Are you burnt out, or have you ever felt like you were on the verge of it? What is burnout anyway, and is it the same as depression? Whatever it is, it certainly seems to have affected a large number of individuals.

What is burnout?

Burnout is not an official term or diagnosis in the field of mental illness. It is a term that was originally used to refer to a sense of fatigue and an inability to function normally in the workplace as a result of excessive demands on the individual, especially among helping professionals.

Today, there is no agreement among scientists as to how we should define burnout. Some see it as an exclusively work-related phenomenon, while others see it more broadly.

In the general population, the term “burnout” is like any other popular notion. It continuously evolves. Over time, it can almost take on a different meaning for each individual. Some people, for example, use the term “burnout” when they are feeling bored with their employment and want to seek new challenges. Others may use the term to describe a major depression. They may do so because depression still carries a powerful stigma.

For the most part, though, we normally use the term burnout when referring to the inability to handle the pressures related to work.

Mini-Psych School videos

Chronic or episodic depression and burnout? (2011)
Top ten myths about mental illness (2009)
Hitting bottom - Chronic or episodic depression and burnout? A 2011 lecture by Mimi Israel (in French)
Hitting bottom - Chronic or episodic depression and burnout? A 2011 lecture by Mimi Israel (in French)
Top ten myths about mental illness: 2009 lecture by Joseph Rochford, Ph.D- Part 1
Top ten myths about mental illness: 2009 lecture by Joseph Rochford, Ph.D- Part 1

Watch other Mini-Psych School lectures.

What is depression?

Depression is a complex phenomenon involving both internal mechanisms and external influences. It is diagnosed when a person has a depressed mood (feeling sad, empty, tearful, etc.), or has lost interest or pleasure in most or all activities. It is also accompanied by several other indicators that can include:

  • changes in appetite
  • sleep problems (either insomnia or excessive sleep)
  • fatigue
  • agitation
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • recurrent thoughts of suicide or death

Recognizing yourselves in the above list of criteria is not necessarily a problem. Many difficult situations in life can make us feel this way from time to time. The important question is one of intensity and duration. It is considered depression when it the symptoms last for more than two weeks and when they are sufficiently intense so as to cause either significant personal suffering or a loss of the ability to function normally. (For more details on understanding depression, see “A sidebar on depression”)

How are they related?

Burnout is generally seen as a specific problem related to stress in the workplace, whereas depression is a broader phenomenon that can permeate all areas of our lives. But can we really separate the two terms cleanly? In fact burnout and depression are highly related and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

In theory we can see burnout alone. Most people can burn out if we continue to ratchet up the demands on them without giving them the means to meet those demands. In such cases, although they will feel just like any other depressed person, they will quickly return to normal if we remove them from the situation.

The same goes for depression. It may have nothing to do with work or stress. A major depression will often persist regardless of whether the individual remains at work or stays home.

In most real cases, though, the lines cannot be so easily drawn. Let’s take, for example, the case of people with a strong sense of responsibility and a tendency to be perfectionists. Such people will normally function very well. They tend to bring high standards to their jobs since they feel bad when they see shoddy or incomplete work. As a result, they take on many tasks and deliver the goods. Employers and colleagues begin to rely on them more and more. If they then reach a point where they must take time off work because of burnout, would they not feel like they have let everyone down? Would they not be depressed and feel like failures? In such cases, the depressive feelings tend to linger even though the person is removed from the stressful situation that may have helped produce those feelings in the first place.

Now, if we see these personality traits in the workplace, would we not also see them in many other circumstances? Would these people not also have a tendency to feel like failures when their kids are having trouble in school, or when they may be going through a divorce, for example?

The relationship between depression and burnout is also evident in cases that would normally be described as a pure depression, and where work is not normally an issue. People suffering from a major depression will feel agitated, fatigued and have trouble concentrating. They feel no satisfaction or pleasure even when a task is accomplished successfully. It is not hard to imagine that their productivity will suffer. Even simple tasks become heavy burdens.

In such cases, work-related pressures often become the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Work per se is not the problem but it becomes a contributing factor to depression. The inability to function at work then contributes to the depressed person’s sense of failure and guilt. When these people must take time off work they are often described as being on a “burnout leave,” even though they meet the criteria for a major depression.

How does it matter?

Although for many people the term burnout may carry less of a stigma than depression, the label used is probably less important than the desire to get their lives back on track.

The role of the psychologist or psychiatrist remains the same regardless of whether the person consults for the treatment of depression or for burnout. The professional must assess the factors that contribute to the problem in order to be able to address them. External factors can include specific situations or general circumstances. Internal factors can include both biology and personality. Regardless of whether an inability to set limits and an overly strong sense of personal responsibility contributes to excess stress at work, or to unmanageable burdens in our personal lives, this inability must still be addressed in treatment.

[Depression: types and causes] [Burn-out: causes] [Depression or burn-out ?] [Depression or burn-out: treatment and prevention] [Depression in 0 to 5-year-olds] [Depression in young people]