A research study done by MUSC found that “similar factors cause both medical intern burnout and depression.” This suggests that “assessing for depressive symptoms may be a validated, standardized alternative to assessing for burnout among medical personnel.” While this study was conducted with medical personnel, those outside the medical professional are also at risk of experiencing both burnout and depression. How can someone know if they are burned out or depressed?
Dr. Giuseppe Aragona, MD sees an important difference between the two. “Burnout means that someone has done so much work, that they are burned out from it. Depression is an inability to get things done usually, so they differ in this way. Sure, if someone burns out, they may start to feel depressed because they do not have the motivation anymore, but this does not necessarily mean the depression will not go away once they have recovered. Depression may make some people burnout faster if they do not have this drive to do work. So, when they do work, they get exhausted very easily."
Long Quach, Psy.D. completed his dissertation on burnout, and believes individual perspective influences whether feelings are indicative of depression and not burnout. “Depression often impacts a person's view of themselves, others, the world, and their overall future, whereas those who are burned out talk about their work and professional identity. In some instances, an additional way to distinguish the difference or what leads to the other is when the burnout symptoms start. If someone never had a history of Major Depressive Disorder and then meets the criteria due to a prolonged period of stress (work and/or personal), then we can have some idea of which came first. “
When there is a major depression diagnosis, Psychologist Dr. Jennifer Barbera says “patients are less likely to have as significant of a mood change with a different context. Assessing for positive fluctuations in mood is one way to differentiate between depression and burnout.”
“When someone is struggling with burnout, it may affect their general energy level and mood," said Barbera, "but they are more likely to find that their mood fluctuates depending on the context they are in. For instance, they may feel elevated in their mood and more like their usual self on Friday afternoon or right before and during a break from work. Then, upon returning to work (or the situation inducing burnout) they will likely notice a more sudden return to lower mood, fatigue, irritability etc.”
While circumstances play a significant role in how people feel, there is a biological component to depression. Kate Sullivan, MSc Dist, with Constellation Careers reminds us that “clinical depression is very much a chemical issue - you cannot just snap out of it or become happy or engaged again. There are a lot of hormones, neurotransmitters, and biological factors at work that make some people more prone to depression than others, even though all of us can experience bouts of it."
Nicole Arzt, LMFT, Family Enthusiast board member, points out that depression “does not necessarily result from something. It can just happen on its own, and there doesn't need to be a cause. Depression is a chemical imbalance that may require serious intervention. For that reason, treatment can sometimes be more complicated. It's usually not about changing external circumstances - instead, it's more about looking inwards.”
“Burnout and depression share many similarities, including increased irritation, fatigue, concentration problems, and general apathy,” added Artz. “Both conditions can affect one's relationships, work performance, physical health, and overall emotional well-being. To differentiate the two, we need to consider the manifestation and explore treatment options for both.”