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Depression, Burnout, or Both? Here's How to Tell

Man stressed and burned out as he works at his laptop
Getty Images / People images

Depression… burnout… They’re the same thing, right?

No. While one can lead to another, burnout usually has a clearly definable reason.

Depression, stressful daily living, or both can eventually lead to burnout. Martin Gallagher explores the signs of burnout and why seeking help is vital.

With today's hustle-and-grind culture, 24/7 productivity is advertised as the only way to achieve success, avoid shame, and find happiness. People talk about being constantly busy with a wryly exhausted tinge of pride. 

In reality, the universal fear of laziness is playing havoc with our mental health. Whether you're logging hours of overtime in the office, juggling too many responsibilities, or living with a chronic mental or physical condition, emotional and physical exhaustion is becoming an epidemic. 

Overworking, environmental changes, and added familial responsibilities can all take their toll. If you're feeling particularly depressed, lethargic, or cynical, you could also be suffering from burnout

What is burnout? 

Burnout is a psychological condition defined by mental (and sometimes physical) exhaustion. 

Plenty of people don't like their jobs. It can be down to office politics, the people you work with, or simply because you're not passionate about the field you're working in. Though not ideal, this isn't burnout - it's just disliking your job.

Burnout, however, is more and less than "dislike." It's feeling empty, emotionally exhausted, and demotivated. Everyone has "off days," but burnout is a continual feeling of hopelessness and not caring.

Other signs of burnout may include:

  • Feeling constantly tired and drained 
  • Headaches and painful muscles 
  • Sleeping poorly (too much or too little) 
  • Lack of motivation 
  • Cynicism or negativity 
  • Isolating yourself from others 
  • Avoiding responsibilities 
  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope 

But remember, burnout isn't only related to a stressful job. Anything that piles on stress can cause burnout, whether that's a lack of a supportive social circle, a demanding family, or too many responsibilities outside of work without enough help. 

Burnout develops over time, affecting everything from your daily routine to work to familial and social commitments. People say burnout feels like they're wading through life. They may neglect some habits, like grooming, sleep schedules, and hygiene, and adopt others, such as eating junk food or drinking more alcohol.

Sounds a lot like depression, doesn't it? 

Burnout isn't the same as laziness

Because of the low productivity that often comes with burnout, bosses and even burnout sufferers are too quick to jump to accusations of laziness.

Don't confuse burnout with being lazy! Laziness and burnout do share some symptoms, such as: 

  • Low productivity 
  • Constantly distracted 
  • Disliking your job or the task at hand 
  • Feeling overworked

On the other hand, burnout shows a marked change in outlook that affects all parts of life. If your mood has shifted from feeling "stressed but stable" to irritable, anxious, passive-aggressive, or you feel physically ill, that's a sign of burnout. 

For example, when you're burned out, daily tasks feel "heavier" and take more time and energy to complete, adding to your overall exhaustion. This could be due to the inability to process information as fast as you're used to, leading to a "foggy" brain that has trouble processing anything. 

Feeling emotionally drained constantly saps your motivation and enthusiasm. Spending time with friends and loved ones, playing sports, or any social activity can all become too difficult. 

When burnout leads to self-destruction 

Burnout is a psychological condition that can lead to other mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety disorders

However, some people are unlikely to discuss their mental health issues until they reach crisis levels. In a 2018 study from Priory, 400 out of the 1000 men surveyed said they'd only seek help if they had thoughts of suicide or self-harm

Of those 1,000, 32% said work was their most prominent cause of mental health issues and stress. A majority also said their mental health had negatively impacted their "work performance, parenting ability, and relationships in particular" (priorygroup.com).

Much as burnout is something that develops over time, so is suicidal ideation. Seeking help before it becomes a crisis can help manage suicidal or harmful thoughts. But self-medicating (drinking, taking drugs, or other self-destructive activities) often worsens burnout or depression symptoms. 

In my case, I wouldn't turn to substances, but I would play online games with my friends until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. as a form of escapism. So much of my day was filled with work I felt I deserved all the free time I could get. Going to bed meant waking up to go to work, so I "needed" to play games to clear my mind. 

I also refused to acknowledge that going to bed at 3 a.m. would make me tired and irritable the following day. I kept up this self-medicating habit until I crashed. 

Self-destruction can look harmless. At the time, I felt like I was clawing back much-needed "me time" from the world's demands. In reality, though, my daily list of demands wouldn't change. Staying up until 3 a.m. wasn't going to make anything any better. 

Burnout can happen even when you know the signs

I have three kids, and, writing this, I realize I go through burnout a lot. 

My eldest is very aware of his emotions and mental state, describing how his brain feels when he's anxious. This happened unprompted during the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, as he didn't have a social circle. 

I am so proud of my son for articulating his thoughts and feelings at a young age. Still, being a key pillar of his emotional support system can take its toll. At the same time, I'm raising two younger children, supporting my wife through her degree, and writing a PhD thesis. All that pressure is like a precariously balanced house of cards that'll fold in on itself when I least expect it. 

I feel emotionally hollow. 

Sometimes, I haven't got the energy my family needs or deserves because I want to hide away and sleep. Most of the time, I won't say how I feel because I don't want it to look like I'm reacting to the kids being hyperactive that day. 

Masking my thoughts and feelings adds to my mood changes, and I become irritable and hard to be around until I speak up and say what I need. That could be rest or simply a chance to vent and release some steam in a controlled, productive way. Either significantly helps with my mood. 

The link between burnout and depression

Though it seems like depression and burnout may be two sides of the same coin, psychologists are divided on how much they overlap.

For a start, though burnout and depression share some similar traits, burnout isn't classified as an official medical condition - even though many psychiatrists recognize it as an illness.

However, the lack of an independent diagnosis does not mean burnout is "made up" or people exaggerate their symptoms. In fact, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), the key differences between burnout and depression are the causes and resulting patterns of both conditions.

For example, burnout is caused by constant stress and difficulty managing some parts of life, like excessive job expectations (but not always). Once burnout raises its ugly head, a clear pattern or set of phases tends to follow. Many experts flag up to 12 stages of burnout, but I have summarised them down to three.

The 3 biggest signs of burnout

1. Overworking

You may suddenly find it hard to switch off from work. All the activities you previously enjoyed, like reading or an exercise class, fall by the wayside.

2. Feeling indifferent

After a prolonged burst of energy, commitment begins to wane. You may be disappointed by life's routine, listless, and emotionally dulled.

3. Despair or hopelessness

Burnout reduces motivation, which reduces the ability to perform to a high standard. You may feel bored, lazy, and unable to cope with daily activities or demands. 

As you can see, phases two and three are similar to some signs and symptoms of depression. However, depression doesn't need a cause or context, whereas burnout has a clearly definable reason.

That said, burnout and depression are still closely linked, and one often gets mistaken for another. In a 2014 Journal of Clinical Psychology study, 1,400 teachers were assessed for burnout. When researchers evaluated the teachers with burnout for depression, 86% met the criteria for a depression diagnosis (MJCP).

So, what's the consensus? Some psychologists think that, while burnout and depression are separate issues, they work on a continuum. Unresolved burnout, for example, may lead to depression. Likewise, a history of depression may lead to more frequent bouts of burnout.

It's like a snake eating its own tail. If you suspect depression, burnout, or both are imminent, you must find the proper support before the situation worsens.

Opening up to friends and family 

Opening up to friends and family helps them understand depression or burnout, but it'll help you find clarity, too. With burnout and depression, our thoughts are often chaotic and don't make sense, no matter how much we believe they do. Talking through our emotions can help us sort facts from fiction or help us clear our heads.

As you talk, you'll find that some people in your network may be less supportive than others. That's okay - don't be disheartened. Support is a two-way street, and patience is needed on both sides. Both depression and burnout are difficult to understand, even after you've explained the symptoms. 

So, if loved ones shy away from you, let them return in their own time. They may be frightened of another bombshell or not know what to do. Slowly, help them learn. The ones that care the most will try their hardest to understand. 

Reaching out for professional help 

Sometimes, what really helps is an outside perspective from a professional counselor or service. They can help with issues "too close to home" to share with your loved ones. Or, if you still need to work your way up to telling your family, a professional can guide you through the opening-up process.

The first port of call is usually your general practitioner or GP. Your GP should be able to recommend various services to suit your needs. You may need to try different methods until you find the right one.

Finding counseling and medication that suited me took years, but the correct help was worth the uncomfortable process.

The takeaway

You can go down many avenues for burnout and depression support, be it professional, peer-led support, or even your network of family and friends. 

We need to normalize speaking up about our mental health and the importance of talking about it.

I hope you're all well and, please, take care.

The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.

The individual(s) who have written and created the content in and whose images appear in this article have been paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals for their contributions. This content represents the opinions of the contributor and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not review, control, influence or endorse any content related to the contributor's websites or social media networks. This content is intended for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice or recommendations. Consult a qualified medical professional for diagnosis and before beginning or changing any treatment regimen. 


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