Am I burned out or depressed?

Talking about burnout in the midst of a raging wave of a two-year global pandemic feels almost redundant, honestly. Between scrambling for at-home tests, canceled vacations, increasing work stress, school and childcare disruptions, and the constant existential dread looming over us, it seems like the only way to escape burnout is to be independently wealthy and move to a remote island — with good wifi and plenty of chocolate.

So maybe the most important question these days isn’t whether we’ve reached a point of burnout, but whether that burnout is actually something even more concerning: depression.

To be clear, there is nothing benign about burnout itself. We all need to be concerned about our individual and collective burnout. 

In fact, the World Health Organization added work-related burnout to its list of recognized conditions three years ago, elevating its legitimacy for the medical community. It was an overdue addition: burnout can and often does lead to withdrawal, absenteeism, lack of productivity, lowered immunity, health ailments, and sleep problems, among other impacts.

If you are familiar with depression, you’ll probably recognize that many of these issues crop up when experiencing it as well. The loss of energy, feelings of demoralization and hopelessness, and low motivation and interest are key major overlaps between burnout and depression. In fact, the conditions can look so similar that some researchers make the point that there is not a clinically significant difference at all.

There’s also some evidence to suggest that stress, burnout, and depression actually all have a similar biomarker, meaning they may have a shared biological basis. This is important because it might help us understand that those of us who are at higher risk for depression, based on family history, for example, might both be more vulnerable to burnout and need to work even harder to prevent it. Think about it like someone with a family history of cancer. Knowing I’m at higher risk means I might adjust factors in my lifestyle that could cause conditions that make me more likely to develop cancer.

Here’s what we do notice is different between burnout and depression:

Burnout tends to be work-related and specific to that context. In fact, the official W.H.O. definition requires that it’s work-related. I think it’s important, however, that we conceptualize the idea of “work” to include non-paid roles that we play that involve completing tasks for others. Here I’m thinking about caregiving, in particular, as well as volunteer and community roles.

With depression, the experience is often pervasive and not specific to particular contexts. With burnout, being away from work or certain roles can provide some relief and some of the feelings can dissipate. With depression, the black cloud follows you wherever you go and there may not be particular stressors we can point to. When we experience depression, we commonly lament that the feelings don’t make any sense: “I’ve got so many things going for me. Why I am so sad?”

Further, with burnout, the experience of emotional exhaustion tends to be more prominent. It’s the feeling that we just have nothing left to give. We can feel this way when experiencing depression, but it often shows up as more of a general fatigue and lack of energy versus a feeling of being used and depleted.

Last, one of the most devastating aspects of depression is that it can convince us that we lack value as a human being. At times this can become so profound that we question the value of living, and even have thoughts about ending our lives. Burnout can certainly start us down that path, but usually when experiencing burnout without depression, we have more perspective on the fact that our work environment is contributing to our emotional state and that we are valuable in other ways and contexts.

Whether you’re experiencing burnout or depression (or both), recognizing that these are impactful conditions that are worthy of addressing is vital. Both zap our enthusiasm for life and diminish our experience of living. Both can lead to further emotional and physical problems. And both make smaller our impact on a world that needs us.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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