Stress Versus Burnout… Below the ‘Green Line’

Productivity Respect Well-being


Key Point: Energy and mental fatigue at work continues to be a hot topic. And while I believe this emotion is prevalent at all levels of an organization, this feeling of deep fatigue is extra raw in “middle management.” Executives certainly have unrelenting pressure to get results, and this expectation is definitely stressful. However, these folks also have access to more resources that somewhat can mitigate the pressure. Middle management on the other hand lives with immense “downward” pressure to deliver on shifting strategy and tactics coming from a myriad of directions. And, they still have to stay tuned to the demands and frustrations of front line employees, as they too cope with never ending change. This “sandwich syndrome” can wind stress levels up and perhaps even accelerate burnout below what I call the executive “thin green line.” So, what’s the difference between stress and burnout? The following is from Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Robert Segal, M.A.’s Preventing Burnout article.

“Burnout may be the result of unrelenting stress, but it isn’t the same as too much stress. Stress, by and large, involves too much: too many pressures that demand too much of you physically and psychologically. Stressed people can still imagine, though, that if they can just get everything under control, they’ll feel better.

Burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough. Being burned out means feeling empty, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring. People experiencing burnout often don’t see any hope of positive change in their situations. If excessive stress is like drowning in responsibilities, burnout is being all dried up. While you’re usually aware of being under a lot of stress, you don’t always notice burnout when it happens. [See the table in the article for stress versus burnout comparisons].

You May Reach Burnout if: 

Everyday is a bad day. 

Caring about your work or home life seems like a total waste of energy.

You’re exhausted all the time.

The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming.

You feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.

The authors suggest the following as actions for preventing burnout:

  • Start the day with a relaxing ritual.Rather than jumping out of bed as soon as you wake up, spend at least 15 minutes meditating, writing in your journal, doing gentle stretches, or reading something that inspires you. Or, end the day with this.
  • Adopt healthy eating, exercising, and sleeping habits.When you eat right, engage in regular physical activity, and get plenty of rest, you have the energy and resilience to deal with life’s hassles and demands. Careful about alcohol, and other mood modifying drug use! Be honest with yourself! 
  • Set boundaries.Don’t overextend yourself. Learn how to say “no” to requests on your time. If you find this difficult, remind yourself that saying “no” allows you to say, “yes” to the things that you truly want to do. You can legitimately think “yes” and still say the appropriate “no” when you have decided to stop working for the day and invest in yourself.
  • Take a daily break from technology. Set a time each day when you completely disconnect. Put away your laptop, turn off your phone, and stop checking email. Take a break from back to back, non-stop meetings. Try asking people close to you about your smart phone habits. What do they say? 
  • Nourish your creative side. Creativity is a powerful antidote to burnout. Try something new, start a fun project, or resume a favorite hobby. Choose activities that have nothing to do with work. You’re worth it! 
  • Learn how to manage stress.When you’re on the road to burnout, you may feel helpless. But you have a lot more control over stress than you may think. Learning how to manage stress can help you regain your balance. Or, I guess burnout is ok with you? 


Character Moves: 

  1. The most important thing is to be self-aware and to take control of our energy and stress management. How are we really feeling? What are we doing about it?  Most times we have more control over mental fatigue and stress than we think we do. We do NOT want to get to burnout. We therefore have to INTENTIONALLY refuel DAILY. This isn’t just a weekends and holidays thing.
  2. You and I need people. Friends and intimate relationships are not just nice to have; we NEED to have our “peeps.” All of us. Going it alone will get you into the burnout zone eventually. 
  3. Do not expect the speed/flow of work/life change or your workload to lessen. It will not unless you quit working. However, as the saying goes, “wherever you go, you will still be there.” So embrace the wonderful challenge of navigating stress and creating more personal energy. 

Energy plus in the Triangle,


One Millennial View: Ever have a more experienced person explain that “you don’t even know yet?” I find that this phrase is recurring and evolves. It’s possible we’ve been “stressed” since, well, confronted with any challenge or deadline. Remember cramming for that test in high school? Our college selves would be like, “bud, you don’t even know yet.” Recall pulling an all-nighter for that final in University? Our post-grad selves might be like, “dude, you don’t even know yet.” The fun thing about life’s previous stressful dilemmas is we’ve likely found a way to persevere, find a way, and make it work. If we can just utilize what we’ve learned to avoid a burnout, our future selves will laugh at our current hindrances, and say, “told you, you didn’t even know yet.”

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis