Following a recent Instagram post & TikTok, I’ve received so many questions like this: Am I burned out or am I depressed?
If you’re asking this question, please know you’re not alone. Burnout, low mood, anxiety and not ‘feeling like yourself’ have been the primary reason most of my new clients have started therapy. The mental health landscape has changed since 2019, and a lot of us have struggled with post-pandemic mental health. This blog dives into similarities and differences between chronic burnout and low mood. Hope it’s helpful.
What is burnout?
Burnout is a term usually applied to chronic, ongoing work-related stress that makes an employee feel emotionally exhausted, overworked, underappreciated, and undervalued. Over time and without progress on alleviating the issues, the employee feels trapped, leading to low mood, low motivation and a cynical view on their job, their work, their potential, or capacity. Sometimes it extends to feelings of self-worth & importance, leading to self-doubt & other self-esteem related issues. It can also contribute to anxiety, stress, physical complaints (e.g., migraine, headache, upset tummy), exacerbated chronic illness, and more frequent sickness.
Often the solution to burnout is finding a new role where there is a greater sense of appreciation, or job the work aligns with the employee’s values. However, the way we work and the how we do our jobs has changed so drastically since the pandemic. Some of us were forced to work at home during covid lockdowns where there weren’t clear boundaries between work time and home time – we tried to squeeze everything in & left ourselves feeling exhausted and overextended. Many of us still do because there is too much to do and not enough time to do it all (and so much pressure)! Also bear in mind that there are other ‘jobs’ that a person can’t necessarily leave or so easily restructure (e.g., parenting, caring; self-employment). These roles are often relentless and can feel unescapable, leading to feelings of burnout.
Further, the cost-of-living crisis and financial uncertainty means a lot of us have no choice but to stay at the job(s) that have created the burnout. If we stay trapped in a life that is causing us pain but can’t make a change, what is the solution? Clearly, if no changes are made, nothing can change, and if nothing changes, things often get worse over time. That is exactly where we see traditional work-related burnout snowball into major mood disorders like clinical depression – when we can’t escape.
What is depression?
Unlike burnout, depression is a clinical mood disorder. Symptoms of depression include low mood, anhedonia (loss of pleasure or interest in things one typically enjoys), changes to appetite & sex drive, weight changes, sleep issues, poor concentration or memory, feeling slow & sluggish or agitated & irritated.
A person with depression may experience unhelpful thinking patterns about themselves (e.g., “I am a failure”), the future (e.g., “Nothing good is coming for me”), and the world (e.g., “The world is an unkind, hurtful place”). Additionally, a person with depression may think about death (e.g., “things will be better if I’m not around) or have suicidal thoughts or plans. Typically, to receive a diagnosis of depression the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR, 2022).
What symptoms do burnout & depression have in common?
In our post-covid world, the relationship between chronic burnout & depression are a hot topic in both research and clinical work. People want to know, am I feeling the effects from being burned from many years of trying to cope with the pandemic – OR is this depression? Has my burnout turned into something more “serious?”
A few research studies have tried to answer the question: is burnout a kind of depression or is it a different experience? So far, research has shown a huge overlap in symptoms of burnout & depression such as dread & existential dread, physical exhaustion, feeling like you want to hide away, difficulties with concentration, no motivation, self-doubt, self-criticism, irritability and difficulty feeling joy.
People with burnout or depression both report feeling stuck in an unrewarded daily routine that brings little joy & a lot of “unwanted-ness.” In sum, they report that life doesn’t feel great & it doesn’t seem like things will improve.
Is burnout a kind of depression?
While the research shows a huge overlap in symptoms, it does suggest that burnout and depression are slightly different from each other. From my clinical experience, I’ve selected a few key differences in the thinking patterns & ways of relating to the world that helps me distinguish between burnout & depression. (Note: This blog post is not meant to be diagnostic, and my observations haven’t been empirically supported outside of my therapeutic work.)
Firstly, the way a person with burnout tends to describe mood is sad, frustrated, dissatisfied, resentful & cynical. This mood tends to be directed toward something and triggered by something specific (though not always!). For example, the Sunday blues may be hard because the thought of going back to work on Monday is especially triggering. In contrast, a person with depression may feel sadness in a more global way, for example they may feel withdrawn, empty, purposeless, numb in general and often for no specific reason towards most aspects of their life (not just toward a job, role, or duty). Of course, there are many exceptions. A person might be diagnosed with depression after a specific event too (e.g., divorce or getting fired).
Another difference between burnout and depression is the kind of thoughts a person might have about themselves & the world. For instance, in burnout, a person might feel stuck & trapped by their current job circumstances, which triggers feelings of helplessness & frustration about continuing to work and may lead to thoughts like, “doing x is pointless.” Whereas in depression, the thoughts are often centred on feeling an overwhelming emptiness behind the sadness. People with depression report feeling like a burden or disappointment to others, which then triggers feelings of hopelessness & worthlessness. In depression, the negative thoughts are more global, general, & deterministic, they might not be certain that mood or energy will improve if x changed.
Of course, please understand these are generalized observations based on a limited sample. A qualified therapist will be able to organize a treatment plan just for you (no matter how the symptoms are labelled).
When to seek help.
Please do keep in mind that burnout isn’t necessarily something that will immediately disappear with a new job or role. Although burnout hasn’t been classified as a psychological disorder, it does impact psychological functioning – often taxing the nervous system and depleting our motivation to make changes. Even if it isn’t a traditional clinical disorder, burnout is reason enough to seek therapy. Remember, there doesn’t need to be a “good reason” to get therapy. Things don’t have to be “really bad” before therapy will be useful.
My advice regarding when to seek help is always this… If you think therapy is a good idea, it is. If your circumstances and symptoms are getting in the way of how you live your life, do your job, maintain relationships, or even if you just don’t feel right, it’s time to call for backup.
Remember, you deserve to feel good. You owe it to yourself to make those important changes. You deserve to live a life that makes you feel happy & satisfying (at least every once and a while).
Lots of love,
If this was helpful or you have questions, comment below or get in touch.
Koutsimani, P., Montgomery, A., Georganta, K. (2019). The Relationship Between Burnout, Depression, and Anxiety: A Systematic Review & Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Psychology.
Melchers, M.C., Plieger, T., Meermann, R., and Reuter, M. (2015). Differentiating burnout from depression: personality matters. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 113.
Plieger, T., Melchers, M., Montag, C. Meermann, R., & Reuter, M. (2015). Life stress as a potential risk factor for depression and burnout. Burnout Research, 2, 19-24.
Schonfeld, I. & Bianchi, R. (2015). Burnout and Depression: Two Entities or one? Journal of Clinical Psychology, 72, 22-37.
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