Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 3/10/2022
Are you feeling exhausted and down? Having a hard time staying motivated or focused on work or other daily tasks? You might be experiencing burnout. But you might also be dealing with depression. Differentiating between burnout vs. depression can be a real difficult task, but understanding the difference is crucial.
Burnout is a serious problem for many professionals, regardless of career path. It’s also a problem for the self-employed, the stay-at-home parents, and anyone else who burns the candle at both ends.
When we’re burnt out, we can feel down, unmotivated and lost — similar to the way we feel when we’re depressed. In fact, it’s becoming a growing trend that people confuse the two.
Are you burnt out or depressed? What about both?
Understanding the differences between burnout and depression is key to feeling better, regardless.
It’s probably smart to begin the conversation by addressing the more ambiguous of these two terms: burnout.
Officially, burnout syndrome was a term coined in the 1970s to describe the resulting condition of extreme stress felt by professionals in “helping” professions — doctors, nurses and people in similar positions. But as you may expect, it existed long before it had a name.
Today, we know that burnout can happen to anyone. There is no official definition of burnout, but it can be described in a number of ways, including physical exhaustion, listlessness and a general inability to cope with ongoing occupational stress.
It is generally the result of sacrificing your own health, happiness, rest or general well-being for another purpose, whether that’s caregiving for a loved one, over-time for a job, parenting or anything else that might be described as burning the candle at both ends.
The problem, unfortunately, is that burnout also lacks an agreed-upon set of criteria across all of medicine — not everyone agrees on what professional burnout actually is.
Because of this, burnout is difficult to diagnose, especially in comparison with something like depression, which has clearer diagnostic criteria.
It can take many forms, but generally, depression is only the diagnosis when the symptoms affect how you perform, feel, think and behave — and these depressive symptoms have to be felt regularly for at least two weeks.
The question of burnout versus depression is really a misleading look at two mental health conditions.
Depression and burnout are probably mistaken for one another a lot because they have so many symptoms in common. For instance, depression may leave people feeling tired, unmotivated, irritable or angry, and it may cause people to experience things like insomnia, reckless behavior and even substance abuse.
Burnout, meanwhile, causes fatigue, insomnia, irritability, substance misuse and excessive stress.
In short, there’s a lot of overlap.
You can indeed feel burnout from depression — the burnout symptoms are very similar.
These are serious symptoms and, left unaddressed, burnout can easily turn into depression, and depression can easily affect your work life and your personal life.
Burnout may not be a mood disorder, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less serious, or that people who suffer from it are less deserving of support.
Addressing burnout is an important next step. Once you’ve identified signs that you might in fact be burnt out, the first thing you should do is accept that it won’t just “go away” on its own.
Symptoms of burnout don’t just disappear, and leaving them unaddressed can lead to many of the same long-term effects of depression, from fatigue and insomnia to high blood pressure and even diabetes.
So, getting the problem taken care of is important for your long-term health.
A few key tips for addressing burnout include:
Seek support from coworkers, friends, loved ones or your employer for what you’re struggling with.
Get some exercise to help you deal with chronic stress.
Make sure to get a good night’s rest and prioritize your sleep.
Discuss your specific concerns with a supervisor and see if compromises or other solutions can be reached.
Try a relaxing activity like meditation or yoga.
Practice mindfulness to manage your breathing, stress and moments of anxiety.
Depression treatment requires a bit more attention than burnout, in part because it’s a complicated medical condition that often prevents people from managing it alone. Plus, it can actually get worse over time if left unmanaged.
A healthcare provider or mental health professional is the person you should be talking to about depression, and they may suggest one or more of the following treatment options:
Medications that affect serotonin levels of your brain can help you regulate your moods by using your serotonin levels to give you more control over those down, sad feelings.
Therapeutic options may help you better manage your feelings and emotions, too.
From there, by recognizing these unhealthy thoughts, you learn the tools you need to replace them with healthier, happier thought patterns over time.
Everything from your diet and snacking habits to your exercise routine and mobility can impact your mental health, so exercise is always high on the list of recommended treatments for depression.
Studies even show that exercise can sometimes be as effective as drugs for treatment.
Struggling with feelings of emotional exhaustion and mental illness is difficult. The truth is, while they’re two separate issues, they can feel the same. And because of that, they should also be treated the same.
Whether you're dealing with burnout or depression really doesn't matter — what you do about it does.
If you're struggling to deal with symptoms of either, you should contact a mental health professional today for personalized advice and treatment.
Dealing with work-related stress can easily spill over into struggling in our everyday lives. Addressing the problem isn't a sign of weakness. Getting help is the strongest move you can make for your mental health.