Burnout vs Depression: These Are The Key Differences

Have you been feeling exhausted and low lately and just can’t seem to pull yourself out of it? You might be suffering from burnout. But what is burnout, and how can you distinguish it vs depression? Here are the key differences:

  1. What is burnout? Burnout is a condition caused by the buildup of emotional, physical, and mental stress over a long period. While medical experts do not recognize it as a diagnosable disorder yet, the World Health Organization has classified it as a work-related syndrome. Burnout is associated with low performance at work, exhaustion, irritability, brain fog, dejection, and insomnia. Some people even report physical effects such as headaches and stomach pain.
  2. What is depression? Clinical depression is a mood disorder that causes sadness, disinterest, and in extreme cases, thoughts of suicide. It is diagnosed by a doctor based on various tests that may include physical examinations, lab tests, psychiatric evaluation, and the criteria published by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). In some cases, medication is prescribed.
  3. Burnout is associated with the workplace. Burnout is the result of circumstantial stress. It is currently recognized by the WHO as a work-related syndrome, meaning it occurs due to the circumstances of a person’s occupation (including unemployment). If you’re feeling exhausted by your job and dread going to the office every morning, you may be experiencing burnout. There is currently no official recognition of burnout that results from non-work-related stress.
  4. The source of depression isn’t always traceable. Depression, on the other hand, cannot normally be attributed to one area of a person’s life or a single event. Harvard Medical School stresses that the causes of depression are much more complex than a simple chemical imbalance in the brain, genetics, or bereavement. It is believed that the disorder is triggered by a series of factors that are not always traceable.
  5. Burnout is circumstantial. While burnout may seem to hit you out of the blue, it is the culmination of prolonged stress. Being tasked with more work than you can manage, having a toxic work environment, and being unable to stay on top of tasks for weeks or months on end can lead to poor performance, feelings of pessimism, simmering frustration, and a lack of emotional investment in your job. These symptoms of burnout are caused by the circumstances in which a person works.
  6. Depression can be largely internal. Depression can cause similar symptoms but without the specific circumstantial triggers. You may be feeling exhausted and disinterested in your work because you’re depressed, not because the work is inherently stressful. According to the Mayo Clinic, depression is not solely caused by external circumstances. Other factors include brain chemistry, hormone imbalances, and inherited traits.
  7. Burnout can usually be solved with life changes. Because burnout is the result of a stressful life, it can be resolved through lifestyle changes. Taking time off work if you can, cutting back on your workplace responsibilities, and incorporating sleep and relaxing activities into your routine will alleviate the problem over time. Prioritizing rest is a necessity. Meditation and mindfulness are some of the most effective methods of solving the issue.
  8. Depression sometimes requires medication. Depression isn’t the result of being overworked and therefore cannot be solved with lifestyle changes. While not all forms of depression require medication, some cases can only be resolved with medical interventions such as psychotherapy and antidepressants. If you think you may be suffering from depression, seek advice from your doctor as quickly as possible instead of trying to muscle your way through it.
  9. Burnout is the result of exhaustion. It can be easy to confuse burnout with depression because both involve exhaustion. With burnout, exhaustion has an obvious cause such as being overworked. If you can identify the cause of your exhaustion, you probably have burnout rather than depression.
  10. Depression causes exhaustion. If you can’t pinpoint the cause of your exhaustion and it’s interfering with your daily life, you may have depression vs burnout. Feeling like getting out of bed is a struggle even though you’ve been sleeping more than nine hours every night or being incapable of completing simple daily tasks are signs that your fatigue is not circumstantial.
  11. Both cause low performance. Both burnout and depression can cause low performance at work. Feeling exhausted and disinterested mean that you are unable to focus on tasks or feel motivated to complete projects, no matter how exciting they might once have been to you. Low performance is one of the warning signs that you need to make some changes, whether on your own if it’s burnout, or with the help of a medical professional if it’s the result of depression.
  12. Only depression causes thoughts of suicide. If you are feeling that life isn’t worth living, you should skip meditation and time off work and go straight to a doctor. Burnout does not cause hopelessness or thoughts of suicide. If you are experiencing these symptoms, you likely have clinical depression and should seek help immediately.

Solving Burnout

If you think you’re suffering from burnout rather than depression, there are several options you can pursue.

  1. Identify the source. Honing in on the cause of your stress is the first step to solving burnout. While the WHO only recognizes work-related burnout, it’s possible that yours stems from another source. Maybe you’re in graduate school and the assignments are piling up, or maybe you’ve been dealing with an ongoing family situation that’s taking up all your free time and causing you to be under constant emotional strain. Once you identify the cause of your stress, you can figure out how to solve it.
  2. Take a step back. Slowing down once you’ve pinpointed the source of your burnout is easier said than done. Making your job less stressful by taking time off or asking for less work might cause you to lose your position or risk your future at the company. But burnout also compromises your ability to do your job, and you will reach a breaking point if you do not do something to alleviate the pressure you’re under. Finding ways to incorporate rest into your routine is not lazy; it’s a necessity that will ultimately make you more productive by curing you of burnout.
  3. See a therapist. If your symptoms are so severe that you cannot cope with the stress on your own, seeing a therapist can help you untangle yourself. A therapist can help you identify the source of your burnout, create a roadmap out, and hold you accountable for your maintaining your well-being.
Rose Nolan is a writer and editor from Austin, TX who focuses on all things female and fabulous. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Theater from the University of Surrey and a Master's Degree in Law from the University of Law. She’s been writing professional since 2015 and, in addition to her work for Bolde, she’s also written for Ranker and Mashed. She's published articles on topics ranging from travel, higher education, women's lifestyle, law, food, celebrities, and more.