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Reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
You’re exhausted, you’re indifferent to your work, and you spend hours a day looking at homes you can’t afford and planning vacations you can’t actually take. Are you depressed or burnt out? For many, it might be easy to say “both,” but in reality, deciphering the depression versus burnout question may be more complex.
Even people who are both depressed and burnt out, according to online quizzes, probably don’t have all the information they need. Why? The definition of burnout is hardly clear.
Few healthcare professionals and experts actually agree on what defines burnout, and even fewer seem to agree on where the line between burnout and depression is drawn.
Can you have both? Can one cause the other? Can you get rid of them? These are all important questions to answer, whether you’re a CFO, a stay-at-home mom, a hard-working service industry professional or all of the above.
If you’re trying to determine whether you’re burnt out or depressed, it’s best to take a deep breath, relax and look at the facts. We’ve assembled the most critical points below, so when you’ve cleared your head for a moment, proceed down and let us walk you through the details.
Burnout and depression are two versions of the same problem. In fact, Psychology Today referred to them as “non-identical twins.”
Now it’s time for a little history lesson. The term “burnout” goes back to the 1940s. It was originally coined as burnout syndrome to refer to rockets running out of fuel — literally burning out — and ceasing to function.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand how that would eventually apply to exhausted professionals in corporate, factory and other professional settings. In the decades since, “burnout” has been noted in physicians who lose empathy for their clients, for overworked healthcare professionals, and later, for pretty much everyone.
Burnout is a colloquial term, and it’s not considered an official diagnosis, medical condition or medical disorder by the experts who define medical disorders. Even work anxiety is an entirely different thing.
Still, burnout has been described with a variety of attributes. You might be experiencing burnout if you:
Are depersonalized from (indifferent or apathetic toward) your work
Feel emotional exhaustion or physical exhaustion
Have become more cynical
Have a diminished internal sense of effectiveness or purpose
Burnout often results in a person becoming resentful toward or alienated from responsibilities, be they work-related or personal obligations.
The result of the feelings you experience from burnout can also lead to decreased functioning, effectiveness and quality of performance at work or home.
Depression, meanwhile, shares many of these traits. Indifference, fatigue, exhaustion, lack of motivation, reduced confidence in your ability to perform and difficulty concentrating are all symptoms of depression that can become apparent when a depressive disorder takes hold.
When you look at the cherry-picked symptoms of these two mental health problems, it’s easy to see why one could be confused with another.
Luckily, these symptoms represent just a few elements of both depression and burnout, and looking at the whole picture yields some substantial and telling differences.
So, what makes the two not interchangeable? How are they actually different?
In the most literal sense, the biggest key difference between burnout and depression is that burnout isn’t a mental health disorder or a formally acknowledged mental illness.
As we mentioned, burnout doesn’t have a formal definition, and because of that, assessments to determine whether you have it or not vary widely.
The most agreed-upon assessment questionnaire for burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory, isn’t even designed for medical professionals to use — it’s a research tool for corporate purposes.
Another differentiating factor? Burnout is, for the most part, associated with work. While we mentioned other areas of your life where burnout may happen, the reality is it’s most often related to your professional life.
Burnout is also often dismissed by medical professionals because its mental and physical symptoms are often just elements of actual disorders of mental health. The argument is that if it’s simply symptoms of depression, why use the term burnout at all?
Perhaps most importantly, not all exhaustion is due to burnout. Various diseases and disorders can cause fatigue and tiredness, and labeling something as burnout without assessing a person for other health issues could cause serious problems, like leaving a more severe illness untreated.
One of those serious conditions is depression, which can affect your whole body, cause further problems and potentially lead to suicide if left untreated.
When burnout is left to get worse, it can lead to a depressive episode. While it may only encompass your work life, those feelings of defeated indifference or hopelessness can spill over into other areas of your life, and when that happens, you’ve met the criteria for depression.
Of course, this isn’t the only cause of depression. And while the study’s author still had many questions about the exact mechanisms that induced depression, they found that chronic stress was at least one pathway to depressive disorders.
However, not everyone agrees the relationship is so easily explained — or that burnout and stress are necessarily the same thing.
A 2019 study looked at burnout as it relates to anxiety and depression and was not able to arrive at a conclusive understanding of the relationship between the three. While the authors noted that a high-stress workplace can lead to the use of antidepressants by those who struggle, they stopped short of naming burnout as a precursor or proto-depression based on their findings.
That said, it’s safe to say burnout often comes before depression. Burnout, by definition, affects one area of your life with depression-like symptoms, whereas depression affects most, if not all, areas of your life. Burnout is arguably an isolated form, and when it spreads, you get depression.
So, what about the reverse? Can burnout be caused by depression — can you get burnout from depression?
There’s some layperson’s logic to support this. Someone who’s depressed and experiencing a mood disorder may very well pour themselves into their work to avoid problems outside the office, thereby leading to burnout.
It’s a theory supported by some experts, who believe burnout is potentially just an expression of depression in a specific element of your life.
This would suggest that burnout is due to depression, which may not have been obvious yet or shown notable signs in other areas of your life. Most importantly, it would imply that what we call burnout can’t actually exist without depression.
Here’s where things get dicey. According to the National Library of Medicine, burnout can be treated by a focused effort to correct problems in your work life. However, if a person with depression puts significant energy into correcting their professional life, it can actually have the opposite effect, driving them further from balance.
That puts people suffering from burnout in a very dangerous position. In order to find out whether your burnout is just burnout, you have to do something that might exacerbate depression — that is, if depression exists.
So, what’s a girl to do if she feels burnt out, and maybe depressed, but maybe not?
The answer is simple: get help.
The easiest one-shot way of determining whether you’re burnt out or experiencing other mental health conditions is to assess whether these feelings are spilling over into your life outside of work.
If you’re functioning normally at home and with family and friends, burnout might indeed be what you’re suffering from.
And if you’re suffering from burnout alone, there are ways to address it.
If you’re burnt out, experts often encourage you to take time away from work, either as a vacation or a leave of absence. Even setting better boundaries, like telling bosses not to contact you outside work hours, can improve your burnout symptoms and potentially “fix” the problem. Another option for managing burnout and the stress that comes with it are mental health gyms.
That said, the same treatments won’t simply fail to work with depression — they can actually make depression worse. Depression, after all, affects all areas of your life, and it doesn’t go away when you head to Cancun for a long weekend.
Our advice (and the advice of the expert opinions we considered) is to talk to a healthcare professional and get screened for depression.
Mood disorders can be managed with a combination of treatments like therapy, lifestyle changes and medication — and that’s without using up your precious vacation days in an attempt to recharge a battery that’s not properly wired in the first place.
Medications and therapy can help you rewire that battery and get rid of those depressive symptoms to make way for normal function.
Learn more about the medications for depression, like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), on our blog, then check out our most recommended therapeutic form, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Are you struggling at work and unable to tell whether it’s affecting you outside the office? Even if your inner circle of loved ones gives their honest opinion, you may not have all the tools you need to figure out what’s going on.
That’s why experts (and Hers) recommend you connect with a healthcare professional or a mental health provider.
Talking to an expert about your exhaustion, your feelings about work, how you feel after work, and other things like your sleep and eating habits is the best way to understand what’s actually going on — and whether you need more than a couple of weeks of time off to get better.
If you’re ready to deal with burnout or depression, you can start today on our online therapy platform.
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