Is it stress or burnout?

7 May 2024

Blog by Dr Imren Sterno – Lead Consultant Clinical Psychologist, AXA Health

Imagine, it is your first face-to-face live presentation in front of 40 colleagues, in the London offices (HQ!). Not only have not seen them all in one room since 2022 but now all their eyes are on you.

So how do you feel? Overwhelmed, palms are sweaty, your heart is racing, and your legs feel weak, negative thoughts start to fill all the space in your head, ‘I won’t be able to do it’ and ‘they will all think I’m a fraud’ or ‘I am going to forget everything’… sound familiar?

This reaction is normal, it is natural, and it is commonly known as stress. Stress is a term that we all use and recognise. But what is it, what is its function and purpose and how it is different from burnout?

Stress and burnout are terms that are used interchangeably however, there are key differences, and it is important to understand this to help yourself and potentially others recognise what they are experiencing; before it impacts negatively on mental health.

What is stress and how does it effect the body and mind?

Stress is an emotional or mental state which occurs due to a new adverse condition. For example: an upcoming exam, a new project deadline, an interview. It is normal to feel stress. Typically, it impacts on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours and is short lived.

For example, the stress you feel before an exam or a big meeting, leaves your body and mind once the event is over.

>For more on what stress is and how it affects the body read our article How to treat stress

What is burnout?

Burnout is a condition which results from prolonged exposure to stress. It leads to emotional and mental exhaustion. The World Health Organisation recognises burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ that is the result of chronic workplace stress that not been successfully managed for a long period of time.1

It is worth noting that burnout is not classified as a medical condition, and is specifically within the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.1

Burnout can be characterised by three factors within the workplace:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  3. Reduced professional efficacy2

Unlike stress, burnout is a constant state that does not reduce, and individuals are in a constant state of threat. This can have a negative impact not only on mental health (mood, motivation, ability to work adequately) but also on physical health, such as high blood pressure and heart disease. (Salvagioni et al., 2017).3

What are the signs of burnout?

We can all have ‘off days’, but burnout can lead to:

  • concentration difficulties,
  • headaches,
  • muscle tension,
  • sleep problems,
  • anxiety or low mood
  • and a lack of energy.

What you might notice in colleagues is reduced productivity, or not responding to emails as quickly as usual, or attending meetings late, being more cynical, changes in their energy levels and behaving in a way that is not their norm.

Why are we feeling so much stress and burnout in the workplace?

According to the Mental Health First Aid, in the UK, in 2023, 51% of long-term sick leave was due to stress and anxiety or depression4. Employees are reporting increased workplace intensity and significant pressure that is contributing to a state of stress or burnout.

What is contributing to this?

Over the past few years, we have all seen global social, technological and environmental changes. We must also acknowledge the impact of Covid and the fast changes we all experienced when the world changed for us over night.

The workplace is not immune to these changes and as result, many organisations are facing new challenges to support their employees to maintain their mental wellbeing2.

What can be done?

There is no one size fits all answer to this. Many employers recognise the need to do something, however, how this can be successfully implemented in the workplace is still up for debate.

From a clinical perspective, what works well is to support a workplace to:

  1. Raise awareness across the organisation by encouraging everyone to talk more openly about mental health. This must be driven and modelled from leadership, and employees should be encouraged to prioritise workshops or webinars on wellbeing and mental health.
  2. Ask employees to recognise their own working patterns, what triggers stress for them, and what makes things harder at work – the key here is to understand yourself and whether you are in burnout. This could be done in 1:1 manager meeting or as part of employee work plans.
  3. If an employee is struggling and it is recognised that they are reaching burnout, professional advice must be encouraged. Support should be sought from Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), if the workplace has it, or from the GP.

It is important to get help as soon as things start to unravel, as the earlier it is picked up, the better outcome for the individual.

Keep in mind that stress is something we all experience, and is a normal reaction, whereas burnout is when prolonged levels of stress is experienced and maintained. Both can be harmful and can impact on our ability to work and engage with the world, but burnout can have mental and physical health implications if it is not recognised or treated.

There is always help available and it is important to reach out and seek professional support if you recognise any of the symptoms highlighted.


  1. Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon" – World Health Organisation
  2. The Burnout Report (page 4) – Mental Health UK
  3. Salvagioni, D. A. J., Melanda, F. N., Mesas, A. E., González, A. D., Gabani, F. L., & Andrade, S. M. D. (2017). Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies. PloS one, 12 (10).
  4. Ten workplace mental health statistics for 2023 - Mental Health First Aid