Burnout Vs Depression: Understanding The Differences Between Them

Symptoms of burnout can be similar to those of depression and vice versa. It can be difficult to differentiate the two.

Blurtitout Team

Published at 03:53

‘Burnout’ is a term that people are becoming increasingly aware of. Many of the symptoms of burnout can be similar to those of depression and vice versa. Some people experience one but not the other, some find that one leads to the other and others experience both at the same time. It can be difficult to differentiate between the two.

How Common Is Burnout?

Though burnout can apply to different areas of life, it’s most commonly spoken about in terms of work, so most statistics focus on work-related stress and burnout.

A 2020 survey revealed that around 22% of UK adults have experienced job-related burnout. In fact, in August 2020, over 27,000 people worldwide searched the term ‘burnout symptoms’.

Google searches relating to burnout terms have increased over the last few years. However, whether burnout is more common, or whether more people are researching it because it’s a term that’s increasingly well-known, is currently unclear.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout occurs when things have gone out of balance, and our stress and activity levels far outweigh the amount of rest we have.

Think about a fire. Fires need fuel, oxygen, and heat to burn. As it burns through fuel, there’s less and less left to burn. If we add fuel to a fire, then it will continue to burn, but if we don’t, it will eventually burn out. A burned-out fire has nothing left to give. It won’t light and doesn’t provide any heat. It’s exhausted. To get it going again, we have to go back to the start, add more fuel, and re-light it.

As people, when we keep using up fuel (energy) without adding or recouping any, we eventually burn out. We don’t have the energy we need to keep going.

What Does Burnout Feel Like?

What Does Burnout Feel Like
Sometimes, we turn the negativity we feel in on ourselves and view ourselves as a failure. Photo: Team Design

A key feature of burnout is exhaustion. We have a lack of energy and feel tired all the time.

Physically, we might catch more coughs and colds as our immune system dips. Our sleeping and eating habits might change. We might have frequent headaches.

Our alcohol consumption might increase, and if we smoke, we might be smoking more than usual. Sometimes we’ll snap at others, have less patience, and become irritated or annoyed more quickly than normal. Over time, we might isolate ourselves from others and withdraw from our responsibilities. 

We’ll often feel negative about the situation our burnout relates to (eg. work or caring responsibilities) and might feel cynical and resentful. Our motivation, drive, and efficiency can all take a hit. 

Sometimes, we turn the negativity we feel in on ourselves and view ourselves as a failure. We might feel annoyance or anger towards ourselves and blame ourselves for not being good enough (whatever ‘good enough’ means). Helplessness, loneliness, and defeat can overwhelm us.

Diagnosing Burnout

Historically, there’s been lots of debate over whether or not burnout can be classified as a medical condition.

Professionals have different opinions, and even diagnostic guides classify it differently. The World Health Organisation officially recognised ‘burn-out’ as a ‘syndrome’ in 2019, but only in an occupational context. It will be included in the 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) which takes effect in January 2022. Despite this, it isn’t currently included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

Even if clinicians are unable to diagnose burnout as a condition, they may still suggest that our experiences are due to long-term stress and/or exhaustion. Some may even use the term ‘burnout’ to describe our experiences.

How Do The Causes Of Burnout And Depression Differ?

Burnout is often caused by excessive stress for a prolonged period. It’s most commonly work-related, though some people think it’s possible to experience burnout due to non-work situations, such as caring responsibilities, parenting, or wider family relationships.

It’s often a gradual process and risk factors for experiencing burnout can include things like compassion fatigue, lack of recognition and reward, going a long time without a break, large amounts of pressure, unreasonable expectations, unmanageable workload, lack of control, lack of choice, and lack of autonomy.

Depression isn’t usually caused by a single circumstance or event. Often, several different things will feed into it. Sometimes we won’t be able to pinpoint anything specific at all. Some of the things that can contribute to depression include traumatic events, medical conditions, family circumstances, medication, culture, genetics, having a child, and family history.

Burnout Related To Diagnosable Conditions

Burnout can relate to specific situations and circumstances, such as work, but it’s also increasingly being recognized as something that disproportionately affects people with some diagnosable conditions. For example, there’s increasing evidence that autistic people, who’ve spent years ‘masking’, can experience autistic burnout. Some people think that there are also some links between burnout and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), although they are not the same thing.

Though it’s still related to high levels of stress and an imbalance of energy-out to energy-in, burnout related to other diagnosable conditions may differ slightly from work- or situation-specific burnout.

How Do Symptoms Of Burnout And Depression Differ?

The key difference between burnout and depression is that burnout relates to a specific circumstance whereas depression is more generalised.

Where burnout can cause us to feel negatively towards a specific situation, depression may make us feel negative about lots of different things at once. Living with burnout can cause us to lose confidence in some of our abilities, depression can cause us to lose confidence in our ability to do anything at all. Burnout might mean that we think we’ve failed at a specific ‘thing’. But depression can cause us to feel as though we’ve failed as a person and failed at life.

The symptoms of the two can be similar, but the root causes are different, and as such the way to manage them can differ.

How Much Does Diagnosis Matter?

People have different opinions on diagnosis, whatever the condition. Some view it as helpful, others don’t.

Whichever name or label we choose to use (or not use), it can be helpful to try and work out whether there’s a clear cause of our feelings, as that knowledge can aid our recovery.

Ultimately, choosing whether or not to investigate a diagnosis comes down to individual preference. Some like it. It can provide a framework to work from. Others aren’t such a fan. They don’t like labels and don’t find them useful.

Short-Term Burnout Recovery

Short-Term Burnout Recovery
In the short term, burnout recovery is about resting and recovering our energy levels. Photo: Team Design

Recovering from burnout can take time, trial, and error. If we try to rush and try to do too much too quickly, then it can sometimes make it worse.

In the short term, burnout recovery is about resting and recovering our energy levels. This can often mean:

  • Getting our sleep routines back in check.
  • Eating a balanced diet – this doesn’t mean that we have to go on a diet or lose weight. It’s more about eating a range of foods at appropriate times and having proper meals rather than grabbing a coffee for breakfast and a chocolate bar for lunch.
  • Taking some time out to do things that we enjoy.
  • Reconnecting with family and friends.
  • Having fun.
  • Take some time to be quiet and still – perhaps engaging in yoga, meditation, journaling, mindfulness, or another reflective activity.
  • Noticing our alcohol consumption and getting it back under control if needed.
  • Practicing self-soothing.
  • Assessing our self-care routines and seeing if we need to get back on top of anything we’ve let slide.

As we begin to feel better, we can start to look at those things we can do to prevent burnout going forward.

Boundaries, Priorities, And Thank You

As we recover from burnout, it’s important to look at what caused it in the first place. Treating our symptoms is great, but unless we work out what’s causing them, they’ll just keep popping back up.

A stress log can be really helpful. To do this, we make a note each time we notice our anxiety or stress spike. Signs of an anxiety spike can include our heart rate speeding up, our breathing quickening, and we might suddenly feel very hot. Little stresses and annoyances can build and contribute to our overall stress levels. Making a note of them can allow us to do something about them.

Sorting out our wonky boundaries is important when preventing burnout. These could be work boundaries, people boundaries, or boundaries related to our own actions and behavior. For example, one of our boundaries might be to leave work at work, but we might have started bringing bits and bobs home.

Reassessing different parts of our lives can help us to view things from new perspectives and adjust our priorities accordingly. As part of this, we might need to delegate tasks, book some annual leave, have difficult conversations, and think about new boundaries or routines that we’d like to implement.

Sometimes, situations can spiral. We take on a bit more, ignore the odd lack of a ‘thank you’, do an extra hour here and there, and before we know it, we’ve become the ‘yes’ person. We end up working silly hours, have no downtime, and nobody seems to recognize our efforts. A ‘thank you’ can go a long way. If we feel unappreciated and taken for granted, then it might be important to talk to any relevant people about that. Conversations like this aren’t easy but are important. During these conversations, it’s also important that we stick to our new boundaries and priorities, reaffirming them as needed.

Healthy Habits

Healthy Habits
Preventing burnout isn’t just about the situation that caused it, it also involves our wider life. Photo: Team Design

Preventing burnout isn’t just about the situation that caused it, it also involves our wider life. The happier and healthier we are generally, the more headspace we have to cope with ups and downs.

These healthy habits could include having a sensible bedtime, eating a balanced diet, making sure we have time off, having fun, connecting with nature, picking up forgotten hobbies, and communicating with those around us. Anything that forms part of our general self-care.

It’s also useful to have a mental, written, or physical toolkit of things that we can pull out during particularly difficult times. For example, if we’ve got a project deadline approaching then perhaps we need to ensure that for the two weeks beforehand, we step back from responsibilities elsewhere. Or if we come home having had a horrible day, then we might have a self-soothe box that we can dip into.

We’re Not Alone

It’s important to remember, that whatever our situation, we’re not alone. We’re not the first person to feel this way. There are always things that we can do to try and improve our situation. When we feel our stress levels building, it’s good to try and dial up our self-care, reach out to those around us and try to prevent the stress from spiraling.

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