When does stress become burnout – and what can you do about it?

We've all heard of burnout by now – but how can you tell when you're nearing tipping point? Imy Brighty-Potts finds out...

The World Health Organisation has defined burnout as what happens when we find ourselves unable to cope because of exhaustion
The World Health Organisation has defined burnout as what happens when we find ourselves unable to cope because of exhaustion The World Health Organisation has defined burnout as what happens when we find ourselves unable to cope because of exhaustion

FEELING stressed is a normal part of life, and we all have days, weeks or even months when things are just more stressful. So, how can we tell when we're moving beyond 'normal' stress and heading for burnout?

"Stress can manifest in many forms, but we have all felt it," says Dr Seb Thompson, consultant clinical psychologist at Cygnet Health Care (

"Sometimes stress creeps up on us, sometimes it is more sudden and seems like it comes out of nowhere. Sometimes it overwhelms us and incapacitates us. Sometimes our minds just shut down because they cannot cope with yet another stress-related thought. Our resilience is compromised."

While it may not look the same for all of us, it's this tipping point that's important. We're designed to experience stress – but as Thompson adds: "Too much stress, like too much of anything, is not a good thing. It can actually be psychologically and physiologically harmful.

"Too much stress leads to burnout, and burnout if left unchecked, could be a risk factor for developing further physical and mental health difficulties."

Although work isn't the only thing associated with burnout, there's good reason why we often talk about it in this context.

As Gosia Bowling, national lead for mental health at Nuffield Health (, explains: "There is a limit to how many hours we can sustainably work in a day, every day, before exhaustion takes over and we find ourselves unable to cope, an occupational phenomenon now defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as 'burnout'."

So, what are the early signs of burnout to look out for?


According to Bowling: "People on the road to burnout often feel a mounting sense of helplessness. Your mind can feel like it is in 'overload' as you struggle to process the endless thoughts running through your head. Once you reach exhaustion, it can be hard to find solutions to even minor problems."


As Bowling puts it: "Even though you're lacking energy, you find it difficult to delegate tasks. It doesn't matter if you're passing work onto a highly competent team member or even to someone senior, the thought of not having complete control at this moment in time fills you with dread."


"From the moment you open your eyes in the morning, to when you close them at night, your job is all you can think about. When you're not working, you're constantly thinking about what you could be getting done, instead of taking time to relax," says Bowling – which of course doesn't help how you feel.

"Not giving yourself time to switch off, drains the body of energy resources," Bowling adds. "You may experience physical consequences like dizziness, tiredness, headaches, sweating and shortness of breath."


While it might seem like burnout is inevitable these days, that doesn't have to be the case. If you've evaluated things and realised stress is mounting too much at work, opening up a dialogue with your line manager could be helpful.

"If you feel like there are individual factors – like unrealistic deadlines, unmanageable workload or the company culture is not providing enough support – make a list of these issues and schedule time for a call with your manager to address these concerns," suggests Bowling.

If your boss is not receptive, you may need to look at other ways to address your work situation.

"Be aware of the specific regulations your company should adhere to. If you think these aren't being met, it might be time to speak to a member of HR," Bowling adds.


Managing stress often requires conscious effort, which includes getting into the habit of switching off and relaxing. This can be a challenge, especially if you are used to going at a million miles an hour and being helpful or productive all the time – but practical and psychological techniques can help. Take up a hobby, catch up with friends on the phone, learn to relax with stress management techniques like mindfulness meditation – whatever works for you.


If you are working from home or have an erratic working pattern, prioritising what needs to be done and maintaining you time is all the more important.

"Don't automatically use the time you would normally be commuting to add more work to your day," Bowling says, in relation to working from home. "Think about how you can use that time for your own wellbeing and enjoyment. Avoid working through your lunchbreak too."