Where do you sit on the stress-to-burnout spectrum?

Stress is good for us. In little doses that is. It gives us energy, stimulates our creativity, and connects us to our strength and motivation so that we may deliver our best at exactly the right moment and cope with life’s demands. Moreover, a stress-free life where we experience unceasing gratification will soon bore us. We need some trial and challenge to find meaning in our lives.


But too much stress is harmful; living with the spectre of constant stress will soon have the opposite effect. It creates a vicious circle of piling stress onto stress, diminishing our effectiveness and reducing our productivity, which can culminate in burnout. If we do not address excessive stress in our lives, we may soon make ourselves vulnerable to fatigue and insomnia, mood swings and sadness, substance abuse, and a host of physical ailments.

When does stress become burnout?

Are you someone who keeps going regardless of how you feel? Perhaps you are tired but you are still turning up at work on time, dealing with that difficult client and carrying the workload of an absent colleague. So why worry? I call this living your life like a duck gliding across a pond but desperately paddling underneath the surface - it is the perfect image of the kind of turmoil some of us experience behind the facade. Stressed people often are (or at least come across as) busy and productive but on the inside they are swamped by work and other pressures. So maybe you will be alright... but what if you are wrong?

Burnout does not happen out of the blue. There are warning signs (stress + more stress), but if you choose to ignore these, burnout will gradually take a hold of you. Many hardworking and “I-can-do-it-all” people in any profession can crash into the wall of burnout when their physical and emotional engines grind to a halt.

They are exhausted and yet they cannot sleep. Their sense of self is hollowed out and they become detached from themselves and those they love. Cynicism may take hold as they lose interest in their daily life. Their emotions flatten out and they become numb, they no longer recognise how they feel. They may find themselves becoming helpless, sometimes even hopeless and they lose all motivation to carry on. Over time, they become unable to meet the demands of work, and even life.

Managing your stress levels before you reach burnout

Unmanaged stress can lead to burnout, which unlike a virus will usually not be resolved with a bit of rest. So if you feel overly stressed and fatigued, try some of the following:

Start by being honest with yourself and admit that you are not coping very well. Look at your work-life balance and acknowledge that you work too hard, make too long hours, lack control, or perhaps that your job is chaotic or boring. Talk to your supervisor, or someone in HR about job expectations, the office dynamics, and level of (dys)functionality at work. If your work takes up so much of your time and effort that you don't have the energy to spend time with your family and friends, you might burn out quickly. 

Could you actually say no once in a while? Saying yes to everything may tell the other that you are a heroic worker, but can you keep this up? Could you do less and do it better instead of punishing yourself for all that you are not doing perfectly? Could you even begin to consider that perfection does not exist? All you can give is your best - could you take credit for that?

You could consider your lifestyle patterns, including eating, drinking, and sleeping:

  • Are they reflective of your stress levels?
  • Could you find an extra hour of sleep?
  • Can you make time to get that healthy lunch?
  • Perhaps cut down on a drink, or even two?
  • What about your relationship with your tech gadgets? Do they rule your day and night?

Try a relaxing activity. Explore programmes that can help with stress such as yoga, mindfulness meditation, or tai chi. Get some exercise. Regular physical activity can help you to better deal with stress. It can also take your mind off work. 

Could you try to (re-) connect to your friends and family? Isolation at work and in your personal life will make you feel more stressed. Stop avoiding them and begin to talk. Tell them how you feel. They might surprise you with how understanding they may be about your sense of being overwhelmed and feeling inadequate.

Reach out to co-workers, friends or loved ones, and seek their support and collaboration to help you cope. If you have access to an employee assistance program, take advantage of relevant services. You could also seek out a support group or talk to a therapist to help you cope.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London SW7
Written by Ondine Smulders, Existential Psychotherapist & Clinical Supervisor, UKCP
London SW7

I am a multilingual UKCP-psychotherapist, supervisor and executive coach based in London. Twenty+ years in investment banking and think-tanks gave me first-hand experience of the highly competitive nature of these environments, and a keen interest in work-life balance issues. At present I also hold a board non-exec board position.

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