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Can You Feel The Difference Between Stress And Burnout?

Written by: Britt-Mari Sykes, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Britt-Mari Sykes

We often use the words stress and burnout interchangeably to describe periods in our lives when we feel overwhelmed, stuck, discouraged, tired, fed-up, anxious, or depleted. There are, however, distinct, qualitative differences between stress and burnout.

Young wamon wearing apron feeling stress

Can you feel the difference between stress and burnout in your daily work life?

Stress is a natural part of our lives

We all experience stress in varying degrees. Stress is a natural part of our lives and human functioning. Stress can be motivating as well as demanding, stimulating as well as challenging. When there is a congruence between the demands of an activity and our potential to do that same activity, the stress we experience is manageable.

Stress in our working lives 

For many of us, stress is also a reality in our working lives.

We can, for example, experience an increase in our stress levels when we take up a new job, when we are engaged in a demanding project at work, or when we are tasked with a new work role and increased responsibilities. These types of experiences do require more of our energy, focus, and time, all of which can produce varying levels of stress.

However, in these types of experiences, we weigh a temporary period of stress against the value of what we are doing: “This project may be all-encompassing for the next two months but it's worth my time and effort”. Despite the stress we may be experiencing, we still have the energy, motivation, and personal agency to make any necessary adjustments in our lives.

Further, when the purpose and value of what we are doing remain intact, the stress we experience is again manageable. Despite the demands placed on us, we are still able to access our inner resources of perspective and resilience. We can still find practical ways to rest and rejuvenate by delegating tasks, seeking additional support, and strengthening the boundaries between our work and the rest of our lives.

Burnout is qualitatively different from stress

Burnout is a very different experience from stress.

Consider the following:

  • When we experience burnout, we feel constantly overwhelmed, even paralyzed, by our work and the expectations demanded of us.

  • When we experience burnout, we feel chronically exhausted and emotionally “flat”.

  • When we experience burnout, we may feel heightened levels of anger and cynicism towards ourselves and others.

  • When we experience burnout, we function at a bare minimum, and our engagement and productivity at work plummet.

  • When we experience burnout, we lose an important personal connection to our work, and the meaning, purpose, and value work holds for us is substantially eroded.

  • When we experience burnout, we don’t have the physical, emotional, or cognitive resources to bounce back.

Recognizing burnout

Recognizing any significant shifts taking place within us physically, emotionally, and cognitively is key.

5 examples:

  • Take note of any changes in how you work and changes in your response to the demands of your work: “I cannot do more, the quantity of my work and the demands to do more are too much”, “The pace of each day is just too hectic”.

  • Take note of any changes in your energy and motivation. While energy and motivation fluctuate naturally throughout the course of a day, any prolonged drop in energy and motivation that does not respond to rest, nutrition, or other personally enjoyable activities and relationships outside of work is telling: “I am exhausted every day, all day”, “I have no energy or interest in exercise or even socializing with friends on the weekend”.

  • Take note of any changes to your internal dialogue, how you assess yourself, and your capacity to do your work: “I no longer feel that I have any mastery over what I am doing”. “I am not sure I have the skills for this job”, while also demanding perfection of yourself: “I cannot make mistakes”, “I have to do more, people depend on me”.

  • Take note of any attitudinal changes towards your work: “I do not feel any joy in my work and it shows”, “I know I am putting in minimal effort and I no longer care”, “I am never asked for my opinion, input or perspective, why should I try so hard every day?”

  • Take note of a loss of meaning and purpose in your work: “What I am doing seems meaningless”, “I question the purpose or relevance of what I am doing”.

Help and support

Stress and burnout are very different experiences. Being aware of the difference is critical in discerning what help and support you may need.

If you feel consistently overwhelmed in your daily life, if you resonate with some of the descriptions and experiences outlined above, reach out and seek help, support, and conversation from your family physician, a therapist and/or career counsellor.


The experience of burnout can impact a personally valued work ethic, a valued professional identity and the meaning and purpose work holds for us. Career Counselling can help. Contact Canvas Career Counselling at for more information or to book a consultation.

Follow me on Instagram, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!

Britt-Mari Sykes Brainz Magazine

Britt-Mari Sykes, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Britt-Mari Sykes Ph.D. is a Career Counsellor and founder of CANVAS Career Counselling working remotely with clients across Canada. Britt-Mari offers a reflective and strategic process to clients, one that integrates their lived experiences, values, and aspirations. This experiential approach to career counselling helps clients gain greater clarity and perspective and design practical steps towards a more meaningful relationship with work and career.



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