Is It A Rut, Burnout, Or Worse? Decoding Work Stress

No one loves their job all the time, but how do you know if your stress is normal workday blahs or something more serious?

Is It A Rut, Burnout, Or Worse? Decoding Work Stress
[Photo: Flickr user TheeErin]

Everyone with a job feels some stress at some time. But are your frustrating moments something you should worry about?


A recent study by the Harvard Business School and the Stanford School of Business announced that workplace stress may contribute up to a staggering $190 billion in health care expenses and over 120,000 deaths each year.

According to a poll conducted on behalf of the American Psychological Association (APA), over one-third (36%) of workers said they typically feel tense or stressed out while at work. Reasons for this stress include low salary (49%), lack of opportunities for growth and advancement (43%), heavy workload (43%), unrealistic job expectations (40%), and long hours (39%).

Stress is complicated because it can manifest itself in different ways, says Dr. Andrew Shatté, the Chief Science Officer of MeQuilibrium, a digital coach for workplace stress and resilience.

Bummed Out Vs. Burned Out

On one hand, it can result in feeling “bummed out” in the office. The days blend together. Suddenly the position you were hired for doesn’t seem so challenging and the work is not as interesting. You don’t see a future at your job but don’t see any other options.

“People report feeling ‘blah’ at work,” said Shatté. “They start to lose the feeling of purpose of their work and no longer feel connected. They’ve lost sight of the big picture and feel powerless to change.”

On the other side of the coin, you may also feel “burned out.” Maybe you feel as though your job has taken over your life. Your hours are too long, your boss’s demands are unreasonable, and you don’t see any hope or relief from the way things are. You find the stress of work bleeding into your personal life. All you talk about is work, even when you’re not there.


Let’s face it. Stress comes with most of our jobs and not all workplaces are the best at helping to facilitate work-life balance. That’s the hard truth. But if you’re staying up at night worrying and are unable to enjoy life, that’s not good.

Rather than just grit your teeth and powering through, here are some better ways to cope with stress in the workplace.

I’m Just “Bummed Out” All The Time

Same tasks, different day. You feel like you’re wasting your life at a job where you’re not appreciated or fully utilized. At the same time, you don’t have a lot of hope that your situation will change. You’re constantly in a low-level funk that keeps you from feeling engaged.

Dr. Nicole Pernod, a psychologist based in Brooklyn who specializes in anxiety and stress in the workplace, recommends asking oneself key questions to untangle these feelings.

“If a client is ‘in a rut at work’ and not ready to actively change, I would ask them what initially attracted him or her to this position,” she said. “I’d ask, ‘What portions of the job do you like?’ Research shows that focusing on positive attributes can rewire brain circuitry and increases satisfaction.”

Dr. Shatté also recommended some brain rewriting activities. “I recommend that at the end of every day, a person writes three good things that happened to them that day,” he said. “Then the next day, add another three things. Soon you’ll have documented proof that all isn’t so bleak.”


Sometimes we feel bummed out for a good reason. “It’s natural to feel disappointed at work, due to a slight or being passed over for a promotion,” said Sharlyn Lauby, author of the blog HR Bartender. “I recommend that people sit with it for a day or so and allow themselves to feel ‘bummed out.’ But after a day or two, that person needs to move ahead.”

I Feel Burned Out

Do you have a nagging feeling that the office is “following you” around and ruining the parts of life that you once found pleasurable? You could be on the verge of burnout, and the sooner it’s addressed, the better.

“I would want to gauge if there was something dynamic going on with the person,” said Dr. Pernod. “Does she always leave jobs? Does she have a hard time with time management? Does he always find the negative in situations?”

Pernod would want to determine whether these feelings of “drowning at work” were new and if he’d ever felt this way before at previous jobs. Then she’d ask how comfortable the person is with setting limits at work.

“I’d want to know, ‘When does work really finish for you?’” she said. “Does that person really need to work those long hours or is the pressure imagined because he worries he’ll be perceived poorly for leaving on time?” Pernod would also want to know if anything in the home was trickling into the office, creating feelings of anxiety and pressure.

“It may be something deeper that’s manifesting itself as work stress,” she said. If you want to reach out to a counselor for someone to talk to, Lauby recommends looking in your employee handbook to see if your company offers an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). If so, you may have a free and confidential variety of programs and courses at your disposal to help you ease your workplace anxieties. Look into what assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who have personal or work-related problems are offered.


“Your company is paying for EAP benefits, they don’t want them sitting on a shelf,” said Lauby. “These services are there to help you cope with the work and life issues. They’re confidential, so you don’t have to worry about people knowing about your feelings or difficulties in the office.”

–Lindsay Goldwert is a journalist and comedy writer with a special interest in workplace health and lifestyle issues. Her work has appeared in, Slate, the New York Daily News, Redbook, and many others. She lives in Queens, New York.