What’s the difference between fatigue, burnout and exhaustion?


In recent years, fatigue, burnout and exhaustion have become frequently mentioned topics – particularly since the onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic. But while these terms are often used interchangeably, they don’t all mean the same thing. With that in mind, we’ve taken the the opportunity to individually define them – because they each impact our mental health differently.

Totally tired

Being tired is something everyone has experienced, and its definition is as simple as wanting to rest or sleep. You might feel this after having a big lunch or when you’ve had a poor sleep. But the being tired isn’t considered a chronic condition and it’s usually fixed with a good rest. So when does tired turn into fatigue, burnout or exhaustion?

Feeling fatigued

Fatigue occurs when a person feels constantly weak and tired, which is why some people describe fatigue and tiredness as the same thing. But there’s a critical difference. Unlike being tired, fatigue is constant and can be acute (lasting up to a month) or chronic (lasting more than one month). It can be physical, mental or a combination of the two and is a symptom that can result due to a number of factors, such as:

  • Lifestyle: staying up late, excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption, and poor nutrition and exercise habits
  • Work: long shifts, number of working days in a row, the monotony of the job, boredom, physical labour
  • Psychological: Poor sleep, stress, anxiety and depression
  • General wellbeing: Health, illness and an overall sense of life satisfaction and purpose.

Many enterprises are now trying to understand the risk of employee fatigue, and how they can help create an organisational culture that supports better health and wellbeing.

Being burnt out

Burnout is an occupational phenomenon that is brought on due to prolonged periods of workplace-related stress and frustration. In May 2019 the World Health Organisation (WHO) defined it to be:

“…a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

World HEalth Organisation, International Classification of Diseases

In today’s connected world, unplugging from the workplace has become more challenging and people can feel obliged to answer emails, calls or texts outside of their regular working hours. This can result in feelings of energy depletion, mental distance from their job, or negativity towards their job.

Additionally, studies have shown that losing the sense that your work is important or feeling like it’s out of your control are both contributing factors to burnout.

Extremely exhausted

So what about exhaustion? In simple terms, it’s a shorter-lived form of fatigue that can be experienced emotionally, mentally and physically. Periods of exhaustion can build up to become fatigue or can contribute to burnout.

How to tell the difference

It can be hard to differentiate between exhaustion, fatigue and burnout, but a good indicator is how quickly it takes to recover. 

A good night’s rest, a nutritious meal and hot shower can all help relieve tiredness. And a one- to two-week holiday or leave of absence from work that focuses on unplugging, de-stressing and recharging can alleviate exhaustion.

Fatigue requires a more consistent effort to address the underlying lifestyle and wellbeing factors and may take several months to overcome. 

Burnout is more difficult to address. It depends on the intensity and length of the burnout, as well as the quality of the recovery and the overall situation of the person experiencing it.

For some, a joint plan devised between them and their manager may be enough to start feeling on top of things again. Others may feel that a fresh start is needed. But what everyone can benefit from is learning how to develop coping mechanisms and strategies for burnout, like regularly practicing meditation.

Tune into you

Both fatigue and burnout can result in a feeling of mental and physical exhaustion. But while fatigue can be caused by a variety of factors, burnout occurs due to prolonged periods of emotional stress and frustration. 

Look at ways you can help manage your own stress levels at work and protect your sleep time. Remember, sleep is a biological need and it shouldn’t be considered as optional. Prioritise a healthy work-life balance and seek opportunities to unwind. Focus on having well-balanced meals and drinking lots of water.

Be aware of your emotions and reflect on any uncharacteristic reactions you have to situations at work. While you may not be physically tired, emotional or psychological strain may present itself in the form of erratic behaviour, exaggerated reactions and disassociation. Check-in with friends and family members to maintain a healthy social network of support. For more information about how lifestyle choices can prevent burnout, read about the four pillars of health: mind, activity, sleep and nutrition.

*Updated 21 June 2022.

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