The difference between burnout and stress

This post was written by Megan on December 31, 2009
Posted Under: definition of burnout

Difference between stress and burnout

I had promised to do this post at the end of my very first burnout blog.  Then I forgot about it.  Burnout can be like that…  

You say, "I'm burnt out".  The other person says, "Me too. I'm really stressed and tired".  You think you've found a friend, but wait for the next round…  

You say, "I'm wondering if I have the energy to shower today."  The other person says, "There won't be much showering during my trek to Mt Everest's Base Camp this year." They are only going to Base Camp because of burnout, you see.  Then they tell you that you smell.

These kinds of conversations make you wonder if we're all on the same page (or planet) when it comes to notions around 'burnout' and 'being stressed'.


Someone's definition of burnout

Here's the first line about burnout in Wikipedia:   

"Burnout is a psychological term for the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest."  

I love this second bit: 'diminished interest'.  Admittedly, comments like "I love what you've done with your hair" are less common from those with burnout (i.e. those who are focusing on keeping their eyes open).

Wouldn't 'diminished interest' be a natural extension of long-term exhaustion?  Wikipedia makes it sounds like they both appear together like some tragic two-legged race.  Well, boredom does make people yawn a lot.  

The second paragraph refers to "emotional exhaustion and a lack of personal accomplishment".  Yes, I'd raise my pompoms to this, but believe it is far from the whole picture.  Interestingly, physical aspects are mentioned, but popped in brackets as an aside: "…(increases in stress hormones, coronary heart disease, circulatory issues)…."

The fourth paragraph surprised me.  Wikipedia assumes that burnout is only work-related. I would like to get my ping pong paddle out for that one. I think burnout can come from doing too much of all kinds of things while feeling perpetually stressed. Like dealing with tradesmen for three years (I'll tell you about it later).


Someone's definition of stress

Wikipedia's definition of stress leads with something a guy called Hans Selye said in way back in 1956:

"(stress) refers to the consequence of the failure of an organism – human or animal – to respond appropriately to emotional or physical threats, whether actual or imagined".

In other words, when crunch-time comes your chutzpah locks itself in the bathroom. Which sounds like a psychological problem, right? Strangely, the following information just focuses on biological reactions – e.g. adrenaline production, exhaustion, headaches and elevated heart rate.  

Later in his career (i.e. not in 1956), Hans thought it might be a good idea to include a bit of psychology with: "inappropriate psychological response to any demand". My thoughts on this?  'Inappropriate responses' makes Hans sound like my mother.   

Are you bored yet?  Me too….


Psychology vs Biology

Look up 'Burnout' in Wikipedia and you get the title: Burnout (psychology)
Look up 'Stress' in Wikipedia and you get the title: Stress (biology)

See those words in brackets?  This is where I become a screaming banshee with a ping pong paddle.  

In my non-medical opinion, burnout and stress can be about both a person's psychology and their biology.  It may primarily be about one or the other, sure.  But which one depends on the case.  

And is it so shocking to accept that the state our bodies can affect the state of our minds – and visa versa? 


Back to the main question

I've gone completely off-track, haven't I?  Outlining the similarities between stress and burnout isn't going to help the poor sod with burnout who keeps being misunderstood by those who are feeling stressed.  So, what's the difference?


A medical definition is one thing.  Being understood in a conversation is another.  

When someone says to me "I'm stressed", I assume that what's going on is largely emotional, with some possible physical symptoms (an icky rash or nervous tick perhaps).  I'm also open to the possibility that what they are feeling stressed about is serious. Then again, that person might have an irritating tendency to whine a lot.  Either way, the thing that's stressing them might be resolved in a day at which point the person is likely to feel better.

When someone says to me "I'm burnt out", and they tell me how the simplest things have become difficult on an ongoing basis – like showering – I immediately give them a hug (while holding my nose) and offer sympathy of Everest proportions. They're going to need it.  It's likely to take awhile to rejuvenate and feel normal again (i.e. normal like those stressed people).


One final question:

Is hugging people with burnout an 'inappropriate psychological response'?  Again, it depends on the case.  But sometimes we just have to take the risk and do it anyway. 


This post was written by Megan Hills – a complex individual with no medical training who enjoys ranting about things like burnout and chronic fatigue to anyone who will listen. Find out more about Megan.

Reader Comments

I don't get it and wonder: Is 'Burn Out' just another name for 'Chronic Fatigue' or are they two different things?
Thank you for taking time for an answer!

Written By Ilse Wildrich on April 16th, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

Many people get ME/CFS through the process of being burnt out (it also often involves a virus appearing at just the right time to cause heath havoc). So, in one way, it can be considered ‘the dark end’ of burnout. They are not the same thing, as people with Chronic Fatigue have other symptoms (usually involving serious immunity, muscular and/or nervous system issues). But whether you’re ‘burnt out’ or are at ‘the dark end’ a lot of what’s on this site can be handy. It can apply to all. And as there are so many stressed bunnies out there – a lot of what’s here can apply to them as well! Hope this clarifies it for you.

Written By Megan on April 20th, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

I love this picture– would you mind if I put it on my blog with due credit and all? Let me know– email address is deeprootslongbranchesATgmailDOTcom

Written By Ivy on September 4th, 2014 @ 1:17 pm


I would love to include your cartoon of Eric in a presentation I’m giving – is that ok?

Many thanks,


Written By Rose Aghdami on October 6th, 2017 @ 5:30 am

Hi Rose

Thanks so much for getting in contact. Glad you’re enjoying the ‘toons!

If you are representing a non-profit organisation, by all means use the cartoon with my blessing.
My preferred attribution is: Cartoon by Megan Hills

However, if you represent a commercial entity:
I’m in the process of setting up a new website with automated system for commercial use of the cartoons.
I charge US$35 for non-exclusive licensing fee for presentations,
which is considered an industry minimum standard.
If this is fine with you then I can send an invoice with the terms.
Payment is processed through PayPal.

Many thanks

Written By Megan on October 6th, 2017 @ 8:26 am

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