Life

Are you depressed or just burned out? How to tell the difference and get the right treatment

Business Insider US

Burnout and depression can happen at the same time, or one may lead to another if left untreated.
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images
  • Burnout and depression may feel similar but only depression is considered a mental illness.
  • Burnout is typically treated with lifestyle changes to help reduce stress and practice self-care.
  • Depression can be treated with lifestyle changes but may also involve medication.

Life since the pandemic has been tough, leading to increasingly more people experiencing depression and burnout

Both conditions can cause similar symptoms — like feeling exhausted or uninterested in things that used to engage you. But depression and burnout are not the same, says Timothy Wilson, a behavioral health expert with RWJ Barnabas Health.

"Depression is an illness," he says. "Burnout is a condition that occurs when we lose our ability to cope, and when relationships, childcare, work, and other issues become overwhelming."

Despite being different, burnout and depression can be difficult to identify since they can happen at the same time and contribute to each other, says Dr. Rob Rohatsch, an emergency medical physician and chief medical officer at SolvHealth

"There's lots of overlap," Rohatsch says. "Burnout, if left unaddressed, can lead to depression."

If you're feeling down day-to-day, it's important to get help, whether you're depressed or burned out. A professional can work through your specific symptoms to help identify the underlying cause and make the right sort of interventions. 

What is burnout?

"Burnout is the emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that comes from long-term exposure to stress, emotionally demanding situations, overwork, [and] pushing too hard without proper self-care," Rohatsch says. 

It can make you less effective at your job and feel distanced or disinterested from your friends, family, and coworkers. 

Burnout isn't classified as a medical condition. However, in 2019 the international World Health Organisation added it to the list of International Classification of Diseases to help bring attention to burnout and how it can be effectively managed. 

In order to treat burnout, you'll need to carve out time in your busy schedule to reduce stress and prioritise self-care. Even taking 15-20 minutes a day to do something enjoyable has been proven to help surgeons (a very high-stress job) avoid burnout. 

Finding the right therapist can also help you overcome burnout. They can help you figure out methods of self-care that you may not have thought of before. For example, therapy like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you change your perspective and thought patterns around stressors in your life, Wilson says. 

"Guided meditation, boundary-setting, exercising, eating healthy, and sleeping well will help ease burnout," Wilson says. 

What is depression?

Depression is a mental illness.

It's normal to occasionally feel sad. However, if you're experiencing a depressive episode that lasts for two weeks or more, then you may qualify for a diagnosis of depressive disorder. 

A depressive episode includes the following symptoms:

  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Changes to weight or appetite
  • Sleep trouble
  • Feeling agitated
  • Fatigue and feeling slowed down
  • Having low self-worth or feeling guilt
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Thoughts of suicide

Certain people are at higher risk for depression, including those who have:

  • A family history of depression
  • Experienced trauma or major life changes like divorce
  • Substance use disorder
  • Other medical conditions including insomnia, ADHD, or anxiety

Lifestyle choices including exercise, meditation, and alternative therapies can be part of a comprehensive treatment plan for depression. However, it's also important to work with a doctor who can prescribe antidepressants and other medical treatments. 

If your depression is severe and leaves you unable to work for at least a year, you may qualify for disability. 

Burnout vs. depression

Depression and burnout can have similar symptoms, including exhaustion and lack of interest. They also have similar treatment methods like practicing self-care and seeing a therapist. 

The key difference is that depression is a medical condition that often requires medication, has biological roots, and is recognised as a medical diagnosis, whereas burnout is not.

There are no medical treatments available for burnout. 

Burnout

Depression

Caused by environmental triggers like prolonged exposure to stress and limited coping mechanisms

Can have genetic roots and also environmental triggers

Symptoms include feeling exhausted, cynical or disengaged, and ineffective 

Symptoms include feeling exhausted, low energy, agitation, and low self-worth

Treat with lifestyle changes including reducing stress and boosting self-care

Treated with therapy, pharmaceuticals, and lifestyle adjustments

Insider's takeaway

Feeling exhausted, overwhelmed or uninterested can be terrible, whether it's caused by burnout or depression. Although burnout is a syndrome and depression is an official medical diagnosis, both can have a big impact on your life, so it's important to reach out for help. 

"Consult a therapist or primary care doctor if you are feeling depressed or burned out," Rohatsch says. "Take time for self care to see if you feel better by carving out more time for yourself. If you are unable to do that, you should be evaluated for depression."

If you or a loved one are in crisis, you can call 0800-567-567 or visit the SADAG website.

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