The difference between stress and burnout

Monday, 19 October 2009  Features

While burnout is usually considered to be the end result of excess stress in the workplace, new research suggests the people most likely to experience burnout are those who feel their work is not significant or doesn’t make a difference.

Professor Ayala Malach-Pines from Ben-Gurion University, Israel, presented her research at a recent Australian School of Business seminar. She examined the difference between stress and burnout for employees in a range of occupations including nurses, teachers, police officers and managers.

"The root cause of burnout lies in people’s need to believe that their lives are meaningful, that the things they do are useful and important," says Professor Malach-Pines.

"For many people, the driving force​ behind their work is not merely m​onetary but the belief that they can have an impact, and it is this idea that spurs them on," she says.

Professor Malach-Pines describes burnout as mental, physical and emotional exhaustion that leads to a diminished interest in work and to resignation. She says it is most often employees who are highly motivated, with a strong desire to succeed, that are at increased risk of burnout.

Professor Chris Jackson, from the Australian School of Business, says workplace stress and burnout have multiple causes, and often strike people who work the hardest.

"Today’s society pushes people further and further towards these outcomes as we relentlessly strive for increased short term performance," says Professor Jackson.

"Perhaps the time has come to give people more control over their jobs, rebuild our communities and focus on more positive ways of doing work. This is more likely to lead to better performance over longer periods of time," he says.

Professor Malach-Pines argues the causes of burnout are embedded in an employee’s expectations of their job.

"For nurses, their most important goal is to help people in pain. Consequently their greatest cause of burnout was witnessing human pain without being able to help.

"It is possible to be very stressed but not burnout if you feel your work is worthwhile and you are achieving the desired goals," she says.

Professor Malach-Pines’ research has implications for business as it suggests helping employees realise their contribution is significant, and has an impact, can provide a buffer against burnout.

"The focus should not simply be on reducing job stress, but also on enhancing people’s sense that their work is important and makes a significant contribution," she says.