, hostility behaviours and more.

Stress and its effects impose different levels of medical risks and consequences. Physical effects and cognitive effects of stress can contribute to higher risks of major health problems later in life like stroke, heart attack and diabetes. By raising awareness of the effects of stress, we can actively work on ways to manage our own stress and seek professional help when needed. 

What Is Burnout?

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Burnout is a result of prolonged stress over a long period of time. Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Burnout is an occupational phenomenon and not a medical condition, as defined in the International Classification of Diseases issued by WHO. It often derives from workplace-related chronic stress. As mental well-being in the workplace receives inadequate attention, burnout is an issue in occupational contexts that needs further research and awareness.

According to the American Psychological Association, burnout is recorded at an all-time high in many professions due to the combined effects of personal, health-related and professional stressors.

How Do You Know If You Are Burnt Out? You might be if you often feel exhausted and a day at work feels impossible to get through. If you feel anxious or experience a sense of dreadfulness when thinking of your job, you are likely burnt out.

How Is Burnout Different From Exhaustion? The latter is more about physical exertion, lack of sleep, or illness. Things will improve with rest, relaxation, and good sleep hygiene.

Am I Burnt Out Or Lazy? Laziness might be specific to a particular task. You might still have the drive to do things you enjoy and won’t have negative emotions such as cynicism or detachment. A small change in mindset or a small push is all you need to be productive again.

Signs Of Burnout

What does burnout feel like? Burnout is described in various ways by different individuals. Some people describe it as feeling physically or emotionally drained, while others describe it as a feeling of underachieving at work. There are three categories into which we can divide common signs of burnout.

  • Energy levels: Feelings of constant exhaustion, experiencing energy depletion and fatigue.
  • Negative emotions: Feelings of negativism related to work and a reduced feeling of personal accomplishment.
  • Reduced performance: Experience a reduced level of productivity and decreased professional efficacy.

Common Causes Of Burnout

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Overwork is one of the most common causes of burnout in working adults. Photo by Pixel-Shot -

Health workers are recorded to have the highest rates of burnout, as reported by the World Health Organization. Is burnout a mental thing? This is evidently a result of prolonged work stress. Some factors influence the burnout phenomenon, including individual characteristics, organisational factors and environmental factors. 

  • Individual factors: Unrealistic expectations, low self-esteem, neurotic anxiety, low level of flexibility, unclear limitations and more.
  • Organisational factors: Heavy workload, insufficient time-outs, institutional disregard for staff's well-being, lack of autonomy over work and more.
  • Environmental factors: Unsupportive leadership, lack of social interaction among staff, exposure to negative emotions from difficult people and more.

Effects Of Burnout

Burnout is not a result of acute stress but chronic stress. The long-term effects of burnout are not well-researched or well-defined. Individuals have various degrees of tolerance when it comes to work stress. Based on the most common signs of burnout, here are three main effects that can be observed in working professionals.

  • With low energy levels, people who suffer from burnout might experience chronic fatigue, sleep disturbances and physical pains. All of these physical exhaustion symptoms significantly increase the risk of illnesses.
  • With negative emotions, mental conditions such as depression can develop in the long run. As a burnout person is emotionally exhausted, he/she might feel hopeless and helpless and start to experience conflicts at home or tension at work. 
  • With reduced performance, dissatisfaction and negative attitudes towards work might result in high turnover, absenteeism and avoidance.

Stress Vs. Burnout: Similarities And Differences

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Both stress and burnout can greatly affect energy levels. Photo by luengo_ua on

As the world has transformed massively and our workplaces have changed, maintaining a mentally healthy work environment is becoming more challenging. Many of us wonder what the concept of stress and burnout is. And which is worse, stress or burnout?

As burnout is not widely understood as stress, it is easy to get confused and frustrated when experiencing burnout. Here are a few similarities and distinctions between the two states.

Similarities Between Stress Vs. Burnout

Both stress and burnout originated from stressful situations with negative emotions such as feeling overwhelmed and feeling anxious. How will you know that you are already stressed or burnt out?

  • The physical signs of both stress and burnout are quite similar, including fatigue, insomnia, changes in appetite, tendency to use substances.
  • The mental signs of stress and burnout are lack of motivation, irritability, depression and difficulty concentrating. 

Differences Between Stress Vs. Burnout

Stress is a natural response to certain triggers, such as financial problems, relationship problems or work problems, which can be acute or chronic. Burnout is caused by prolonged stress, mostly associated with work stress, and it can lead to disconnectedness from work and personal life.

Stress is like a short-term visitor that comes and goes, while burnout is like that unwanted houseguest that overstays their welcome. Stress is more about the pressure of the moment, while burnout is a chronic state of exhaustion and disengagement.

A bit of stress can be a good motivator to achieve better performance and higher results, whilst burnout is linked to unproductivity. Here are some key differences you need to know about stress vs burnout:



What Is It

  • Temporary response to pressure or challenges
  • Difficulty focusing, but some motivation remains
  • Short-term
  • Chronic exhaustion caused by prolonged stress
  • Complete loss of motivation, hopelessness
  • Long-term

Symptoms (Physical)

  • Headaches, muscle tension, fatigue
  • Everything with stress plus sleep problems, changes in appetite

Symptoms (Emotional)

  • Anxiety, irritability, difficulty concentrating
  • Everything with stress plus cynicism, detachment, feelings of ineffectiveness


  • Relatively quick with healthy habits and addressing the source
  • Takes longer, often requires professional help

Which Is Worse, Stress Or Burnout? 

Both stress and burnout are negative experiences that can significantly impact your well-being, but burnout is generally considered worse. Here is an analogy to highlight the difference between stress and burnout and their effects. Imagine you are on a road trip:

  • You encounter some bumps in the road, detours, and maybe even a flat tyre. However, with a good map, some roadside assistance (if needed), and a planned route, you can overcome these obstacles and continue your journey. This is stress.
  • In another scenario, you've been on that road trip for days without stopping. You're driving on an unfamiliar road, lost and running low on gas. It is like hitting a wall - you need to stop, rest, and potentially replan your route (address the source of stress) to recover and continue your journey in a healthy way. This is burnout.

As you can see, burnout is long-lasting and requires more resources to address. However, both stress and burnout can lead to serious health problems if left unchecked. Therefore, we need to learn healthy coping mechanisms and address the source of stress to be the best version of ourselves.

10 Tips For Managing Stress And Burnout

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Simple actions such as focused breathing can reduce your stress level. Photo by bedya -

Why manage stress and burnout is important? In life, we experience different stressful events and not everyone is affected in the same way. People react differently to stress for many reasons, including genetics and life experiences. As most life stressors are unpredictable and out of our control, what we can do is learn how to manage stress in a healthy and productive way.

1. Healthy Lifestyle Habits

Diet and habits have significant effects on our health. A good diet is a balanced diet of various types of food and nutrition. A good habit with food is to eat at regular intervals, not skip meals, and overeat or undereat.

Sleep problems can worsen the stress you are experiencing, especially when you are on a business trip. Therefore, start a healthy sleep routine to get enough sleep every day by having a consistent bedtime, avoiding screens before bed, and establishing a good bedroom environment.

2. Stress Management Activities

There are so many activities that are both fun to do and effective in relieving stress. You can start by taking gym bags to your local gym to break a sweat or signing up for a relaxing yoga retreat, before or after your work. From meditating to listening to your favourite songs or simply focusing on your breathing when feeling stressed, experiment and find out which ways work best for you.

3. Travelling

The benefits of travelling are apparent and compelling. Travelling means taking yourself away from the stressful work routine and daily responsibility. You can reset your body and mind by creating new memories, exposing yourself to new things, and rebalancing your inner energy.

4. Identify And Address Stressors

Figure out what's causing you the most stress and see if there's anything you can do to change the situation. If it's work-related, consider talking to your manager about your workload or finding ways to delegate tasks. If a specific problem is causing significant stress, see if there's a way to remove yourself from it. Can you switch jobs? Talk to a difficult neighbour? Sometimes, removing the stressor is the most effective solution.

5. Professional Help

Did you know that professional help can come in so many forms? You can seek support from a psychiatrist, a group, or a school counsellor. Regardless of your chosen treatment, the most important thing is keeping a positive relationship with your therapist and an open-minded view of your types of therapy.

Practising mindfulness is one of the effective ways to cope with burnout. Photo by LoloStock -

6. Self-care Time

Having a structured routine can keep you from overwork and dedicate time to take care of yourself. One good trick is the 888 rule. For your self-care time, you can choose to stay physically active like simply walking in nature or participate in enjoyable activities like working on your hobbies. This gives you time away from work stressors and improves your mood with a boost of serotonin.

7. Boundaries

It is crucial to establish clear boundaries between your personal life and work. This helps you find the right balance and avoid work that negatively affects your well-being. You can try to limit your screen time and set limits to your work-related tasks, such as checking emails. 

Do you know that having too much screen time can lead to feelings of exhaustion and anxiety? If your job requires working with a computer screen, it is recommended that you take short breaks regularly and limit your screen time after work.

8. Be Open To Changes

When you constantly experience low energy levels and negative emotions, it may be time for changes. Aside from taking care of yourself with self-care routines and setting boundaries to prioritise other important things outside of work, you might need to envision a different lifestyle. You can reduce your working hours, negotiate a various scope of responsibilities at work or even consider a career change.

9. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness has various benefits, including enhancing performance, improving social relationships and gaining a more positive well-being. By practising mindfulness at work, you can manage your stress better and improve your control over emotions.

10. Seek Support

Receiving emotional and other types of support from family, friends, and communities can reduce personal burdens while seeking connectedness. Having strong connections with trusted social circles has been proven to increase resilience in challenging times for many people. It is understandable that you might be hesitant to reach out, but you will never know until you try. 


Stress and burnout can be dealt with. Photo by gstockstudio -

1. Can You Have Burnout Without Stress?

You cannot have burnout without stress since burnout is caused by chronic stress built up over a long period of time. Work-related stressors can cause both stress and burnout. 

2. How Do I Know If I'm Burnt Out?

You can check whether you experience both physical signs and mental signs of burnout such as emotional exhaustion, frequent illnesses, decreased work performance and disconnectedness from work as well as people.

3. When Does Stress Turn Into Burnout?

Prolonged stress without improvement can turn into burnout. Burnout leads to difficulties in engaging in activities that are used to be meaningful to you. It is important to note that not everyone experiences burnout in the same way.

4. What Age Is A Burnout?

Burnout levels can vary significantly in different life stages of working adults. According to research from the National Library of Medicine, two age groups that are often negatively associated with burnout are 20-35 years old and over 55 years old.

5. Is Burnout Like A Breakdown?

A mental breakdown or a nervous breakdown is a severe mental health issue. It is more severe than burnout as the stress is extremely overwhelming, which leads to failure to function normally with day-to-day activities.

Stress Vs. Burnout: Differences, Causes, Treatments

Stress vs. burnout are two different challenges that have become common issues  around the world. The most common causes of stress among adults are related to work, finance, health and relationship problems. Burnout as a syndrome is relatively less studied than stress, however, its effects on our quality of life is undeniable. 

Remember that different coping mechanisms work for different people. The important thing is getting to know yourself more and trying to be supportive of others. Know people you care about who might be stressed and burnt out? Share this article with them and reach out.

Chau Dao

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