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Anxiety, Stress & Burnout: Understanding the differences and recognising the signs

Elle Whitehead | 21st June 2021

Mental health is an increasingly common topic of conversation, both in the workplace and beyond. With so many mental health buzzwords and terms flying around, it’s hard to know what the different problems are, and how, as businesses, we can keep an eye out for the signs and symptoms in our teams. 

Three similar, and often overlapping areas for concern are Anxiety, Stress and Burnout. Sometimes it can be hard even for the people involved to be able to be able to accurately pinpoint what it is they’re feeling. So let’s go through each one in turn. 

Anxiety

Many of us have felt anxious at some point, it’s a normal, human response to difficult situations and environments. However, sometimes we have too much anxiety, either because of circumstances or because of a medical condition. Anxiety is the only one of the three which is recognised as a medical condition, when it presents in a chronic fashion. These diagnoses include Generalised Anxiety Disorder or GAD, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, PTSD and more. 

Signs of Anxiety 

There are a number of physical and mental signs of anxiety. People may be feeling tense, nervous or unable to relax. They may have a sense of dread, or feel like the word is speeding up or slowing down. They may even depersonalise, where they feel as though they are a character they are watching in a film. Physically there are often problems sleeping, nausea, having panic attacks and headaches, backaches and other pains. 

It’s really hard to spot anxiety from the outside, so as a manager, leader or HR professional you will have to rely on the individual to share their feelings with you. Making sure your team is well educated on the signs and symptoms so they can spot troubling symptoms for themselves may be helpful. If you are concerned about individual members of your team, make sure they have safe spaces and times to share any worries with you. 

Treating anxiety

Medical anxiety is best treated by professionals. The best thing you can do for your team is make sure they understand there are no taboos around discussing mental health, or requesting time off to recover as quickly and completely as possible. It’s your job to create a culture where people feel comfortable to share, and to create systems that make this easier for everyone.

Stress

Like anxiety, feelings of stress are a normal part of being a human. Sometimes people thrive under feelings of stress, and it helps them feel energised and active. However, long term, or overwhelming stress, as we all know, can have horrible consequences for individuals and those around them. 

Signs of Stress

Many people under stress may feel irritable, aggressive, impatient or wound up. They may feel anxious, nervous or afraid. Often people with persistent levels of stress might feel like their thoughts are racing and they cannot switch off which can lead to feeling like they’ve lost their sense of humour. Stress can also leave people feeling isolated and lonely. 

Some of these signs are easier to spot from the outside than others. If you notice people in your team are shorter tempered than usual, working longer hours or are withdrawing socially, they may be feeling stressed at work or at home. 


Treating Stress

If you realise that you, or someone on your team is feeling over-stressed there are a few things you can do to help. Yoga and meditation are linked to increased resilience to stress, and so helping your team access these can be useful. For more serious cases, talking therapy or CBT can also help, so helping people access resources is essential. Finally, making sure people feel able to share their feelings of stress, so that teams can work together to more effectively manage workloads can pull pressure from specific individuals. 

Burnout

When stress becomes chronic, it can lead to burnout. There’s a lot of debate around the exact definition of burnout, and the causes of it. Generally, it’s used to describe the complete feeling of exhaustion from extended periods of very high stress.

Signs of burnout

The main sign of burnout is the exhaustion described above. Many people feel unable to cope, and have symptoms which are similar to those of depression. Physically, those with burnout are more likely to catch colds or may have more frequent headaches. People with burnout also report smoking more than usual, or other changes such as in their sleep or eating habits. 

As an HR professional, or team leader, if you’ve noticed someone has been under high levels of stress for a long time, this could be a cue to be on the lookout for burnout. People with burnout also often lose confidence in their abilities and so increased levels of self-doubt expressed in 1-1s or general feedback is also a warning sign. 

Treating burnout

When it comes to burnout, prevention is often better than the cure. Coming back from burnout is notoriously hard, and simply taking a break won’t help if those suffering come back to the same conditions. Improving sleeping, eating and exercise can help relieve the symptoms, but won’t help fix the problems. Luckily, from an organisational level, there are a number of things you can do to help prevent your team from burning out. We even have a dedicated blog post in helping to reduce burnout in remote or hybrid environments.

Anxiety, stress & burnout the bigger picture 

Data from the ONS suggests that as many as 56% of adults in the UK have reported feelings of stress and anxiety during the pandemic. However, it’s notoriously hard to know how people are really feeling within a work context. Culturally we often feel we have to put a brave face on things at work. This is why anonymous feedback can be key in judging levels of anxiety, stress and burnout within your organisation. Our wellness surveys are specially designed to help you keep a finger on the pulse of the mental health of your team. 

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