Health

Do I Just Have Burnout, or Is It Actually Depression?

The symptoms can feel exactly alike, but the causes—and treatments—are very different. Here’s how to tell.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
June 10, 2021, 4:06pm
young woman working at home( headache) - stock photo
elenaleonova via Getty

In May 2019, the World Health Organization expanded its definition for “burnout” in the International Classification of Diseases. The revised version zeroed in on burnout as an occupational phenomenon, characterized by “feelings of energy depletion,” “increased mental distance from one’s job,” and “reduced professional efficacy.” Or, in simpler terms, exhaustion and apathy to the point that a person’s ability to do their job suffers. 

It may be a new definition, but it sounds familiar, right? While burnout technically only applies to these feelings when they arise from work stress, it shares a lot of its symptoms with another, pervasive mental health malady: depression. On paper, the two are very similar. Depression’s symptoms are listed as anything from loss of interest in things you once enjoyed and increased fatigue to difficulty thinking and feeling worthless. And physically, as therapist Melissa Russiano told VICE, the two often feel the same, at least at first. 

Where burnout and depression are significantly different is in what they’re caused by, and how they’re treated. “They feel relatively the same, but they come from different places,” Russiano said. Depression is a matter of personal mental health, while burnout—as we’ve mentioned before—is better thought of as a byproduct of systemic factors, like demanding work schedules, lack of paid time off, and a lack of health and family care. As a result, managing burnout can sometimes be as simple as removing the cause of stress from your life, while managing depression is more nuanced and complex, Russiano said. 

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To help you figure out which issue you may be dealing with, VICE spoke with Russiano, who treats both burnout and depression in her practice all the time, about the differences and why they matter. She emphasized that, no matter what you’re dealing with, a visit to a therapist can be a helpful place to start. 

Burnout is usually caused by a specific external factor.

The main difference between depression and burnout is burnout can almost always be traced to a specific stressor or event, Russiano said. That could be something temporary, like a deadline that’s been looming over you for a few weeks, or something bigger and more systemic, like a lack of childcare, being underpaid at work, or having a micromanaging boss. 

A good test to tell if what you’re dealing with is burnout versus depression is to notice if you feel dread around one specific thing. If Sunday evenings are unbearable and your weekends are dominated by dread around the upcoming work week, that may be a sign that you’re experiencing work-related burnout. If you’re feeling generally malaised—tired, disinterested, and unmotivated inside and outside of work—and you can’t think of a reason why, that may be a sign you have depression.

With depression, Russiano said it’s much harder to isolate a “cause.” Sometimes people can point to a recent event, like a loss or life change, but often it’s more systemic. “It’s really hard to pinpoint exactly what the originating cause was because there’s so many things going into it,” Russiano said. 

You can (temporarily) escape burnout. 

Let’s say your burnout is totally work-related. Those who can manage it will often try to treat burnout the only way they know how: taking a little vacation. This works, Russiano said, but only for so long. As soon as you get back from whatever time off you took, you’re returning to the same exact situation that you left, and feelings of burnout come creeping back.

Depression is harder to evade because it’s rooted in so many different things, sometimes including an inescapable genetic predisposition, Russiano said. A change in scenery might be a nice trick for the ol’ brain and make it feel like you’ve “fixed” your depression, but that’s not how mental health works (my friends and I call these decisions “depression brain,” because they sound endlessly appealing in real time, but almost never work). “Typically what happens is someone thinks, I’m burned out, I’m burned out, I’m burned out, I just need a geographic change or a job change,” Russiano said. “Then, once that perceived stressor is altered, the symptoms are still there. That’s when it tends to hit a lot of people that what they’re dealing with is depression.” 

Depression has personal roots; burnout has systemic ones. 

Perhaps the most important distinction between the two is that depression is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic predisposition (though this isn’t true for everyone) and some sort of antecedent, like a traumatic work or life experience, Russiano said. Depressive episodes can be kicked off by triggers or start based on nothing at all; it’s a tricky illness. 

“Burnout is caused by the lifestyle that we live in the United States, this go, go, go, go, go,” Russiano said. 

Here is where it gets tricky: As Russiano said, if burnout, left to fester for a long time, itcan kick off a depressive episode, or be one of the many factors contributing to depression. “Burnout isn’t just simply exhaustion, because then we would call it exhaustion,” Russiano said. “It overlaps with depression and can also lead to depression, and if left untreated, can impact your relationships, finances, and health.” 

That’s why Russiano recommends talking with a therapist, who can ultimately help you sort out what you may be dealing with (there’s a fun possibility that it’s both!) and treat it from there. Neither burnout nor depression may be totally preventable, but both conditions are manageable, especially with some help. 

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