Are you stressed or burnt out?

The importance of understanding the difference between stress and burnout allows us to adopt effective coping strategies to help ourselves and the people around us.

Sarah Chan
Sarah Chan

Likes museum trips and is sometimes artsy. Can be found in pattern prints.

Published: 23 December 2020, 12:53 PM

As I spoke to a friend recently, she commented that she was feeling more tired and drained over working from home. It was a familiar feeling for myself and one that I have heard from others around me too.

From working from home to the lingering worries over the pandemic, 2020 has been a year of adjustments trying to cope with the new normal. Naturally, it has been a stressful situation to be in for some.

But what exactly are we feeling? With the terms stress and burnout often being used loosely to describe our emotions, I was curious to know: Are we stressed, or are we really burnt out?

I spoke to mental health professionals from TOUCH Integrated Family Group and the Institute of Mental Health Singapore to find out more.

Understanding good stress and bad stress

Stress happens when our perceived resources fall short of our perceived demands. But not all stress is bad, explained Andrea Chan, head of intervention and mental wellness at TOUCH Integrated Family Group.

The existence of good stress, also known as eustress – where your resources are viewed as enough to meet your perceived demands – can be a motivation to push an individual towards working harder to meet their goals.

Our stress levels also affect productivity, Andrea explained.

“Having enough stress lets you feel challenged which is good stress because you are functioning at your maximum capacity. But when your stress levels are too high and it is beyond what you perceive to be able to cope, then your productivity drops.”


Acknowledging both good and bad stress can be beneficial for us to manage our stress levels effectively before it escalates into a serious issue. PHOTO CREDITS: TIME GOUW VIA UNSPLASH


The high stress levels are known as bad stress or destress, which happens when resources are perceived as not enough to meet the perceived demands.

Bad stress may occur in situations where a student perceives an academic exam as overly difficult to attain a desired result despite the additional help from others and time spent studying.

This leads to a negative mindset where an individual tells themselves that they are unable to cope or meet a certain goal, said Andrea.

Other effects of stress include a change in appetite, irritability, poor sleep quality, reduced or changed social interaction, change in diet and heart palpitations.

The consequences of prolonged bad stress on burnout

In an interview response via email, Lee Yi Ping, senior case manager and team leader at the Community Health Assessment Team (CHAT), explained that burnout is “an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” – as defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“Burnout happens during a prolonged period of stress where when one experiences physical and mental exhaustion, a sense of dread about work, frequent feelings of cynicism, anger or irritability along with the physiological symptoms of stress,” she said.


The lack of control at a job – from long working hours to completing tasks that may conflict with an individual’s sense of self – are some risk factors leading to burnout. PHOTO CREDITS: ENERGEPIC.COM VIA PEXELS


Although CHAT was unable to comment on the prevalence of burnout among youths statistically, Yi Ping shared that past encounters with youths included students juggling long work hours and multiple tasks.

These tasks often include academic assignments, extra curricular activity and external school commitments.

For Andrea, she commented that the rate of burnout is often higher among young working adults during their first three years of their career.

Having been freshly introduced into the job, an idealistic mindset among young adults often contributes to the feeling of perceived failure and self-doubt when an individual is met with the realities of the working world.

One such example is burnout among young therapists, she shared. The constant effort of giving yet being unable to cope with the demands of work puts young therapists in a state of destress (bad stress) for extended periods of time, she explained.

The effects of burnout first diminishes an individual’s passion for the job, making it harder to feel satisfied in their work because of the negative and pessimistic mindset developed.

Although burnout stems from the job, the effects will trickle down to their personal lives, affecting their relationship with friends and family, said Andrea.

The impact of COVID-19 on stress and burnout

Stress levels that were once associated as something helpful to build resilience are exacerbated and made more challenging for youths going through life transitions during the pandemic.

The loss of social support and the inability to access activities needed to cope with stress are some factors that make a situation more unbearable for an individual already stressed over their present concerns, explained Yi Ping.

For young working adults, the uncertain job stability, lack of support and work from home arrangements – coupled with no immediate signs of COVID-19 measures getting better – may become overwhelming, she said.


The COVID-19 situation has created many disruptions, changes and uncertainties in the life routine of many, regardless of their age and socioeconomic status. PHOTO CREDITS: LUIS VILLASMIL VIA UNSPLASH


This view was also echoed by Andrea who shared that fresh graduates face higher stress levels having to adjust to a new job all while working from home.

“They are going through a double change… You can usually ask anyone in the office but as you work from home, who do you ask? There is a relationship barrier to build teamwork that they need to cross which results in higher stress,” she added.

According to her, another group most commonly affected are workers who fail to draw clear boundaries for themselves while working from home.

“[On working around the clock] Your body and brain does not come down from the state of high adrenaline and you are always in a state of arousal needing to do work. You may be very used to this but your body is actually experiencing high levels of stress,” she said.

Practicing good coping strategies and being supportive

While it is easy for one to assume that a vacation or a day off can help to ease the feelings of burnout, the experts beg to differ.

“Taking a vacation or a day off are at best a ‘quick fix’ that minimises the level of distress experienced with burnout,” said Yi Ping, who added that managing the daily stressors we face is more important than allowing the build up of stress to overwhelm us.

On stress management, Andrea encourages readers to explore the BASIC PH model on different coping strategies.

A method she recommends from the model is physiological exercise: “We either fight, run or freeze when we meet a bear since our bodies are made to fight when our adrenaline increases with stress.”

“Although we do not physically fight or punch at work, we can exercise and burn the stress off for us to function at an optimal level.”

If you are looking for more mental well-being resources, check out Youthopia’s resource page with everything from mental health self-assessments to tips for coping with challenging seasons in life.

Identifying our feelings allows an individual to receive timely support rather than being left alone to deal with it themselves. PHOTO CREDITS: TOA HEFTIBA VIA UNSPLASH


The support from others matters too.

Andrea recommends readers to lend a listening ear no matter what someone is facing and be mindful not to discount their issues as less important or add to the stress faced.

“If they feel that their job is not a good fit, for example, we can start by encouraging them to take that first step to try something else or upskill themselves,” she said, adding that we should guide them as they solve their problems instead of solving it on their behalf.

“Because [burnout causes someone to] isolate, try to meet them more often. Be prepared to be rejected but remember to keep trying. Meet them and don’t talk about anything else, just do the things that they enjoy doing,” Andrea suggested.


Seeking a counsellor is more than just a way of fixing an issue, but also a way to build resilience among individuals. PHOTO CREDITS: MENTATDGT VIA PEXELS


Individually, Yi Ping encourages readers to incorporate self-care into their daily routines. These activities can be as simple as a 10-minute reflection writing or breathing exercises at the end of the day.

“If, despite trying out the above, we still find ourselves experiencing burnout, we should consider seeing a professional, like a counsellor, to help us process and review what needs to be done differently, so that we can recover from burnout and fill our lives with hope and joy,” said Yi Ping.

The feelings of stress and burnout may be overwhelming but it is never permanent and can be changed. Be it seeking the support from friends and family or simply caring for your mental wellbeing through your daily routines, you can work towards overcoming stress and burnout.

Learn to manage your emotions better during these unprecedented times by ‘Braving The New’.

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