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


These terms are popping up regularly and sometimes interchangeably. However, they don’t all mean the same thing. We’d thought to take the opportunity to define each one in relation to the workplace as they impact our mental health in different ways.

Totally Tired

Feeling tired is the state in which one desires to sleep or rest. You can feel this after having a big lunch, too much time in the sun or a restless sleep from the night before. However, the condition isn’t chronic, pushing the body into a state of extreme weariness which impairs one’s ability to function. Understanding the difference between exhaustion, fatigue and burnout in the workplace is important as they are brought on by different issues and need to be given attention.

Feeling Fatigued

It’s more than just feeling a bit tired or drowsy. It’s when an individuals’ mental or physical tiredness inhibits the ability to perform effectively and safely.  It can be brought on by a constant feeling of sleepiness or weakness which can be physical, mental or a combination of both. Fatigue is a symptom usually from a combination of factoring including:

  • Lifestyle: staying up late, excessive alcohol or caffeine consumption, poor nutrition and exercise habits
  • Work: shift length, number of working days in a row, the monotony of the job, boredom, physical labour
  • Psychological: Stress, anxiety and depression can play a part in energy levels plus the ability to get adequate quality sleep.
  • General wellbeing: Health, illness and an overall sense of life satisfaction and purpose.

Recently, the conversation in the workplace and various industries has steadily increased. Organisations are trying to understand their impact on a worker’s risk of fatigue and how they can help create a culture which supports quality sleep and energised people. 

Being Burnt Out

Burnout is brought on from prolonged periods of stress and frustration, hence why it’s commonly discussed in the workplace. In fact, only in May this year the World Health Organisation (WHO) changed its definition to be:

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

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

Professor Michael Leiter from Deakin University, Australia uncovered that a common feature of burnout is an overwhelming sense that one’s career is out of their control. The build-up of more administrative tasks and compliance-based training on top of the role’s expectations can build cynicism towards one’s job. 

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. Usually, periods of exhaustion build up to form longer-experienced 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 for recovery. 

A good night’s rest, nutritious meal and hot shower usually relieve tiredness. A one to two-week holiday or leave of absence from work focussed 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 as it depends on the intensity and length of the burnout, 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 need to change company or career completely and start afresh. Some may need additional counselling or to develop new coping mechanisms like a regular meditation practice, a relaxation routine, even new hobbies. 

Tune In To You

Both fatigue and burnout conditions can end in a feeling of mental and physical exhaustion, fatigue can be caused by a variety of factors from lifestyle to environmental whereas burnout is from 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. Encourage your colleagues to create an environment where people can feel there is a healthy work-life balance and opportunities to unwind. 

Focus on what’s going into your body in the way of whole foods, balanced meals and lots of water. Drinking copious cups of coffee during the day to stave away sleep can be harmful in resetting your body’s balance to a restful night. Recent studies by the Sleep Disorders & Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital and Wayne State College of Medicine found that coffee still disturbed sleep when drunk 6 hours before, even though you may not perceive its effect.

Be aware of your emotions and uncharacteristic reactions 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 ensure you have a social network of supportive people that may identify behaviours you’ve missed.

Most of all – look out for yourself. A recent post by @workplaceptsd told a story of someone who had quit 5 jobs giving 2 week’s notice each time. In all 5 cases, they were let go earlier which got them thinking how replaceable we all are in the workplace. This is actually an empowering statement that can help workaholics detach from work – go home and spend time with your family, use your vacation time, take a mental health day, hit the gym at lunch, make time for your hobbies, passions and interests. Live your life, not your work!

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