Four Telltale Signs Your Work Stress Is Leading to Burnout (Jim's Story)

| Edith "Edie" Raphael, PhD

work stress burnout low candlelight.jpgOne of the common questions on the issue of burnout is how it’s related to stress. Does stress cause burnout? Or is stress just another word for burnout?


Here’s a helpful distinction: stress can described as a state of “too much,” while burnout is characterized as a state of “not enough.”


Stress is too much work and too many demands. Burnout is a deficit of motivation, hope, energy, appreciation and impact. Stress can cause someone to lay awake at night thinking about their to-do list. Someone who’s burned-out might sleep like a baby, but find themselves struggling to get out of bed in the morning and make it in to work. Once someone who is stressed gets to work, they usually work very hard. People who are burned-out stop caring and might be accused of “phoning it in.”


But burnout often begins as stress. In fact, burnout is understood as the result of prolonged and excessive periods of stress. Burnout is a mutant form of stress –"stress on ‘roids." And this leads to the very important question: how can you tell when you’re in danger of going from stressed to burned-out?


Jim's story: a case study in burnout from work stress

The other day I was meeting with one of my favorite coachees at one of the companies where I coach and consult. Jim (not his real name), is earnest, hard-working, and smart. His colleagues speak highly of him and — unprompted — he periodically expresses gratitude for the company bringing him on five years ago.


But lately, I’ve started to notice some warning signs that he might be feeling burned-out. 


Jim loved his first boss at the company who protected him from unreasonable demands, but then Jim was switched to another team. Jim’s new boss reports to two different project teams who both operate with extreme urgency every day of the week. Every element of both projects is an emergency. Jim feels that his new boss is not protecting him from unreasonable demands from higher-ups. 


Jim is working long hours to tackle one task for one team. But even as he’s logging these hours on one task, the other team is breathing down his neck to complete their emergency du jour. Regardless of how hard he works, he’s sure there’s just going to be more stressful tasks and communications. “And no one ever expresses appreciation,” says Jim, “even after working twelve hour days for two weeks straight.” 


As Jim was speaking, I could see the tell-tale signs of burnout — especially the feeling that his efforts weren’t valued


Unfortunately, Jim’s story is not unique. Burnout is becoming an increasing problem for companies as well as certain professions such as medicine, nursing, public accounting and law, but it can happen to anyone. Sometimes, burnout stems from personal traits (such as perfectionism and people-pleasing) and those have to be addressed in order to avoid burning out. But more often, burnout is a sign that a particular job, company culture, or entire profession needs to be reformed.


Following Jim’s story, here are warning signs that should prompt you to take preventative action ASAP. 


Warning Signs of Burnout:

  1. You feel that your work and efforts are not valued 
  2. You don’t see hope that your situation will improve in the long term 
  3. You’re losing motivation to show up with your best effort
  4. You don’t feel as though your effort makes any difference to the outcome

If Jim’s story resonates with you, or if you recognize some of these warning signs of burnout, you might entering into burnout. But take heart! There are some practices you can do to ease the stress of your current situation. I’ll be sharing those in my next article.