Stress vs burnout - what's the difference?

Stress vs burnout, here's the big difference between the two and the signs to look out for according to a health psychologist

Anvil being held up by a blue balloon on a string, symbolic of stress vs burnout
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It's important to weigh up stress vs burnout when we feel exhausted with life, as we often undervalue our symptoms and emotions, hoping they'll pass. But burnout is a serious issue, one that can develop very quickly as a result of chronic stress. 

The rates of burnout, otherwise known as chronic workplace stress, have also been increasing in recent years, leading the World Health Organisation (WHO) to classify the condition as a diagnosis in 2019. While this has gone a long way to encourage people to take the condition seriously, one of the issues with burnout is that it's not just a workplace issue. It's a result of severe stress that manifests across someone's entire life. 

To understand more about the difference between feeling very stressed with a situation and experiencing total burnout, we consulted a health psychologist so you can get the help you need and, in turn, learn how to deal with stress better in the long term. 

Joanna Konstantopoulou, health psychologist and cognitive behavioural expert
Joanna Konstantopoulou

Joanna Konstantopoulou is a psychologist and psychotherapist specializing in health psychology, cognitive behavior therapy, and behavioral and emotional change, with over 13 years of professional clinical experience. She operates a private psychology practice on Harley Street, London called the Health Psychology Clinic where she uses a variety of therapeutic tools and behavioral techniques with clients to help them achieve their goals.

Stress vs burnout

Stress and burnout are two totally different states of mind, explains Joanna Konstantopoulou, a health psychologist and cognitive behavioral therapist. “Stress is a mental or emotional state that occurs when an individual experiences tension, as a result of unfavorable circumstances. Burnout, however, is the name given to a physical and emotional condition that leaves sufferers experiencing exhaustion, apathy, and hopelessness.”

They can both occur as a result of pressures at work, school, through relationship burnout, or dating burnout, but stress is often short-term and the unpleasant side effects will dissipate when the stressor is over. Burnout is longer-term total fatigue that happens when you’ve completely run out of steam. 

Can you get burnout from stress?

Yes, if the stress continues for a prolonged period then it can definitely result in burnout. "Burnout is usually stress that has built up over time without adequate measures to tackle or reduce the stress, leaving the suffer exhausted and struggling to cope with the demands of everyday life."

Although you can learn how to deal with burnout without quitting your job, it has serious consequences for sufferers' physical and mental health, a study by Universidade Estadual de Londrina found. Researchers here found chronic stress to be a major predictor of serious conditions like type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and other cardiovascular disorders, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, and early mortality. 

The psychological effects of burnout are equally severe, with researchers concluding that prolonged stress is a huge contributor to symptoms of depression and those who are diagnosed with burnout are much more like to use psychotropic and antidepressant medications. 

That's why it's important to address the early signs of stress vs burnout when they start cropping up. "The first important step is to reach out," Konstantopoulou says, "Communication is the key to developing boundaries and ensuring that your needs are met. Speak to a loved one, manager, or colleague about your concerns and changes you can make. You may be surprised by how much you are valued. If you want to speak to a professional, consider getting help from a health psychologist."

Woman looking bored at desk, covered with papers, a big difference between stress vs burnout

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Signs of stress turning into burnout

1. You're physically exhausted

When you're stressed, you might feel tired most of the time or even fatigued but when someone is experiencing burnout, they are dealing with chronic exhaustion. This is particularly common with exercise burnout but happens across the spectrum of burnout types. “If you’re feeling tired and drained most or all of the time, accompanied by physical symptoms such as headaches and migraines, this could be burnout,” says Konstantopoulou. “The physical effects of burnout deplete your energy, which can also make you more vulnerable to colds and flu.” 

It's also unlikely you'll feel better after sleeping if you're experiencing burnout, a study by the University of Granada found. Researchers looked a nurses dealing with stress vs burnout and found that they were significantly more likely to develop adverse sleep conditions, like insomnia, than those without the condition. They also found that the worse the burnout was, unsurprisingly, the worse the sleep conditions became. 

2. You're experience a sense of failure and self-doubt

When we're stressed, especially if it's a work-related issue, it's easy to think that working harder or for longer will solve the issue. This is the last thing you should do, Konstantopoulou explains, as it can be the trigger for stress to switch to burnout. 

“When you are emotionally and physically overwhelmed, it’s difficult to see the positives,” she says. “A vicious cycle can ensue whereby self-doubt adds pressure and facilitates perfectionist tenancies that are impossible to achieve. The more worthless you feel, the harder you push to be better, which can lead to burnout.” 

If you're wondering how to help someone with burnout then this is something to consider, as it can be one of the earliest warning signs that someone is approaching the brink between burnout and stress. 

3. You completely lose motivation

Then when you're burnt out, and especially if you're dealing with habitual burnout, you're likely to experience a complete loss of motivation. “The opposite can occurs, with the sufferer of burnout feeling so defeated and demotivated that they lose the will to try. This further propels feelings of detachment and loneliness, even in a room filled with colleagues or family,” she says. 

4. You're unable to complete everyday tasks

When you're stressed, you're unlikely going to be able to concentrate and you may forget things easily - but basic tasks should be doable. When it comes to stress vs burnout, total forgetfulness is a true sign of burnout, Konstantopoulou says.

“It makes sense that when you are feeling low both emotionally and physically, it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate everyday tasks. Concentration wanes and it is challenging to handle your responsibilities or be creative in the same way as before." 

If you're worried about stress vs burnout and chronic stress generally, it's essential to speak to your doctor. 

Grace Walsh
Health Channel Editor

Grace Walsh is woman&home's Health Channel Editor, working across the areas of fitness, nutrition, sleep, mental health, relationships, and sex. In 2024, she will be taking on her second marathon in Rome, cycling from Manchester to London (350km) for charity, and qualifying as a certified personal trainer.

A digital journalist with over six years experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace has covered (almost) everything in the world of health and wellbeing with bylines in Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more.