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When Stress Becomes Burnout

Updated: Feb 15

Written by: Kasia Palkowski

Stress is a normal part of life and something that every one of us experiences. I like to define it as emotional, mental, or physical tension resulting from either your own or others’ thoughts, actions, events, circumstances, etc. From being in the midst of exam season, to your boss tasking you with another project on top of the three you’re already working on – most of us can name a point in our lives where we had, and were aware of, stress on our shoulders.

Case in point: 2020. The COVID Era. If we look at how living through a pandemic affects people’s stress levels – social isolation; health concerns; school disruptions; financial worries with the downturn of the market – then we’re already living in above-normal stress levels. But the pandemic also brought forth a revolutionary change in how businesses operate; couple these effects with months of being 100% virtual at work or school, layoffs, or still going into the office in the middle of a worldwide health crisis, prolonged-stress-turned-burnout is bound to strike sooner or later. And that’s backed by studies – research from LinkedIn shows that burnout signs in the US have risen 33% in 2020!

We’ve all heard of the “Fight or Flight” response – when we’re presented with a threatening situation, our body releases the cortisol hormone (or “stress” hormone) so that we can respond to the threat. This response helped us survive in the times where there was a possibility of being attacked by tigers - but in the modern day, the response isn’t as useful as we may think. Of course, moderate levels of stress called eustress do have a positive impact on performance; they help us focus on pressing tasks and increase our efficiency (Google “Yerkes Dodson Law” for more on this) and they eventually subside without much negative influence. But the problems start when our stress levels continue to increase and our ability to deal with them can’t keep up. In result, we become too stressed to be productive. Often, this happens slowly; our eustress turns into distress, then chronic stress, and people might not recognize they’re heading down the path of serious damage.

This is where burnout creeps in – it’s more than simply being exhausted at the end of a long, seemingly never-ending day – it’s living in a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that occurs as a result of this excessive, unresolved, chronic stress. It means losing interest in your work and your social life and it affects your happiness and career satisfaction. Both stress and burnout have symptoms that are expressed physically, emotionally, and behaviourally, some of which include: getting lower quality sleep or no sleep, having lower productivity while at work or school, and developing a level of detachment in your personal relationships.

The Mayo Clinic has put together a great list of questions you can ask yourself to determine your symptoms:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work/school?

  • Do you drag yourself to work/school and have trouble getting started?

  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?

  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?

  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?

  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?

  • Do you feel disillusioned about your job?

  • Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?

  • Have your sleep habits changed?

  • Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be experiencing burnout. Consider talking to a doctor or a mental health provider because these symptoms may also be related to health conditions, such as depression.

In addition to working with a professional, there are some actions you can take on your own to start regaining control of your stress levels:

  1. Make self-care the priority: you’ll need to commit to yourself. Put work or school out of your mind for an afternoon and reflect on how much sleep, movement, and nutrients you’re getting daily. Make adjustments and create routines that support a healthy lifestyle, to increase your quality of life. Focus on mindful movement like yoga or create a meditation practice to lower your cortisol levels. Be kind and forgive yourself for allowing all your stress to pile up – that’s in the past. As your sense of self becomes stronger, take time to invest in your relationships and any virtual socializing that you skipped out on at the peak of your burnout.

  2. Engage in self-reflection to identify your “tipping point”: it’s hard to tell when stress hits that breaking point and burnout kicks in because it emerges over time. Reflecting on how you got to your current state of burnout can be powerful and helpful in preventing this from happening in the future. Ask yourself - at what point did things really take a turn for the worse? At what point did I start to withdraw from my friends, family, coworkers? Can I recall any dates or events that left me feeling overwhelmed, or overworked? What happened afterward? What were some triggers I’ve felt over the last few months/weeks? How did I react? Do I usually react that way, or could it have been an overreaction brought on by the burnout?

  3. Set boundaries for work or school: using insights gathered from the last step, determine firm working hours and schedule in multiple breaks throughout the day. With many of us working from home, it’s easy to work well into the evening without even realizing it (myself included!). When we don’t take breaks, productivity ultimately suffers so it’s essential to start building this life-long habit. You may also need to revisit pre-existing commitments to have them fit in your new schedule, and work on saying “no” more to prevent yourself from being over-extended again.

It’s easy for students and working professionals to be heading down the path towards burnout without realizing it’s happening to them. Burnout can take a huge toll on people’s mental health – and it’s amplified in The COVID Era. My hope is that, in this new normal, we understand the signs, symptoms, and consequences of leaving our chronic stress untreated. We have the power to change our circumstances when they no longer serve us! By proactively managing your schedule and workload, prioritizing “me” time, and engaging in self-reflection, you’ll be giving yourself space to escape the grips of burnout and re-engage with the things that give you a sense of fulfillment and harmony.



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