The following is an extract from a 4Life Positive Psychology resource, explaining burnout and how it is different from stress.  

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It can occur when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain task, goal or project in the first place. Burnout reduces your productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly hopeless, powerless, and potentially resentful. The unhappiness burnout causes can eventually threaten your study progress and your health.

How can you tell if you’re burning out?

Because burnout doesn’t happen overnight — and it’s difficult to fight once you’re in the middle of it — it’s important to recognize the early signs of burnout and head it off. Burnout usually has its roots in stress, so the earlier you recognize the symptoms of stress and address them, the better chance you have of avoiding burnout. The signs of burnout tend to be more mental than physical. They can include feelings of:

  • Frustration and powerlessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Being drained of emotional energy
  • Detachment, withdrawal, isolation
  • Being trapped
  • Having failed at what you’re doing
  • Irritability
  • Sadness

If you’re burning out and the burnout expresses itself as irritability, you might find yourself always snapping at people or making snide remarks about them. If the burnout manifests itself as depression, you might want to sleep all the time or always be “too tired” to socialize.

What is the difference between stress and burnout?

Burnout may be the result of unrelenting stress, but it isn’t the same as too much stress. Stress, by and large, involves too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and psychologically. Stressed people can still imagine that if they can just get everything under control, they’ll feel better. Burnout, on the other hand means feeling empty, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring. People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations.

Stress Burnout
Characterized by over engagement Characterized by disengagement
Emotions are over reactive Emotions are blunted
Produces urgency and hyperactivity Produces helplessness and hopelessness
Exhausts physical energy Exhausts motivation and drive, ideals and hope
Leads to anxiety disorders Leads to paranoia, detachment, and depression
Causes disintegration Causes demoralization
Primary damage is physical Primary damage is emotional
You're usually aware of being under a lot of stress You don't always notice burnout when it happens. Symptoms can take moths to surface.

Information that appears on the Wellness website is general information only and is not intended to be medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or instruction. UQ Law encourages students who have health-related concerns or questions to seek professional healthcare assistance, either from the student services provided at UQ or from their general practitioner.

Last updated:
20 April 2018