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There is no doubt about it, Covid-19 has had an effect on us all. The havoc it has wrought ranges from the inconsequential to the devastating. By now we have all probably forgotten our mask and come home without the milk on at least one occasion, while perhaps fewer among us have had to deal with the suffering of losing a loved one and being unable to attend their funeral. And there is the added pressure in our professional lives too. Frontline workers have had very little respite, dealing with increased demands on services throughout the lockdown period. Extroverted employees have been struggling as they adapt to new home-working arrangements. New responsibilities and changing guidelines have placed an increased burden on employees. This has led to elevated stress levels for many. Unfortunately, the Covid problem threatens to be around for quite some time yet – which puts already stressed employees at a much higher risk of burnout.

These days, HR professionals are busier than ever and must often wear many different hats in their day-to-day roles. The HR department is intertwined with every department in an organisation, which may lead to the team feeling like they are being pulled in every direction. It also means that they may be expected to know the workings of each department thoroughly, as well as every person within that department. HR is the one function of a business that supports an employee the whole way through his or her journey within the organisation. It is therefore understandable that HR professionals may experience high levels of stress from time to time which, if ignored for too long, can even progress into burnout.

Stress and burnout – aren’t they the same thing?

The terms ‘burnout’ and ‘stress’ are used somewhat interchangeably these days. And while they are related, they are characterised quite differently.

Stress is a natural response that our bodies undergo when faced with a potentially dangerous situation. It can kick us into gear, causing us to remove ourselves from harm’s way. It is also known as the ‘fight or flight’ response, though your life doesn’t have to be at risk in order for you to feel stress. It can also happen when we get overwhelmed by responsibility, or when we feel like there are too many demands placed on us.

But stress isn’t all bad. In fact, some stress can even be a good thing. Research published by the University of California, Berkeley, indicates that acute, but short-term, stress can actually stimulate the growth of new brain cells. However, when stress is prolonged, or chronic, the effect can be the opposite. The study suggests that if we place ourselves in an environment where we experience brief spells of stress, we will become sharper with improved performance.

In the workplace, we often have deadlines to meet. Our stress response can enable us to meet those deadlines, helping to motivate us to achieve desired results. Upon meeting deadlines, we feel a sense of reward, we can breathe a sigh of relief and recharge our batteries. While this may be a positive thing every once in a while, prolonged, heightened stress can lead to job dissatisfaction. (For more on workplace stress, check out our article The Real Cost of Workplace Stress). It can also lead to burnout.

While stress is a bodily response, or reaction, that can often result in a positive outcome, burnout is a disorder. The effect that stress has on the body usually means that a period of recovery is needed. When we don’t get adequate time to recuperate after a stress response, the negative feelings of stress can mount up, leading to burnout and depression. Whereas stress means you are firing on all cylinders as you navigate potentially dangerous territory, burnout means your energy is depleted, leading to a feeling of flatness, or apathy. This can have potentially devastating effects on one’s health, both mental and physical. It can lead to muscle pain, insomnia, inflammation and, perhaps even more worryingly in the Covid era, a compromised immune system.

Some of the differences between stress and burnout include;

  • Hopefulness vs hopelessness. Those undergoing extreme stress, but with adequate recovery time, are driven by the thought of getting everything completed on time, after which they can fully enjoy the rest period. They believe that once they have met their deadlines and completed the tasks on their to-do list, they will feel better. On the other hand, those experiencing burnout may feel like things will not improve, and that the pressures they are facing are unrelenting.
  • Productivity vs procrastination. Stress may have you working at your productive best, tackling tasks with enthusiasm and seeing them through until the end. However, burnout can lead to a feeling of being frozen, unable to muster up the required energy to complete certain tasks. Ever catch yourself staring blankly at a computer screen, unsure of what you need to do next, while watching the clock tick ever on? Then maybe you’ve experienced burnout.
  • Getting involved vs becoming withdrawn. When experiencing stress in work, you may become emotionally involved in certain areas of your work. For instance, you could be working on a project with someone whose working style clashes with yours. Your reaction to this may cause conflict or restore peace. Either way, your emotional involvement changes the situation – whether for better or for worse. Meanwhile, burnout can often cause you to withdraw from such involvement and become almost despondent. Feeling like you are not in control is a major contributor to stress, so this type of withdrawal solves nothing.

Burnout doesn’t only come about from as a result of stress related to the workplace. It can also affect long term caregivers, parents, or those involved in complex legal proceedings. Those experiencing stress in the workplace as well as stress in their personal lives may often experience an all-encompassing burnout, much quicker than those who experience stress in only one area of their lives.

If your diary is constantly filled and you find yourself putting in extra hours at work over the weekend and in the evening time, then you may be on the road to burnout. While speaking with a medical professional is always advisable, there are some steps that you can take yourself to support any treatment which they prescribe you.

Find out what those are here.

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