We all experience stress in varying degrees. Stress is a natural part of our lives and human functioning. There are, however, qualitative differences between stress and burnout. Can you feel the difference between stress and burnout in relation to your daily work life?
We can experience an increase in our stress levels when we take up a new job, when we are engaged in an exciting and demanding project at work or when we are tasked with increased responsibilities. These types of experiences unleash possibilities for us and new ways for us to expand our knowledge, expertise and to contribute further to our work. They feed our desire to be more personally engaged in the movement of our work and careers.
These types of experiences also require energy, focus and time, all of which can produce varying levels of stress as we integrate these new challenges into our day-to-day lives.
These levels of stress tend to be motivating as well as demanding, stimulating as well as challenging. When there is a congruence between the demands of the activity and our potential to do that same activity, the stress we experience is manageable. Moreover and significantly, we remain personally connected to the purpose and value of our work despite its demands.
This congruence strengthens our awareness of the stress we are experiencing. We have the capacity to step back, put the stress we are experiencing in perspective and to make subsequent decisions and choices that feel personally appropriate. We have the energy and motivation to make any necessary adjustments in our lives. This includes seeking help, delegating tasks and demarcating time to recoup, replenish and restore ourselves.
Burnout is qualitatively different from stress
Burnout is a very different experience. We feel constantly overwhelmed by our work, we feel exhausted day in and day out, we feel emotionally “flat” and/or angry and cynical towards ourselves and others. We function at the bare minimum, our productivity plummets, and we feel personally dis-connected from our jobs. The personal capacities, motivations, contributions and interests that bring our work to life are no longer present.
When we experience burnout, we begin to lose an important personal connection to what we are doing, we lose our passion for and commitment to the work we do.
When our work begins to lack purpose and meaning, when it no longer resonates with our personal convictions and values, when we are trying to do our best but there is more work than time to complete it or we are facing more problems than solutions, the results are often levels of sustained stress over long periods of time that ultimately lead to burnout.
We can experience burnout at several different levels of our lives, and very often they overlap:
In our specific workplace the daily demands, procedures and sustained pressures may be too much: “I cannot do more, the quantity of my work and the demands to do more are too much”, “The pace of my days is too hectic”.
Our attitudes towards our work may shift substantially along with what our work means to our lives: “I do not feel any joy in my work”, “I am bored with the work I am doing”, “I have issues with my colleagues”.
At a very personal level, we may question our abilities and our confidence may drop: “I cannot relate to my work – I do not feel like I have any mastery over what I am doing”. We can also carry a heavy burden from our own self-imposed demands: “I cannot make mistakes”, “I always have to be the best”, “I have to do more”.
Burnout can be experienced at the level of personal freedom, when we feel that we have no personal input in what we are doing day to day, when we feel we are not the leaders of our own lives: “I am never asked for my opinion, input or perspective”, “I am never asked if I want to do that job or task”.
Burnout is very often experienced at the level of meaning and purpose as these are key motivators in our lives: “What I am doing is meaningless”.
Burnout and Inner Consent
In Existential Coaching we help clients who are experiencing burnout to re-connect with their lives and experiences. One area we assist clients with is (re)discovering Inner Consent.
Inner Consent is a personally felt “yes”! Inner Consent is an internal affirmation or experienced “rightness”: “this decision I have made, this direction I have chosen to take in my life, this activity that I am engaged in corresponds with my internal compass, it resonates experientially with me”.
We are more fully present when we heed this internal “yes”, when our actions are in concert with our sense of self, with our feelings, our experiences and our values. Inner consent means being perceptually mindful of what resonates within “me”: “I feel the value of what I do”, “I am fully present with my feelings, my thoughts, my body”, “I feel myself present in my life”.
When we experience Inner Consent, we feel authentic. We feel connected to our diverse talents, to what we value, to the actions we take and the commitments we make to others and to our work.
When we experience Inner Consent, we have the capacity to look realistically at our expectations and actions: “I accept that I cannot do everything”. We may feel tired from our work but not exhausted: “I had a heavy work load today, but I feel good about the work I accomplished”, “I did what was possible at work today and I feel good about that”.
When we experience Inner Consent, we are open to and accepting of our limitations or the limitations of a specific situation at work. But we can also contemplate and put into action alternate possibilities.
Inner consent is a strong antidote to stress but especially to burnout. Inner consent enables us to become more ourselves, to re-connect with the value of our lives and the value of our capacities. When we re-connect with the movement of our lives, when we re-discover the experience of inner fulfillment, we are more fully present and decisive in our lives.
Stress and burnout are very different experiences. 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 from your family physician, a therapist and/or career counselor.
Britt-Mari is an integrative career counselor with an extensive background in existential psychology, career counseling and teaching. She helps clients create personally empowered solutions to career transition, burnout and the building of meaningful careers. To inquire about individual sessions contact her at email@example.com
Further articles on Burnout: