Stress is the Fever of Burnout

A few weeks ago I posted my thoughts on employee burnout and Dr. Beverly Potter was kind enough to post a comment. According to her it is a common misconception that stress causes burnout.  As she continues:

Stress and burnout are not the same. Burnout is a kind of job depression and is caused by feeling of powerlessness; it is not caused by stress – though it is stressful. Stress is a taxing of the body.


Burnout is a motivational problem. A person struggling with burnout is demotivated, dispirited, depressed – down. Whereas a highly stressed person may be highly enthusiastic – though driving their body.

Stress is the “fever” of burnout. As with pneumonia. A high fever must be reduced or there is a risk of brain damage – BUT once reduced the pneumonia is still there. Similarly with burnout – the stress must be reduced but reducing stress does not deal with the job situations rendering the person helpless. The person must develop a feeling of controllability.

Burnout is caused by feelings of uncontrollability. Powerlessness, damed-if-you-do damed-if-you-don’t situations. It is prevented by developing feelings of control over the job – which is an on-going process.” (end of quote)

Dr. Potter’s findings completely match the Job-Control-Job-Demand view of Karasek and the reseach of professor Barsade: high job-demands cause stress, but it is the level of autonomy and the level of respect that determine the ‘color’ of that stress.