Burnout versus depression: Two Sides of the same coin?
Articles in the press about millennials being the “burnout generation” keep multiplying, and the pandemic is not helping anyone’s mental health either. Depression is also on the rise - but is there a link between depression and burnout?
Symptoms of burnout and depression
Burnout symptoms include extreme exhaustion, feeling down, and reduced performance levels. Depression is also characterised by extreme exhaustion, feeling down, and reduced performance, among other symptoms. So yes, there seems to be an overlap between both mental health issues.
Burnout and depression are both characterised by the presence of negative emotions and the absence of positive ones. They both include the same - or very similar - physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms. And, most importantly, both require treatment, especially when the problems have been present for some time.
Burnout vs depression: Three research findings
Studies have revealed that burnout and depression seem to be linked. For example, a research study discovered that 90 percent of French school teachers with burnout also met the criteria for a diagnosis of depression. Another study of 1.000 Swedish women with high burnout symptoms found that they also met threshold scores for depression. Similarly, 53 Finnish workers suffering from severe burnout also met the criteria for depression in another study.
Therefore, it seems that research supports the notion that there is an overlap between burnout and depression. This means that an individual with burnout may look, act and seem depressed, and that a person with severe burnout - someone that has been mentally exhausted for a long time due to being exposed to a work environment characterised by danger, disappointment, or lack of control - may also be depressed.
Burnout, depression and… stigma?
So, why do we call it either depression or burnout? Is burnout just another name for depression? First of all, clinicians started describing this set of symptoms as burnout because they seem to be initially caused by work-related struggles and heavy workload. At least, it appears to start like that, but the problems might expand into other life domains.
Also, it seems easier and less taboo to talk about burnout than to talk about depression. It can be hard to admit depression, while burnout has become a more socially accepted term.
You might be wondering why burnout is more socially accepted than depression, and why people find it easier to say that they suffer from one instead of the other. The word burnout kind of puts the responsibility on the workplace or workload, whereas when people hear that somebody has depression, society tends to blame the person and automatically believe that it is own their fault; that there is something wrong with them.
In other words, while the word burnout implies that it is the workplace’s responsibility due to high workload, people interpret depression as the person's responsibility and see it as a weakness. It is crucial to fight this mental health stigma and start calling things by their correct name - without making false assumptions of responsibility or judging others by their difficulties with coping. Only this way can we foster a healthier society and effectively support those struggling.
So, is burnout the same as depression?
We have seen that burnout and depression share many of the same symptoms, and explored that the way we describe these clusters of symptoms is greatly influenced by stigma. But, one question still stands: can somebody have burnout without depression? The answer is yes, especially at the early stages of burnout (the overworking state), or if the symptoms have been caused only by work-related issues.
However, it is also possible that many people suffering from burnout decide to change their work environment, and still seem to experience burnout symptoms, even after making all these changes. This suggests that what we call burnout might not only be related to the work environment, but to a mindset or habits that may foster burnout. Even if you change your work environment, the emotional and cognitive symptoms that caused the initial burnout remain lurking in the background.
Also, burnout has stages, and the more one stays in the same conditions that created burnout in the first place, the more their mental health deteriorates. Hence, the last stages of burnout include symptoms of chronic anxiety and chronic depression, and that is another point of evidence that there is some overlap between the two.
All in all, the scientific field is not yet sure about the differences between depression and burnout, or if they might just be two sides of the same coin. What remains essential is to figure out what the mindset behind the problems is and how it is putting people at risk of developing additional problems. Whether labelled as burnout or depression - or if both are in fact the same thing - tackling the issues that underlie them remains crucial. Only then we can manage the faulty coping mechanisms, habits, lack of self-care and life balance that seem to be causing these recurring problems.
If you or somebody close to you are suffering from burnout or depression, reach out for help and support. You don’t need to go through that by yourself.