Dealing With Work Stress and Burnout


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Not all stress is bad for you. Sometimes stress is exciting, like planning a holiday or a family function, starting a new job or moving into your new home. In these circumstances, your feelings can be a combination of excitement and anticipation mixed with some concerns or fear. You hope things will go well, but at the same time, you worry about something not working out. This is normal, and the stress you feel, as long as it is not too much, can help you to plan better and anticipate problems.

A moderate level of stress can lead to you feeling increased energy levels, sharper in your senses, and better able to focus and concentrate on what is happening and what you need to do.

What is Stress?

A simple explanation of distress is the feeling you get when you no longer feel in control of a situation. This means is that the situation itself is less important to how stressed you feel than your perception of how in control of the situation you are.

Our brain is like a problem-solving machine, and is always trying to figure out if we have the resources available to meet, the demands of the task that we need to do:

  • If we feel that we have sufficient resources to do what we need to do successfully, we are not likely to feel too stressed.
  • If we are not sure if we have sufficient resources, we may feel overwhelmed or stressed out until we have more information that suggests that we can manage the situation successfully.
  • If we feel that we do not have sufficient resources, we are likely to become overwhelmed and stressed out, and sometimes even despondent or hopeless, two warning signs for burnout.

Too many situations where we feel out of control leads to a build-up of distress and many negative consequences over time. The trouble is that modern life is so full of frustrations, deadlines, and demands that many of us don’t even realise how stressed we are. Whatever your job, by recognising the symptoms and causes of stress, you can take the first steps to reduce its harmful effects and improve your quality of life.

The Physiology of Stress

Stress is your body’s way of responding to any demand or threat. When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare the body for emergency action. This is known as the “fight or flight” response and it is an inbuilt survival mechanism that is your body’s way of protecting you from danger.

The body’s nervous system often does a poor job of distinguishing between daily stressors and life-threatening events. If you are stressed over an argument with a friend, a traffic jam or too many bills, your body can still react as if you are facing a life-or-death situation. Most workplace and everyday stressors these days are not likely to kill us, so it is important to be able to successfully manage these stressors before they build up too much and exceed what is healthy for you.

When stress is within your comfort zone, it can help you. In emergencies, stress can save your life by giving you extra strength to defend yourself. Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration or drives you to study for an exam when you would rather be doing something else. However, when you start to lose control stress stops being helpful and can start causing significant damage to your mind and body.


The Effects of Chronic Stress

When you repeatedly experience too much stress, there is a disruption to nearly every system in your body. It can shut down your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, raise blood pressure, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the aging process and leave you vulnerable to many mental and physical health problems.

Potential health problems caused by chronic stress include:
1. Depression and anxiety
2. Weight problems
3. Autoimmune diseases
4. Skin conditions, such as eczema
5. Reproductive issues
6. Pain of any kind
7. Heart disease
8. Digestive problems
9. Sleep problems
10. Cognitive and memory issues

Causes of Stress

Common external causes of stress:
1. Major life changes
2. Work or school
3. Relationship difficulties
4. Financial problems
5. Being too busy
6. Children and family

Common internal causes of stress:
1. Chronic worry
2. Pessimism
3. Rigid thinking, lack of flexibility
4. Negative self-talk
5. Unrealistic expectations/Perfectionism
6. All-or-nothing attitude


Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

The following table lists some of the common warning signs and symptoms of burnout, which is likely to occur when we have been too stressed for too long. The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload or burnout.

Cognitive symptoms:
* Memory problems
* Inability to concentrate
* Poor judgment
* Seeing only the negative
* Anxious or racing thoughts
* Constant worrying

Emotional Symptoms:
* Depression or general unhappiness
* Anxiety and agitation
* Moodiness, irritability, or anger
* Feeling overwhelmed
* Loneliness and isolation
* Other mental or emotional health problems

Physical symptoms:
* Aches and pains
* Diarrhoea or constipation
* Nausea, dizziness
* Chest pain, rapid heart rate
* Loss of sex drive
* Frequent colds or flu

Behavioural symptoms:
* Eating more or less
* Sleeping too much or too little
* Withdrawing from others
* Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
* Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
* Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)

Managing Stress in the Workplace

What can you do to better manage stress?

  • Learn to distinguish between normal stress and stress that is overloading you.
  • Learn to recognise the signs of a build-up of chronic stress.
  • Discover the factors that may influence your tolerance for stress.
  • Learn about your body and how you react to stress.
  • Try to not let things build up. Do not waste time if possible. Deal with things as soon as you can to minimise overload.
  • If you can, make changes in your life to protect you from stress.
  • Where possible deal with matters and people to solve problems.
  • Learn more about the things that stress you out and use this knowledge to protect yourself from these stressors. This is known as increasing your resilience.
  • Unless it is not possible, avoid certain situations or people that you know cause you a lot of stress. Anticipate and better prepare yourself in these circumstances so that you can control the situation.
  • If you have a failure or setback take a moment to reflect on what actually happened. Do not immediately blame yourself, as it may not have been your fault. It may have been outside your control regardless of what you tried to do.
  • Increase your level of physical activity when you can, exercise helps your body to recover more quickly and improves your immune system which is often compromised by stress.
  • Don’t avoid people who can help you. Work colleagues, friends and family are your psychosocial supports. When you share your concerns, others may see solutions that you cannot see or they may be able to help you in other ways.
  • Examine your diet particularly when you are experiencing stress. Certain foods, alcohol or other drugs may actually increase your stress levels even though you might feel that they help you in the short-term.
  • Learn relaxation strategies and or practice meditation to help you calm down when you are feeling too stressed, panicky or overwhelmed.
  • Deep and slow breathing into your stomach and then exhaling all of the air with each breath can really help after even 1-5 minutes.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation where you tense and release various muscle groups in your body while you breathe in and out slowly and deeply also helps.
  • Imagining yourself in a nice, calm and peaceful place or out in nature can provide a brief escape and reduce stress.
  • Mindfulness mediation is a very effective way to manage stress, reduce pain and improve your focus. Mobile phone apps such as headspace or calm or smiling mind can teach you these skills in about 10 minutes each day
  • If you cannot manage your stress, seek professional advice.

people having meeting inside conference room

What Can Organizations Do to Manage Stress and Burnout?

Organizations and employers can do any of the following:

  • Seek information about stress and how to successfully manage it.
  • Develop policies and procedures to deal with discrimination and to help support people who are too stressed or suffering from burnout.
  • Give mental health the same importance as general health and safety and provide education and training.
  • Improve HR processes and become more aware of what is happening in the workplace to ensure that situations or high levels of stress during certain times are monitored and those involved receive support. E.g., precisely in high-risk areas such as police, correctional or accident and emergency and military services some situations will impact on many people and these incidences should be monitored and processes put into place to protect and support those involved.
  • They can also ensure that staff are aware that their organisation has a positive attitude towards stress and mental health and takes these matters seriously.
  • A larger organization may also be able to staff a specialist confidential counselling position or train some staff to provide psychosocial education and support to people affected by stress.

Colleagues can also play a vital role. You do not have to be a psychiatrist or mental health worker to know when a workmate mate is under stress or is not coping. You can provide necessary support by asking the person affected if they are okay or is there anything you can do. Having a friendly ear is sometimes exactly what is needed to start a healing conversation. This can lead to a referral to a more appropriate service.

One vital skill that a friend or colleague needs to learn is to not to give advice or judge a person when they are trying to explain their situation. It is better to allow the person to talk through their issue and offer support. If you are able to do it, you could help by finding an appropriate place for the person to seek professional help, e.g. a mental health clinic or women’s support group or perhaps a pastor or community leader if appropriate.

Stress, Burnout and Mental illness are often misunderstood, and education and awareness of what these issues are and how they affect people are vitally important in all organisational settings.

For more information or advice, please contact:

Mind Care Clinic

Psychiatry Department



VOIP: 1081


Namalinuan Clinic




Mental Health Clinic




Mental Health Clinic




Mental Health Clinic




Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

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