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Stress vs Burnout: Understanding the Insidious Differences

The lines between stress and burnout often blur in a demanding workplace. Hence, it’s all too common to normalise these energy-draining states until it’s too late. Learn how to spot the distinguishing signs and adopt effective coping strategies to ensure a healthier, more productive working environment.

In this age of “hustle & grind” survival-of-the-fittest culture, the burnout epidemic is on the rise. We are praised and rewarded for attaining high KPIs and feel ashamed when we lag behind, regardless of how it harms us. Workplace stress and burnout are not honourable or inevitable, they are mental health issues significantly influencing employees’ productivity, engagement, and overall wellness the world over. Since understanding the differences between the two is vital for any organisation aspiring to cultivate a mentally healthy workplace, we must understand the spectrum and subtle signs to proactively observe in our workforce.

Defining Stress and Burnout

In simple terms, workplace stress is a response to demands and pressures that challenge an individual’s ability to cope. As this is often temporary, the stress usually subsides once the issue is resolved or removed.

Contrastingly, burnout is a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion, often personified as doubts about the competence and value of one’s work. It’s a severe stage of overwhelming and unmanaged, extensive, and long-lasting stress. Burnout can cause long term physical and emotional issues which can jeopardise one’s ability to work and affect relationships if left untreated.

Signs and Symptoms

Stress often manifests in hyperactivity, anxiety, and a sense of urgency. On the other hand, burnout manifests as disengagement, total and utter exhaustions, helplessness, and a constant-recurring sense of hopelessness. High-stress levels push an individual to an unhealthy level of engagement, while burnout can lead to feeling detached and little to no ability to motivate oneself. Burnout can literally immobilise us.

Impact on the Workplace

Stating the obvious, both stress and burnout can adversely affect workplace dynamics. Stress can lead to errors, decreased productivity, and impaired decision-making. Burnout, however, is more severe, potentially resulting in major mistakes and judgement calls, absenteeism, apathy, and greatly reduced professional efficacy.

Research[1] has shown the cost of poor well-being results in 15% to 20% of total payroll costs related to voluntary resignations, and US$322 billion of turnover and lost productivity globally due to employee burnout.

Addressing Stress and Burnout

As an organisation, understanding the differences between stress and burnout is only the first step. Taking burnout seriously is the next. Effectively (and proactively) addressing these issues is essential. So, here are some strategies that can help:

1. Employee Assistance Programme (EAP)

The Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) is a work-based intervention programme designed to assist employees in managing personal problems like stress and burnout, which may be affecting their performance.

2. Encourage Regular Breaks

Taking short, frequent breaks throughout the day can help reduce stress and prevent burnout. Personnel often avoid this out of a sense of duty or work-focus, hence the more this is encouraged top-down, the better.

3. Foster a Supportive Environment

Advocate open communication about mental health issues. Make it so your teams feel the workplace is a safe space to talk openly about their mental health. For example, let them know that: “It’s okay to be not okay”. Having a supportive workplace culture can make employees feel valued and reduce feelings of stress and burnout.

4. Provide Resources and Training

Equip your team with the tools to identify and manage stress and burnout. Normalise conversations on the topic. Regular workshops and training can be game-changing.

5. Promote Work-Life Balance

Encourage employees to maintain a healthy balance between their work and personal lives — even if they resist. Drawing boundaries for communications is key. Consider when it’s okay and not okay to expect work-related communications. For example, how often do we send WhatsApp messages to an employee out of hours expecting an immediate response just because we’re working? Encouraging flexible work hours while respecting personal time are simple yet golden ways to prevent burnout.

6. Implement Stress Management Techniques

Teach employees relaxation techniques, mindfulness, and other stress management strategies that create regular breaks and empower employees to regulate their nervous systems. Not everyone has a daily mindfulness practice. Meditation is one of our superpowers to avoid stress and burnout, yet so few are aware of its transformative capability. This is just one of many options we can use to reduce stress and avoid burnout altogether.

Beating Burnout

Employers can avoid stress and burnout within their teams if they have  metrics to assess and intervene in these all-too-common workplace mental health maladies. It stands to reason that a mentally healthy workplace contributes to the organisation’s overall success while providing a safe and healthy space for employees to thrive. If you’re experiencing stress or burnout in your workplace, reach out to a mental health professional at our clinic for a confidential discussion. Our psychologists, counsellors, and coaches are here to help.

Don’t let stress and burnout overshadow your potential. We can help explore ways to manage your workplace mental health better. Your well-being is our priority.

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