Very recently, burnout became an officially recognized medical condition by the World Health Organization. While this is a positive step forward for healthcare, it will take time for the medical community to accurately diagnose and treat the condition. Until then, it’s possible that those experiencing burnout could be misdiagnosed with depression, as some of the symptoms overlap and look very similar.
In this article, we’ll review the similarities and differences between burnout and depression including symptoms, causes, and options for relieving symptoms.
The most common overlapping symptoms of burnout and depression are low energy or exhaustion, negative thoughts, irritability, and feelings of worthlessness. With burnout, one might experience feelings of depression, but not with the same intensity or duration as someone who is depressed. Likewise, with burnout, the feelings of worthlessness are related to one’s work and personal obligations – whereas with depression, the feelings extend to all aspects of one’s life.
An example of burnout would be:
You wake up irritable about having to go to work and spend the day feeling anxious and stressed. Even though you’re making the effort, you lack the energy and concentration to be consistently productive. Whereas you once enjoyed your work and felt like you were making a valuable contribution, you now feel discouraged and worthless. You know there is nothing you can do about the conditions, which only makes you feel more isolated and despondent. Sometimes you find yourself being cynical and impatient with your colleagues. To dampen these feelings, you consume alcohol or other substances most days after work. As the end of the week approaches, you are very anxious and wanting to escape to be with family and friends. Sometimes that is all that keeps you going.
Now let’s look at the same scenario with someone who is depressed:
You wake up irritable and dread having to go to work and interact with people. You spend the day feeling down on yourself and anxious. You have a hard time making the effort to be productive because you lack the energy and concentration. Nothing you do seems to have value or meaning. You know that any positive changes to the conditions (environment, people, wages, projects) will not change how negative you feel inside. To cope with these feelings, you use alcohol — and usually drink alone. When you are with colleagues, family or friends, you can ‘mask’ and act somewhat ‘normal’, but how you feel inside doesn’t change — not even when you’re doing something you once thoroughly enjoyed.
While the World Health Organization handbook describes burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” burnout can actually come from chronic stress beyond the workplace, as well. This became evident during Covid, when parents who usually had a balanced work-family routine suddenly found themselves unemployed (or working from home), and caring full time for their children who were trying anxiously to adjust to the new virtual school format and the absence of peer social engagement or support.
It’s not surprising that since the pandemic, those occupations showing exponential signs of burnout include healthcare workers, social workers, teachers, stay-at-home working parents, online students, and many ‘essential’ frontline workers.
Pandemic aside, the general causes for burnout have been identified as:
- A lack of control of one’s environment and responsibilities; ambiguous expectations for performance can lead to feelings of powerlessness and low self-efficacy.
- Dysfunctional working relationships also play a part in burnout, especially if there are situations of bullying, micromanaging or undermining.
- The job itself is also a factor. Those that involve constant or extreme focus (whether it’s on a factory floor or an operating room) can lead to chronic brain fatigue.
- An absence of social support — from management, colleagues, family or friends — can contribute to burnout by causing feelings of isolation.
- A work-life imbalance is a major factor. When there is not enough attention or energy spent on self-care, healthy social interactions and creativity, poor mental health is always the result.
Research over the last 20+ years indicates that another contributing factor to burnout might be personality type. Those more prone to burnout include Type “A” (who tend to become emotionally exhausted), the Caregiver (who often suffers from compassion fatigue) and the Emotionally Dissonant (who suppress their true emotions for the sake of performance, such as in hospitality or customer service).
One of the strongest indicators of whether you are experiencing burnout or depression is whether the most common treatments (time off work or anti-depressant medications) is/are effective:
When someone with burnout takes a long (2+weeks) vacation, their symptoms are relieved. This is not the case with someone who is depressed.
When someone with depression is given anti-depressants, their symptoms are often relieved. This is not the case with someone experiencing burnout.
Common methods for relief of either condition include:
Self-care, self-care, self-care. Practicing self-care is proven to raise feelings of self-efficacy, self-esteem, positive expectancies, neural functioning, and an overall sense of well-being. Many think that self-care refers only to massages, time off, etc., and although these are important, the most vital form of self-care is having radical compassion and sensitivity towards one’s self. Learning not to believe our negative self talk is crucial. This involves establishing core self-beliefs that reflect our authentic honoring of who we ARE on a mind-body-spirit level, and really recognizing our sacred existence here on Earth.
Limit contact with negative people. This may be difficult to do in the workplace (or your family), but even becoming aware of how much time you engage with negative people can help you to make small changes. Also, experiencing negativity on television and social media is a contributing factor to how we feel about ourselves and the world so…switch if off! This is especially important at nighttime.
Do something creative. When we engage in creative activities (whether it’s writing a poem or cooking a stew), our mind becomes focused, almost as if in meditation. The natural anti-depressant, dopamine, is released, reducing the feelings of anxiety, depression and stress.
Moderate exercise. Research has repeatedly shown that walking for 30 minutes, 3 times a week has the same impact on depression as an antidepressant. Exercise releases serotonin in the body/brain helping to support more positive expectancies and outlooks. Yoga has also been shown to be a highly effective remedy for both depression and burnout.
Develop a sleep hygiene routine. Many people do not realize the importance of getting restorative sleep. Having a regular scheduled bedtime, turning off all screens 90 minutes before bedtime, refraining from caffeine in the afternoons, using melatonin to induce sleep, having a dark, cool bedroom (66 degrees), using your bed ONLY for sex and sleep, and using sleep music to calm and slow down the brain in preparation for sleep.
Learn about nutrition for optimal mental health. Many people that are diagnosed with depression can actually see major improvements in their mood just by increasing 3 basic nutrients in their everyday diet. These are B12, D3, and Omegas. When these are not of optimal levels in the body/brain, symptoms of depression persist.
Spend as much time as possible in nature. We now know that those that spend time in nature experience fewer symptoms of depression. It is believed that nature exudes a healing energy based on the Earth’s resonance. When we place ourselves in this energy, the body’s natural healing mechanisms kick in, and the body begins to take on the resonance of Earth’s natural energetic frequencies that exude natural wellness.
Start a daily gratitude journal. Gratitude is a high-vibrational frequency to reside in. It is almost equivalent to the emotion of love. When we initiate daily gratitude practices in our lives, it provides a backdrop of living in love. This being stated, it is very important that we truly feel the gratitude (or even better is appreciation) as these feelings offer our body and mind a higher vibrational resonance that result in positive perceptions, thoughts and expectancies.
If you or someone you know is experiencing burnout, depression or possibly both, please seek help from a mental health professional. And be sure to download our free burnout vs. depression infographic.
BONUS — Watch or listen to:
The Decode Your Burnout Podcast with Dr. Sharon Grossman - Dr. Wendy Nickerson shares her unique burnout story of how she overcame burnout not once but twice. She also unpacks how burnout can be cancer-like and debunks the following thought-provoking burnout myths:
1. Burnout is a form of depression
2. Burnout can be remedied by slowing down
3. We should be able to withstand ongoing pressure
To learn more about how you can become a Certified Holistic Mental Health Coach, request our free information kit.