Stressed or Burnt Out?

Fri 25 Mar 2022

Stressed or Burnt Out? Stressed or Burnt Out?


This is the conversation I am having a lot at the minute and it’s not surprising. Stress accumulates. Yes, we can have acute stressful events, like a car accident or a pet dying. But more of us are struggling currently with chronic stress. The layering of stress on stress on stress. The stress that, up to a point, was probably good for us. We all need a little stress in our lives. It's the thing that helps us build resilience (remember that buzz word!). By having some stress in our lives we build up the ability to deal with other stress. It creates a drive. An energy. It switches on our noradrenaline, cortisol, sex hormones, thyroid function. Our engine. 


But like every engine it needs a rest. When we don’t have the rest or recovery from stress and the intensity is increased, at some point that engine is going to blow. And everyone has a tipping point. Everyone has a point when their system cannot take anymore. Yes, there are some of us who are more prone to the effects of stressful life events. If our starting point is as a “worrier”, if we have a family history of mental ill health, if we have a personal history of childhood trauma, then our glass will already be half full. It may take less of what life throws at us to make us overflow. But everyone's glass will overflow at some point. 


When we think about those chemicals that are involved in stress in our body we can see that the symptoms we might experience will be varied. The cortisol will cause us to feel fatigued and anxious. The noradrenaline will put our heart rate and blood pressure up and leave us feeling on edge. The disturbance of our sex hormones will lead to reduced libido in men and women and changes in our menstrual cycle as women. They can all affect our gut and cause us to have IBS symptoms with gastric hurry or constipation. They can affect the level of inflammation in our body and leave our immune systems weakened. Sound familiar? 


So can we then say that we are “burnt out”? 


The answer is no. To be burnt out is a diagnosis that is specific to work related stress. That might be part of the layering of stress but it is specific to our occupation. If we are depressed or anxious then we are more likely to be burnt out and if we are burnt out we can very easily become depressed but it can be useful to separate them. 


The symptoms of burnout are feeling fatigued, feeling negative about our work and feeling ineffective at work. We can protect ourselves by thinking about our post-work recovery. 


  1. Focusing on creating a psychological divide between our work and home life. We can do this by switching off email, slack, whats app. Creating a commute at the start and end of the day. 

  2. Having some time for rest.  A soak in the bath. A walk with the dog. A restorative yoga session. Whatever works for you. 

  3. Using mastery. Having something else in your life that challenges your brain that isn’t work. Learning an instrument. Tinkering with an old car. Something that makes you smile. 

  4. Being involved in these choices yourself. Not being told what to do by someone else. Because we are all unique and what works for one person may not work for another. 


But really when we are thinking about burnout we also need to think about the system. If you are a manager or an employer, if you are self employed, if you are part of the team, there are things we can do to protect ourselves and others from burnout. The obvious thing that comes up here is always work load. Can we reduce workload? Unfortunately a lot of people and businesses struggle with this. Their level of work is often unavoidable. But burnout is not all about workload. If we can create a community with the people we work with then it has been shown to help. If we can create a culture where people are recognized for their input and rewarded in some way, not necessarily financially, then this again can prevent burnout in that team or workplace. If there is fairness and you perceive your work as meaningful again this is protective. Lastly again having choice and autonomy also helps. 


Someone who has burnt out or is chronically stressed will often need many months off work to recover. They feel guilty, ashamed and weak but they can’t take any more. If you feel like you are heading in this direction please ask for help. The most recent surveys of UK doctors show that one in three is burnt out. But I see it in every field of life at the minute. No one is immune. 


This month is Stress Awareness Month in the UK. We will post and share advice on Facebook and Instagram and try to help support us all through the stress of 2022.

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