Understanding Employee Burnout and Why It's Different from Stress

8th March 2024
 minute read

Table of contents


‘Stress’ and ‘burnout’ are often used as interchangeable terms but it is important to know the difference. That is because these issues require different kinds of workplace support in order for the individual to heal and thrive. Find out the key signs of these conditions, as well as what managers HR professionals can do to prevent and support both.

The difference between acute stress, chronic stress and burnout

Acute stress, chronic stress and burnout are overlapping conditions, yet there are also key differences. Each condition has its own set of symptoms that impacts on an individual's performance and wellbeing. Each also has its own set of solutions for dealing with it. That is why it is vital for HR professionals and managers to know the differences, so that they can provide the appropriate support and interventions. 

To start with, it can help to understand how the human nervous system reacts to stress. This intricate system is designed to protect and preserve us from both real and perceived danger. It responds to threats by preparing the body to either fight, flee or freeze — a primal response that serves us well in immediate danger but can have profound implications when triggered persistently. 

Understanding these responses is the key to discerning the nuanced differences between acute stress (which is short-lived), chronic stress (which accumulates over time) and burnout — the state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion that emerges from prolonged stress exposure.

By understanding the workings of the nervous system, we can gain invaluable insights into why these states develop, what they look like and how they affect overall wellbeing. Most importantly, we can know how to best help individuals restore their balance and health.

What is acute stress?

Acute stress is the most common form and is usually a response to a specific, short-term challenge or pressure, for instance, delivering a presentation at work. It's often described as the body's immediate reaction to a new, challenging or threatening situation.

Signs of acute stress

  • Physical symptoms: rapid heartbeat, elevated blood pressure and temporary anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Emotional responses: feelings of irritability or anger, short-term anxiety or distress.
  • Behavioural changes: may include a temporary decrease in productivity, avoidance of tasks or difficulty concentrating.

Acute stress is typically resolved once the stressor is removed or the situation is dealt with.

What is chronic stress

Chronic stress results from repeated exposure to stressors that feel insurmountable or to continual pressure over an extended period. This could include having a high workload with consistently tight deadlines.

Acute stress can slowly wear down an individual's resilience and coping mechanisms. Chronic stress can have profound effects on brain function, impairing decision-making, emotional regulation and motivation.

Signs of chronic stress

  • Persistent fatigue: constant feeling of being drained or overwhelmed.
  • Long-term anxiety or depression: ongoing feelings of sadness, worry or hopelessness.
  • Physical health issues: such as headaches, stomach problems or chronic pain.
  • Cognitive difficulties: problems with concentration, memory or decision-making.

Chronic stress requires more than just immediate coping strategies. It may also necessitate changes in the work environment, as well as lifestyle adjustments and possibly professional help.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged and excessive stress. It occurs when an individual feels overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet constant demands.

At its core, stress activates our nervous system's fight, flight or freeze responses — mechanisms designed to protect us from harm. However, when stress is constant, these systems are pushed to their limits, leading to burnout. This state can be seen as the nervous system pulling the emergency brake, signalling an unsustainable situation. According to a 2010 study by Borritz et al, burnout can increase workplace absence by 57%.

Signs of burnout

  • Emotional exhaustion: feelings of being emotionally depleted or unable to cope.
  • Cynicism and detachment: a negative attitude towards one’s job, colleagues or the organisation. Feeling disconnected from the workplace.
  • Feelings of ineffectiveness: experiencing a sense of failure or lack of accomplishment and reduced productivity.

Burnout is more severe and complex than acute or chronic stress, requiring significant intervention and potentially a change in job role or environment. 

How HR professionals and managers can identify stress and burnout 

  1. Observation: paying close attention to changes in an employee's behaviour, performance or attitude can provide early warning signs.
  2. Communication: regular check-ins and creating an open environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their stress levels can help to identify issues early.
  3. Performance reviews: noticing a decline in quality or productivity may indicate chronic stress or burnout.
  4. Feedback from colleagues: sometimes, coworkers may notice changes in an employee’s behaviour or mood before it comes to a manager's attention.
  5. Health and wellness programs: anonymised monitoring of wellness programme use can offer clues to overall employee stress levels.

Recognising these signs early allows HR professionals and managers to intervene appropriately. This could involve offering support, resources for managing stress, changes in workload or responsibilities, or professional mental health support such as therapy. The key is to approach these situations with empathy, understanding and a willingness to find solutions that address the root causes of stress or burnout. 

It is also important not to make assumptions  — even if an employee shows one or two of the above listed signs, there may be other reasons not related to stress or burnout. That is why open and sensitive conversations are key. (Lumo’s 7 steps for handling difficult conversations is a useful guide for approaching this).

Recovering from stress and burnout

Recovering from stress

Stress recovery involves focusing on managing the stressors and enhancing the individual’s ability to cope with stressful situations. Strategies include:

Short-term solutions

Relaxation techniques: practices like deep breathing, meditation and yoga can help calm the nervous system and reduce immediate stress levels.

Physical activity: engaging in exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood lifters that help alleviate stress.

Long-term strategies:

Time management: learning to prioritise tasks and delegate when necessary can reduce work-related stress.

Developing healthy habits: ensuring adequate sleep, eating a balanced diet and maintaining social connections can improve overall resilience to stress.

Setting boundaries: clearly defining work-life boundaries to ensure personal time and space can prevent stress accumulation.

Recovering from burnout

Recovery from burnout requires more profound changes, as burnout signifies a depletion of physical and emotional resources. Strategies include:

Stepping back:

Taking time off: if possible, taking a break from work or reducing work hours can provide the necessary space to recharge.

Re-evaluation: reflecting on what led to burnout. Considering changes in job situation or career path if necessary.

Rebuilding resources:

Seeking support: counselling or therapy can help address the underlying issues contributing to burnout, offering strategies for emotional recovery.

Engaging in activities that refuel: pursuing hobbies, spending time in nature, or engaging in any gentle activity that brings joy can help restore emotional energy.

Long-term changes:

Workplace changes: discussing workload, seeking more control over work, or changing roles can address the root causes of burnout.

Mindset shifts: adopting a growth mindset and focusing on aspects of work that feel meaningful can help rebuild a sense of efficacy and purpose.

Building resilience: developing strategies to manage future stress and prevent burnout — such as mindfulness practices and strengthening emotional intelligence — are key.

Key differences between stress and burnout recovery

  • Focus: stress recovery often focuses on managing or removing the stressor. Burnout recovery requires a deeper change in work habits, environment and possibly career goals.
  • Time frame: stress management can be implemented in the short term with immediate effects. Recovering from burnout is typically a longer process that involves fundamental changes to one’s approach to work and life.
  • Scope: strategies for stress tend to be more about coping and resilience building. In contrast, burnout recovery strategies may involve more significant life and career changes. It might also involve focusing on rediscovering passion and purpose.

Bear in mind that encouraging an individual experiencing burnout to simply “do more” — whether through self-help, self-care or making changes in their personal or professional life — can have unintended consequences. While well-intentioned, this approach may not address the root causes of burnout and could potentially exacerbate the situation.

Potential consequences of encouraging "doing more"

  1. Increased pressure and stress: individuals experiencing burnout are already feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Telling them to do more to deal with their condition can actually add to their stress, making them feel that they are not doing enough to manage their situation. This can lead to increased feelings of inadequacy and failure.
  2. Reinforcing unhealthy patterns: burnout often results from prolonged periods of excessive effort without adequate rest or recovery. Encouraging more activity might reinforce the belief that the only way to cope with challenges is to push harder, perpetuating the cycle of burnout.
  3. Misplaced focus: focusing on individual actions (such as adopting more self-care routines) without addressing systemic or organisational factors contributing to burnout can be misguided. While self-care is important, it may not be sufficient to counteract the effects of an overly demanding work environment, unrealistic expectations or lack of support.
  4. Further emotional and physical exhaustion: engaging in additional activities, even for self-help or self-care, requires energy and resources that the individual may not have. This can lead to further depletion of their already low reserves, worsening symptoms of burnout.
  5. Alienation and isolation: if individuals feel that their struggles are not truly understood or being minimised, they may feel isolated or alienated from their support systems. This can hinder open communication and prevent them from seeking the help they need.

Alternative approaches for managing burnout

  1. Validating experiences: acknowledge the individual's feelings of burnout and the legitimacy of their experience. Validation can be a powerful first step in the healing process.
  2. Encouraging rest and recovery: instead of encouraging more activity, emphasise the importance of rest, relaxation and disengagement from work-related stressors to allow for recovery.
  3. Addressing organisational factors: work with the individual to identify and address any organisational or systemic issues contributing to their burnout. This could include workload, lack of control or insufficient recognition.
  4. Providing support: offer the person support in navigating their situation, which could include access to mental health resources, modifications to their workload or exploring options for taking time off if needed.
  5. Fostering a supportive environment: shape a workplace culture that prioritises wellbeing. This could include promoting work-life balance, encouraging breaks and supporting professional growth in a way that does not contribute to stress.

While encouraging someone experiencing burnout to engage in more activities might seem helpful, it's crucial to approach their recovery with sensitivity to their current capacity and the underlying issues. A more supportive, holistic approach that includes rest, organisational change and professional guidance can be far more beneficial in addressing burnout effectively.

Burnout, much like an emergency brake, serves as a critical alert from our nervous system that immediate change is necessary. For HR professionals, understanding the complex interplay between work stress and physiological responses is the first step towards developing effective strategies to combat burnout. By adopting a proactive and informed approach, HR can address the immediate challenges of burnout. It can also foster a work environment that supports long-term employee wellbeing and organisational health.

Understanding Employee Burnout and Why It's Different from Stress
You may also like
No items found.

Boost your teams’ mental wellbeing today

Ready to find out more? Let’s talk