Would you know if you struggle with stress or burn-out?

If you're lacking enthusiasm, feeling worn out, you may be suffering from stress or burn-out. But there are steps you can take to deal with them.


Probably most of us at some stage have experienced feeling unmotivated and unsure about our current jobs. But how do you know if it's a passing mood, or a sign that something needs to change? And indeed how do you decide what to change?


Stress is a general term for when demands exceed your ability to cope. Stress occurs when people are overwhelmed by external pressures such as a high work load, or are more susceptible to stressful circumstances because of personal problems or lack of resources to cope. Stress is different to burn-out, here's why:


Burn-out is a particular kind of stress where there are feelings of emotional exhaustion, and decreased motivation, along with losing the ability to be optimistic and care about your work anymore. The term originates from the image of a burnt out building, where all that is left is a shell that is no longer functioning effectively. It is caused by organisational dynamics (such as bureaucracy, lack of autonomy, high workload, and being unfairly treated).

The opposite of burn-out is engagement (enthusiasm, commitment, optimism, energy, involvement). Remember the feeling you had when you first started your job, and were ready to change the world?


Causes of burn-out:

  • Work overload – too little time or a lack of resources.
  • Lack of control – having little influence or autonomy.
  • Insufficient rewards relative to the demands of the job - poor pay or lack of appreciation for a difficult job.
  • Insufficient team cohesion – a busy work environment prevents opportunities for connectedness, knowing each other well, and having a laugh, which all contribute to job satisfaction.
  • Unequal or unfair treatment  – if evaluations, promotions and benefits are not applied fairly, the organisation cannot be trusted by the employee.
  • Conflict of values – if aspects of the job go against your ethics or values it can cause a lot of distress.

How bad is it? Stages of burn-out

  • Idealisation: Having unrealistic expectations about work and how fulfilling or perfect it will be. No matter how good the job is, we all need relationships and a sense of meaning outside work. Work cannot fulfil those needs for us.
  • Disillusionment and growing dissatisfaction: Cracks appear, the bubble is burst, and disenchantment with the job begins as inevitably the job cannot live up to expectations. For most of us, work is a mixed experience of good and bad; the hope is that it is good enough to be sustaining.
  • Frustration dominates: Questioning systems and complaining; now you are easily irritated by bureaucracy, policies, and decisions you disagree with.
  • Defensive withdrawal: Going through the motions, you begin to feel separate and not so loyal, and may have more sick leave. You develop a negative attitude towards work and don’t want to be there.
  • Hopelessness: Resigned to not caring, no optimism, low morale, cynical.

Differentiating between stress and burn-out:

                          Stress                                                   Burn-out

  • Characterised by pressure, rushing, feeling overwhelmed and too busy.
  • Characterised by disengagement, disenchantment, and cynicism.
  • Over-responsive, irritable, anxious.
  • Emotions are blunted, cut off.
  • Produces urgency and hyperactivity.
  • Feels powerless and hopeless.
  • Loss of energy.
  • Loss of motivation, ideals, and hope.

Who is most vulnerable?

Mostly burn-out is not down to personal or individual factors, but much more about the external stresses coming from the organisation - such as whether the work itself is rewarding, or traumatising, or boring, and how supportive the work environment is. However the following personal characteristics can make you more susceptible to burnout:

  • Perfectionistic tendencies - getting easily upset when things are not ideal.
  • Pessimistic view of yourself and the world i.e. a negative mindset, glass half empty.
  • The need to be in control; reluctance to delegate to others.
  • Achievement being your main goal in life.
  • Younger people, (usually correlates with less experience).
  • Single people - less support, more likely that the job holds a lot of meaning.
  • Working full time rather than part time. This is about how much space in your week work occupies.
  • Work giving you a lot of your sense of meaning in your life, not balanced by an outside life.

How to prevent and recover from stress and burn-out

At work

  • Talk through difficult situations with people who are able to give you support.
  • Create a culture of support in your workplace. Have each others’ backs. Don’t be afraid to ask others if they are OK after something difficult. When things go wrong look at improving systems to prevent it reoccurring, rather than blame individuals.
  • It is often easier to see changes in others rather than ourselves. Develop the kind of trusting relationships where colleagues could let you know if you seem stressed.
  • Connect with your team (including having fun together).
  • If you are in a leadership role, lead by example showing good self-care, and attend to tasks and the well-being of staff. Highest levels of burn-out are when your immediate supervisor is more focused on tasks and not mindful of the employee’s needs. 
  • Give staff some control and autonomy over their work as much as this is practical. It improves morale enormously. Health and Safety Executive research on stress shows that a heavy workload does not cause stress to the same degree if there is good support from team leaders, and some control/autonomy.
  • Thank others and show appreciation.
  • Review how much you care about the work, and your colleagues. You need enough distance to be useful and not too affected by your work. Too much caring will leave you exhausted and not looking after yourself, but too little leads to being cynical and unenthusiastic and is not satisfying, even it feels like you are trying to protect yourself from further distress.
  • Notice and challenge any perfectionist thinking. No workplace is perfect. Things go wrong. People are disappointing. You can’t always get it right. Try to believe being ‘good enough’ is good enough, and then you will avoid too much disappointment.
  • Deal with negative feelings: Dissatisfaction and negative thinking can spread to others, so do something constructive when you feel upset such as telling management about your concerns, rather than complain to colleagues. Of course there has to be confidence that management will listen to your concerns and take them seriously! Perhaps you can have a bigger impact if gain support from others for the things you want to change.
  • Reconnect with what work means to you, and the positives. If there aren’t any positives it might be time to think about change. The change might involve getting some support to talk through whether the problem is your own stress levels and unhappiness, and see if this can be altered, or whether you need to make an external change with a different job.

At home

Avoiding stress and burn-out at home

Be responsibly selfish. This does not mean becoming uncaring towards others, but rather keeping in mind that self-care is not an optional extra if you want to survive in a demanding job. It is a priority.

Invest time and energy into nurturing yourself and establish a self-care plan that is relentlessly carried out.

These three things have the biggest impact:

  • Building resilience with leisure activities that really do replenish you, including fun.
  • Getting a sense of meaning and purpose outside work.
  • Connecting with others (family and friends.)

Getting help

Asking for help is not a weakness. It takes strength, courage, and trust to let others know what is going on for you. It shows maturity to know your limitations. No-one is immune from feeling overwhelmed. If you recognise the symptoms of stress or burn-out, don’t just leave it, seek support.

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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