We all experience stress in our daily lives every now and then – not necessarily only in our work environment. It can be stressful to have an ill family member, to raise a child, to have exams upcoming in school or university, to have relationship problems, and to deal with an addiction, just to name a few. 

Every individual exposed to chronic stress can experience burnout. Does that mean experiencing stress inevitably leads to burnout though?

According to the World Health Organization, burnout is a syndrome caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. During the Covid-19 pandemic, new stressors were added to all of our daily lives. 

We speak about burnout when a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion is reached as a result of chronic and unresolved stress. It can occur when you are not aware of the impact stress can have on you. The fact that you are reading this blog, suggests that you are aware/intending to become aware: The answer to our initial question “Does stress inevitably lead to burnout?”, then, is No. 

Other factors for burnout

Stress may lead to burnout, but this is not always the case. Having poor self-esteem and unrealistic expectations of yourself would put you at higher risk to develop burnout. Speaking about the development, according to research, burnout happens in five stages.

You may reach stage three, the ‘chronic stress’ stage, when not managing your stress well from the beginning. Being aware and finding ways to manage acute stress, can prevent to reach burnout at the end of the stress spectrum. 

How would you know whether it is still stress or already burnout? 

Being in a state of stress feels like ‘too much’ of everything: too much to handle, too many responsibilities, too many hours at work, and too much on your plate in general. The idea is that there is not enough time to get everything done. However, there is still hope and thoughts such as ‘It can get better if…/it will get better once…’. 

Not dealing with the stress or making changes leads to experiencing it for an extended period of time – you may start feeling numb, empty, and avoidant as well as hopeless. 

“It can’t get better”

Being in a state of burnout is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. The thought process changes, and you no longer feel that the situation is temporary and resolvable: burnout feels like there is ‘not enough’ of everything: not enough motivation, not enough energy, not enough care. The idea now is usually, “I know it will never get better.”

How to prevent burnout

Preventing burnout is based on stress-reducing measures and focusing on maintaining a healthy balance. This means that when something is added to the plate, ideally, something else is taken off. Especially when dealing with stress in a work environment, it can easily feel like you have no control over the situation. It is important to focus on what you can control: In a work environment, this can be communicating your boundaries or else by saying NO to extra tasks. 

Self-care is as important as developing healthy coping mechanisms for the stressful times life throws at us. A counsellor or therapist can support you in developing healthy coping strategies, prioritizing tasks, and dealing with the consequences of stress and burnout.

If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.

Franziska Richter is a transcultural counsellor with the Willingness Team, offering counselling sessions to individuals and couples. She is particularly interested in sexuality, relationship issues, trauma and general mental health