The Role of Stress in Burnout

More than one author has drawn a straight line between stress and burnout, but the journey from stress to burnout isn’t a straight line.  It’s a winding road that includes stressors, appraisal, and the fundamentals of burnout.

Understanding Stress

Before we can explain the effects of stress on burnout, we need to more fully comprehend what stress actually is.  Most people know that the long-term impacts of stress are bad, and we should avoid long-term stress.  But few people understand how stress is formed or how our brain makes decisions about stress.

The first component to understand is that there are stressors in our environment, and we sometimes self-generate stressors.  These are things that, in a direct or very indirect way, impact our ability to survive.  Whether it’s the lion observed in the grass, concerns about how to pay the mortgage, or fretting about which school our child will get into, these stressors are very broadly aligned with our ability to survive and keep our genes alive.

A stressor does not necessarily result in stress.  Other than the initial startle response when we hear a loud noise or see something that appears threatening, there’s a longer process that happens when we appraise the stressor and decide whether the stressor matters.  We may be startled to see the lion but recognize it’s not a threat, because it’s in a cage, or we’re in a car.  This appraisal process is key to preventing – or causing – a stressor to become stress.  If we appraise the situation as high risk, and we don’t think we have the resources or protections we need, then the stressor becomes a stress.

Physiologically, stress is like a payday loan.  It’s very costly and high interest, but sometimes it’s what you must do to survive.  Stress more or less shuts down all long-term investments in digestion, immune response, and so forth.  This allows for focused energy to confront the stressor but costs more in terms of illness, digestive problems, and sheer energy to get things going again.

Understanding the Relationship to Burnout

Burnout is exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of inefficacy.  Burnout comes when we feel like we’re not getting the kinds of results we expect, and we therefore feel ineffective.  Burnout comes from many aspects of our lives, including work, family, and social situations.

So, while stress doesn’t directly cause burnout, the constant need to sideline important long-term investments and the additional cost of restarting them causes friction against our ability to accomplish our goals.  This is the driver that increases the probability of burnout.

Our expectations of our efficacy stay the same, but our actual long-term performance decreases.  That gap causes burnout, as we believe we’re less effective than we should be.

Resolving Burnout

If you’re facing burnout that is caused, at least in part, by stress, then there are a few ways you can make it better.  The first is to evaluate the stressors in your world and determine what you would need to do to appraise them as not a threat and therefore not triggering stress in the first place.

Second, you can adjust your expectations to be more aligned with the reality of the stressors that you’re facing.  It’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll be able to perform at your best if you’re constantly fighting off stressors.