Is Burnout the same as Depression?
She knew she was really sad, when she stopped loving the things she loved.
Burnout. It’s a term we’ve all heard before. Over the years there have been numerous times when I contemplated whether or not I was ‘burnt out’; and even more times when I counselled students, relatives and friends about the possibility of it. It seems there’s a social tendency to rally around an individual experiencing burnout, to empathise and relate their experiences to one’s own. If someone talks about being burnt out, chances are, we get it.
Compare this with social response towards an individual experiencing depression. There are similarities yes, but years of talking to people about their mental health, highlights a few differences too. Telling people you are clinically depressed somehow results in a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) response that differs to the scenario of sharing you are burnt out. Why this might be is unclear but what is overwhelmingly obvious is the ongoing stigma attached to certain mental health terms, diagnoses, labels. Saying you are depressed evokes a sense of mental illness (and associated stigma) whereas burnout is subtly different, more about mental wellbeing perhaps (an easier, safer concept?). Whether or not this is true, I can’t help but feel a general unease at the growing distinctions being made between problems with mental health and problems with mental wellbeing especially on social media (where the latter appears almost more socially understood or acceptable perhaps). As a psychiatrist it goes without saying, mental wellbeing is part of and = mental health really.
Alongside differences in our perception or response, another dichotomy of intrigue is the distinction between our everyday, informal appreciation of burnout and our medical, academic understanding of it. Now I know for many, anything that involves the word ‘academic’ is quite boring; so I apologise for the next few paragraphs.
Among the medical community it goes without saying depression is a recognised condition of the human mind and body. There are a set of established symptoms and signs that form specific criteria that for the most part are helpful to all clinicians globally when thinking about diagnosis. Burnout on the other hand doesn’t have clearly agreed criteria, which among other things does make it a little harder to identify in the population. This means we don’t know how many people are affected at any one time despite being a serious burden for working individuals, organisations and society as a whole (Maslach et al, 2001; Morse et al, 2012). That said one definition of burnout utilised by research on the topic includes the presence of 3 features:
Cynicism and Detachment (feeling pessimistic, disconnected from others)
Lack of Efficiency/Reduced Personal Accomplishment,
all in relation to work related stress.
You may wonder why if there are some definitions of burnout, it doesn’t have more formal diagnostic criteria. Well part of the reason is that it’s not clear how universally generalisable these features are e.g. does burnout in the UK look the same as burnout in Japan or Guatemala? (While you can ask the same of depression it’s an area that’s been studied more, so there’s slightly better data to help us understand the question). It’s also unclear how reliably or consistently these features appear together in order to identify their grouping as an observable entity. And we don’t know whether burnout is actually a form or extension of depression that may or may not lead to the clinical syndrome we recognise more clearly. The minutiae remain grey.
That said, the disabling consequences of burnout are well known and any steps taken to reduce the chances are a personal investment worth being proud of.
The next time you have some mental space think about the following:
Set and recognise your priorities - Figure out what’s really important to you and what can you realistically expect to achieve. Write it down or record a voice note. Finding a balance in the different areas of your life is crucial to building mental strength.
Self-Care- This might sound obvious but it’s surprising how few of us actually take time out to rest tired heads, minds and bodies. Try and disconnect from potential sources of stress e.g. social media, work emails, certain individuals…
Speak up- If you feel like you’re getting increasingly snowed under or have noticed an irritability or obvious change in mood around work, then talk to someone about it. Ideally talk to your boss and let them know what’s going on. Most employers fully recognise the need to support staff burning the candle at all ends; and would rather have well rested, functional employees than overworked, overstretched and underperforming ones.
Sometimes it’s helpful to talk to your GP or mental health practitioner especially if you’re not sure what’s going on, or if you think you might need extra support. Ultimately, don’t suffer in silence and don’t ignore it.
Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W.B., & Leiter, M.P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 397–422.
Morse, G., Salyers, M.P., Rollins, A.L., Monroe-DeVita, M., & Pfahler, C. (2012). Burnout in mental health services: A review of the problem and its remediation. Administration and Policy in Mental Health, 39(5), 341–352