The relationship between burnout and work stress is more complicated than we once thought

Most of us are aware that mismanaged stress is the primary cause of burnout – but what if burnout had the power to make us feel even more stressed? A new study has revealed some worrying results.      

Although the conversation about burnout has come a long way over the last couple of years, there’s still plenty we don’t know when it comes to dealing with stress in the workplace.

For example, while we know that burnout is caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” (as per the World Health Organisation’s official definition), we still don’t know much about how burnout might affect someone’s ability to handle further stress. 

That is, until now. 

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Workplace stress: a doctor’s advice on how to cope with job-related stress and avoid burnout

According to a new study from a group of scientists from the Johanes Gutenburg University of Mainz in Germany, stress and burnout aren’t limited to a one-way, cause and effect relationship – in fact, the two are mutually reinforcing.

What this means is that when someone reaches a point of burnout – characterised by feelings of exhaustion and negativity towards one’s job as well as a reduction in performance – their ability to cope with stress decreases.

As a result, the person suffering from burnout might find their day-to-day responsibilities to be a lot more stressful, and struggle to handle even the smallest of tasks. 

“When exhausted, the ability to cope with stress usually decreases. As a result, even smaller tasks can be perceived as significantly more strenuous,” explained Dr. Christina Guthier, the lead author of the study.

“We expected an effect of burnout on work stress; the strength of the effect was very surprising.”

Although the wider implications of this relationship might not yet be clear, it’s interesting to consider that the way we experience stress changes depending on the overall state of our wellbeing. It makes sense if you think about it: when we’re tired, sad or anxious, even the littlest of inconveniences feel like a very big deal. 

Being aware of how stressed we’re feeling, knowing how to identify burnout and feeling able to talk about it with a manager or colleague is incredibly important

So what can we do about it? According to the study, there are a number of ways that employers can help workers to minimise the effects of burnout on their work stress, including giving employees more control over their work (especially if they’re displaying burnout symptoms) and providing them with support from their colleagues and seniors.

On top of this, being able to identify the tell-tale signs of burnout – and giving someone the time and resources they need to recover if they’ve reached this point – is a great way to ensure that this vicious cycle doesn’t continue.

Now more than ever, being aware of how stressed we’re feeling, knowing how to identify burnout and feeling able to talk about those signs with a manager or colleague is incredibly important.  

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Working from home burnout: why taking care of our stress levels is just as important outside the office

Working from home has presented its own series of challenges, and as we learn more the insidious impact work stress and burnout can have on our overall wellbeing, it’s important that we take action to support ourselves and others, whether that’s getting outside at least once a day (as part of your Work 5 A Day) or reaching out to a colleague who seems particularly frazzled. 

To find out more about the techniques and tricks you can use to manage stress while you’re working from home, check out our Work It Out campaign.

If working during the pandemic is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues and the stress of relying on technology to the threat of redundancy and the anxiety of applying for a new job, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.

So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.

Our new Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health while you’re stuck at home. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of wellbeing during this strange time.

For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.

Images: Getty

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