• Emma Chow

Burnout & Depression: What is the Difference?

Have you been feeling emotionally exhausted? 


Is this feeling often accompanied by a loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy? 


Are feelings of cynicism and worthlessness becoming more and more prominent? 


If you answered "yes" to those questions, then you may be experiencing burnout. In more serious cases, you may be experiencing depression. 


It's important to recognize the distinction between a stress-induced syndrome and a mental illness. Treatment for burnout can be similar to treating depression. But treatments for depression are not needed for burnout. 


Before we compare the two, let's take a look at what kind of symptoms each one comprises.


Comparing the Symptoms


Depression is a common yet serious mental illness that influences the way you think, feel, and act. According to the DSM-5, at least five of the following symptoms must appear for two consecutive weeks before a diagnosis is made:¹


  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood

  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed

  • Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting

  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much

  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue

  • Increase in purposeless physical activity or slowed movements and speech

  • Feeling worthless or guilty

  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions

  • Thoughts of death or suicide


However, burnout is considered a syndrome that is caused by occupational stress. It is usually characterized by:²


  • A depressed mood

  • The loss of interest or pleasure

  • Decreased or increased appetite

  • Sleep problems

  • Fatigue or loss of energy

  • Feelings of worthlessness

  • Impaired concentration

  • Suicidal thoughts


Despite its severity and resemblance to depression, burnout is not included in the DSM. Therefore, there is still no diagnostic criteria for it.³ Just by looking at the symptoms, it can be very easy to confuse the two. So how can they be differentiated?


What Makes Them Different?


Burnout typically occurs when our work demands become too overwhelming or emotionally exhausting. When demands (or emotional strains) are removed, burnout symptoms should start to lift as well. But if you are depressed, your symptoms will persist despite a change in these factors. 


For example, when someone who is burnt out takes a much-needed vacation, they will start to recover. But if someone is depressed, the source of negativity will continue to reside in their head. 


Another way to differentiate them is to examine the source of feelings of worthlessness. When someone is burnt out, feelings of worthlessness are typically connected to their work performance. This feeling usually stems from the individual's value in the workplace. Those with depression experience a sense of worthlessness about their overall value.


Those with depression experience a sense of worthlessness about their overall value.

Luis Villasmil / Unsplash


The Relationship Between Burnout & Depression: A Case Study


A team of researchers from the Medical University of Graz conducted a study to examine the overlaps of burnout and depression. This study focused on three components of burnout:


  • Emotional exhaustion

  • Depersonalization

  • Low personal accomplishment


They gathered a total of 5,897 Austrian physicians to participate in this study. 10.3% of the participants were diagnosed with major depression. They were all invited to answer a questionnaire that consisted of:


  • the Major Depression Inventory (MDI)

  • the Hamburg Burnout; and

  • the demographic and job-related parameters


The results indicated that 50.7% of the participants were affected by symptoms of burnout. Their data confirms that the risk for major depression increases depending on the level of burnout. This indicates that prolonged burnout may lead to depression. Especially if you have had depression before.


From this study, depressive symptoms are shown to be significant in the process of burnout. This raises the question of whether severe burnout can be classified as a form of depression. But, further empirical research will have to be conducted.


The Importance of Distinction


Despite the commonalities, it is extremely important to distinguish between the two. If someone is burnt out and not depressed, they do not need medication. Instead, they must address the factors that caused the burnout to happen. 


It can be easy to undermine depressive symptoms for burnout symptoms. But, you can be burnt out and experiencing depression at the same time. This combination will inevitably worsen the symptoms.


If you are exhibiting symptoms of depression, please consider seeking help from a professional. Depression is a serious mental health condition and can be treated and cured with the proper therapeutic help. 


It's never an easy task to take the initial step to ask for help. And the positive effects of the treatment do not come instantly. But always try to keep in mind:


“Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.”

 ~ Ovid



References

  1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), Fifth edition. 2013.

  2. Koutsimani, P., Montgomery, A., & Georganta, K. (2019). The Relationship Between Burnout, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 10(284). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00284

  3. Bakusic, J., Schaufeli, W., Claes, S, Godderis, L. (2017). Stress, burnout and depression: A systematic review on DNA methylation mechanisms. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 92, 34-44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2016.11.005

  4. Maslach C, Jackson SE, Leiter MP. Maslach Burnout Inventory: third edition. In: Zalaquett CP, Wood RJ, eds. Evaluating Stress: A Book of Resources. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc; 1997:191-218

  5. Wurm W, Vogel K, Holl A, Ebner C, Bayer D, et al. (2016) Depression-Burnout Overlap in Physicians. PLOS ONE 11(3): e0149913. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0149913

  6. Alhola, P., & Polo-Kantola, P. (2007). Sleep deprivation: Impact on cognitive performance. Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, 3(5), 553–567.