A study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine noted that “factors that drive burnout are much more closely related to the factors that drive depressive symptoms than previously realized." While the definition of burnout has varied, the relationship to depression implies a similar treatment approach may be warranted.
Psychologist Dr. Jennifer Barbera agrees there is a relationship between the two, noting that burnout could lead to depression. “It is more helpful to think of depression and burnout on a continuum,” said Barbera, “rather than as distinct conditions. Context-specific burnout can develop and then lead to more general feelings of depression.”
Kate Sullivan, PhD, consulting psychologist with Constellation Careers also sees a relationship, noting that while the “ICD-10 and WHO define burnout as an occupational phenomenon, “experiencing hopelessness at work can impact home life, turning from burnout into depression.” Sullivan advises that people keep an eye on burnout at work and to stop it in its tracks. She says “it's incredibly easy to have that sense of overwhelm, exhaustion, and ineffectiveness at work leak into the rest of your life and turn into a sense of futility and exhaustion that can be smothering. Getting re-engaged at work, adjusting your workload and routines, and finding healthier and more effective work modes can reduce or even reverse a sense of burnout, helping you avoid depression.”
Because burnout relates more to structural issues in the workplace, such as workload, competing demands, and an unreasonable boss, there are steps people can take to manage it. Sullivan notes, “You can take concrete steps on your own or with your boss, like workload management, job crafting, etc. to help recover, whereas recovering from depression will often require more time, more outside help (eg, therapy), and possibly medication.”
Michael Levitt, Chief Burnout Officer with the Breakfast Leadership Network, adds that burnout is a behavioral condition, because our choices, beliefs, and thoughts create the scenarios for burnout. “Burnout doesn't happen overnight,” said Levitt, “and while working conditions can be stressful over time, the choices and reactions to a work situation plays a big part in burning out. Working long hours without practicing proper self-care also contributes to burning out.”
Dr. Patricia Celan, a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada, feels “burnout is often just code for a mild-to-moderate depression, because there is so much overlap in the symptoms. When people who are simply burned out are able to take an extended break where they are completely removed from the stressor in question and have a chance to unwind, symptoms tend to dissipate.”
Celan sees this as different from depression where a change in circumstances may not make depression resolve without any additional treatment. “Another key difference,” said Celan, “is that the workplace is often the primary cause of burnout, whether that's working at a business in person, working from home, or being an overburdened homemaker. Depression may occur in someone who is satisfied with a non-demanding, healthy work environment, as workplace factors can influence depression but there are many other possible causes too.”
Although burnout is generally discussed around the workplace, it can impact every area of life. “Often, when people burn out, they feel a loss of self and need help rediscovering hobbies, healthy friends, and positive coping tools again,” said Katie Ziskind, LMFT, RYT500, with Wisdom Within Counseling LLC.
People who are unsure about whether they are depressed or experiencing burnout can consult with a mental health professional. Providers can help differentiate burnout and depression by conducting an assessment for both. Barbera suggests, “For mood, the Beck Depression Inventory or PHQ-9 can be used, while for burnout the Maslach can be used. This measure Is specific to the social services field or roles that involve caregiving, and can identify the level of burnout in key areas such as physical and emotional exhaustion and role satisfaction.”