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How to Tell if It’s Regular Stress or Burnout

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When stress goes unchecked, it can impact life, work, and beyond.

woman stressed at work

Is work stressing you out more than usual lately? Does just the thought of going to work tomorrow fill you with dread? Are you finding it harder and harder to finish your projects? Then you might be experiencing burnout, a syndrome that was recently acknowledged by the World Health Organization, which defines it as chronic work stress that you can’t manage.

To distinguish between regular stress and burnout-levels of stress, the World Heath Organization lists some conditions unique to burnout: feeling exhausted or depleted of energy; reduced performance in your professional work; and feeling disconnected from, negative, or cynical about your job. But if you’ve noticed this, that’s actually good news. “If you recognize you're stressed, that means you can do something about it,” says Shainna Ali, PhD, a licensed mental health counselor in Orlando, FL.

But burnout isn’t just stress, per se. Rather, “burnout comes about when your stress is unchecked,” Ali explains. “It's really a fork in the road. When we recognize our stress, then we have the opportunity to say, OK, hold on, I'm stressed. What's going on in my environment? Are there small changes that I can make to reduce or manage this stress a little bit better?” If you choose not to address it—for instance, you volunteer yourself for more projects, or put in even longer hours to get everything done—that can eventually lead to burnout.

It’s best to take some steps to reduce your stress as soon as you realize that you’re on the path to burnout. Consider it akin to basic time management: If you do take on work projects or commit to working late, that leaves less time for you to take the steps to care for yourself.

First, it helps to start small. “Can you get up from your desk? Can you walk away? Can you do something active at work? Can you switch tasks?” Ali says. Try something as simple as taking the stairs between meetings or walking to a coffee shop a bit further away for a mid-morning latte. Even these small breaks during your workday may help you feel a little better. If you have paid sick days, consider taking one as a mental health day.

Then, make sure you’re checking off the fundamental basics of self-care, such as proper sleep, drinking enough water, eating healthy food, and getting physical activity. After that, it can be personalized, Ali says. “Some people talk about how mindfulness and deep breathing has really transformed their lives,” she explains. But what works for one person may not work for you, so it’s worth exploring a few options. For example, download the free version of a meditation or yoga app before you get a subscription. And if you start small, you can eventually make space for a bigger time investment in your mental health, which is important for your physical health too: there’s some research to suggest that chronic stress may make you more likely to get sick with a cold.

If you take these steps and are still feeling overwhelmed and burnt out, consider having a conversation with your boss about your workload. Come prepared with concrete examples of all you have to do, and frame the conversation as a request for help, not a complaint, which helps frame it as a business case. For example, you can come with a list of what you’re working on and say, “I’m working on these five different clients and am having trouble meeting all their needs despite being the last one in the office every day, which is starting to drain on me. Is there someone who can take on some of this work load so we keep our clients happy?” And if you’re still feeling overly stressed, working with your doctor or a therapist may be beneficial.

Finally, be proactive about your mental wellness, as Ali puts it, before your stress starts to have a big impact on your life. In other words, don’t wait to take care of yourself until you’re totally stressed. “Come up with methods to keep yourself regulated, balanced, and destressed before you even have signs of burnout,” she says. Make plans to use up all those vacation days, and practice healthy habits like exercise and healthy eating no matter what’s going on at work—you’ll be happy you did.