If you’ve been experiencing exhaustion, a lack of motivation, or feelings of despair, you might wonder if you’re suffering from burnout or depression. While depression and burnout have several overlapping characteristics, they’re actually very different. 

“Burnout and depression are often hard to distinguish because they both can include a negative perception or the way someone may be viewing themselves in the world. They overlap with regard to fatigue and feeling overwhelmed; but more often than not, burnout is associated with a known source of stress, for example work, that may be causing both mental and physical exhaustion. Depression, also treatable, is similar symptomatically but is more distinguishable by a lack-of-worth mindset and the loss of joy or pleasure from activities previously enjoyed.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, MSW

Understanding the difference between burnout and depression can help you identify what you’re experiencing, so you can get the help you need to start feeling like yourself again. 

What is Burnout?

Burnout is the term used to describe the impact or effects of continued stress, demands, and pressure. It’s important to note that while we generally think of burnout as a career or work-related, it can actually happen in any aspect of life. Burnout can negatively affect the person and their relationships, whether it’s stress in the workplace or at home. In fact, a recent study confirms that parental burnout is real and that the resulting detachment from children it causes is something we need to be more aware of. 

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” to describe the negative consequences of chronic prolonged stress on people in helping professions, like doctors and nurses. Because those in the healthcare industry often sacrifice themselves for others, they’re prone to feeling the harmful effects of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, or, as Freudenberger would say, burnout.

While the original definition of burnout included just healthcare workers, we now have a much better understanding that it can describe anyone who feels emotionally drained by prolonged stress. Of course, everyone — especially those in high-demand jobs or under tremendous pressure in any role in life — feels stress from time to time, but when that stress continues, it can cause burnout.

Burnout can drain your energy and reduce productivity, leaving you feeling hopeless and irritable. After an extended period of burnout, you may feel like you have nothing left to give. 

It’s imperative to recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout to prevent adverse long-term physical and mental effects. In addition, once you can identify the cause of your symptoms, you can work with a professional to treat them.

Symptoms of burnout

If you experience burnout, you may feel exhausted and numb. Physical burnout symptoms such as headaches and gastrointestinal problems may occur. Family or friends may notice behavioral changes, such as irritability or anger. 

Common symptoms or signs of burnout include:

  • Physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion
  • Detaching from things you once cared about
  • Poor job performance
  • Sleep issues
  • Memory problems
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Hopelessness
  • Anxiety

Causes of burnout

Many factors within the workplace or home can cause burnout. Understanding the root cause of burnout is the first step toward recovery.  

Common causes of burnout include:

  • Low pay
  • Unattainable goals and deadlines
  • Unreasonable personal or work demands
  • Perfectionism
  • Inability to use vacation time at work
  • Extended/endless hours
  • Lack of support
  • Lack of resources
  • Lack of control
  • Dirty or unsafe workplace
  • Work-life imbalance
  • Toxic environments
  • Unclear job expectations
  • Job dissatisfaction
  • Working alone
  • Outside distractions

What is Depression?

Depression is a common mental health condition that negatively affects how you think and feel. People with depression often experience sadness and a loss of interest in social activities or hobbies. Depressive symptoms can range from mild to severe, but any form of depression can cause a decreased ability to function at work and home. 

While depression affects over 21 million American adults as of 2020, the good news is this common mental health condition is treatable. 

Symptoms of depression

There are many symptoms of depression, and knowing what to look for can help in seeking treatment since often people don’t even realize they’re depressed. 

The most common symptoms of depression are:

  • Depressed or sad mood most of the day
  • Weight or appetite changes (increase or decrease)
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Little pleasure in social activities
  • Little energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Causes of depression

There are many possible causes of depression, and the condition is also commonly seen comorbidly (that is, with one or more other conditions — like anxiety or a physical condition — at the same time).  

Potential causes of depression include:

  • Faulty mood regulation
  • Genetic vulnerability
  • Grief
  • Your or a loved one’s illness
  • A recent medical diagnosis
  • Divorce
  • Chronic illness
  • Career or financial worries

Many people with depression refer to a downward spiral of events before their diagnosis. For example, you may start drinking alcohol due to losing your job. This negative coping mechanism may then ultimately cause marital troubles with your spouse, and your relationship may end in divorce. All these factors together can easily trigger depression. 

Other studies show that the elderly are at an increased risk of depression. 

What is the Difference Between Burnout and Depression?

While the symptoms of burnout vs depression seem relatively similar and sometimes can overlap, there are key differences. 

For example, burnout (like depression) can cause overwhelming exhaustion and fatigue, making it difficult to work or tend to your responsibilities. Although it can get in the way of your daily life, symptoms are usually temporary. With burnout, you begin to feel better when the stressor is removed or reduced. This is not typical with depression.

Many depression symptoms mimic burnout’s characteristics — like fatigue, memory issues, and insomnia — however, depression is a mental health condition that includes additional symptoms such as:

  • Feeling sad most of the day
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Changes in appetite (increase or decrease)
  • Anger or irritability
  • Little to no interest in activities
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Suicidal thoughts and thoughts of death

Unlike burnout, there’s not always a plausible cause for depression. While traumatic life events can trigger depression, the symptoms of depression don’t usually go away when the stress of the life event is over. 

Can Untreated Burnout Lead to Depression?

Studies show a likely link between untreated burnout and depression. That’s why it’s so important to seek help from a professional, even if you only have early symptoms of burnout.

“If left untreated, burnout and prolonged stress can certainly put you at risk for developing mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. Once overwhelmed and exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically, it can leave one isolated and without hope; moreover, susceptible to somatic vulnerabilities. Taking a step back, and connecting with known support or professional, can give you the best chances of relief and healing in order to talk things through, develop a plan, and offer a temporary break from what’s causing so much wear and tear.”

Talkspace therapist Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C, MSW

In addition to depression, burnout can also be a predictor of numerous physical problems such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease 
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Insomnia and other sleep disorders
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Hypercholesterolemia
  • Obesity
  • Prolonged fatigue

Taking care of yourself is crucial, regardless of whether you’re facing burnout or depression. The sooner you can get help for burnout, the less likely you’ll be to suffer from long-term physical burnout complications or depression.  

Coping and Prevention

Wondering how to recover from burnout or deal with depression? As many symptoms of burnout vs depression overlap, the methods for coping and prevention are strikingly similar. You can learn how to avoid burnout with certain coping strategies. Coping typically involves recognizing the causes of your feelings and then trying to lessen those stressors. While you can’t always immediately change your job or lessen your financial worries, you can try the following.

Reframe your mindset

It’s surprisingly easy to focus on negative things in life, but try to reframe your mindset around the positive aspects. The negativity makes your job, relationship, or situation feel even more unbearable and frustrating, and changing your perspective can help you find peace. 

Make time for self-care

While “self-care” has been a buzzword for a while now, it’s one of the most significant factors in a well-balanced life. Even if it’s a simple 10-minute meditation, walk around the block, or phone call with a friend, it’s vital to carve out time for yourself. As symptoms of burnout vs depression do overlap, self care is crucial regardless of which you’re dealing with.  

Seek professional help

Are you experiencing job burnout? Are you emotionally drained from chronic stress? Is work stress getting to you? Or are you feeling hopeless and depressed?

Don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you’re feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, depressed, or burned out. Because many symptoms of burnout vs depression can be so similar, finding a professional for a correct diagnosis can be essential.

Online therapy allows you to connect with a licensed mental health professional who can teach you the difference between burnout and depression and increase your overall mental health. Take the next step today and learn more about how online therapy with Talkspace makes getting help for burnout and depression simple, affordable, and convenient.