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David Baxter PhD

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Burnout vs Depression: How to Tell the Difference and Find Relief

by Dani Blum, The New York Times
August 23, 2022

Clinicians and researchers offer advice on how to tell the difference, and what to do about both.

Q: I’m tired all the time and feel unproductive at work. How do I know if I’m depressed or burned out?

The exhaustion, when it hits, is all-consuming. Your inbox chimes and you want to fling your phone across the room. You’re sick of your apartment; you can’t stand to leave your apartment. You fumble for the right word: You tell friends you are tired or fried or just done.

How do you know if this wave of weariness signals a case of burnout — or full-blown depression? We asked experts for ways to tell the difference between the two, and how to alleviate the symptoms of both.

What’s the difference between burnout and depression?​

The concept of burnout comes from workplace psychology, said Angela Neal-Barnett, a psychology professor at Kent State University and author of Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman’s Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic and Fear. Typically, therapists associate burnout with work, although researchers are also studying parental burnout, when caregivers feel chronically exhausted. Burnout has become pervasive in the cultural lexicon, especially during the pandemic. On TikTok, the trend of “quiet quitting,” or doing the bare minimum at a job, has gone viral, as people share stories about feeling burned out by long hours and a punishing “hustle culture.”

Workers can become burned out when they feel like they don’t have control over their day-to-day lives, getting bogged down in the minutiae of their tasks. People who are burned out may feel depleted and cynical about their jobs; they can resent their assignments and co-workers. They might feel irritable and ineffective, like they just can’t get anything done. For people who interact with others in their jobs, like health care workers or people in the retail and service industries, they might start to lose empathy, thinking of patients or customers as just another number, or a rote task to complete. There are also a litany of physical symptoms that can come with the unending stress of burnout: insomnia, headaches, gastrointestinal issues.

The World Health Organization includes burnout in the International Classification of Diseases, its diagnostic manual, characterizing it as an “occupational phenomenon,” not a medical condition. Depression, however, is a clinical diagnosis. People with depression often experience anhedonia, the inability to enjoy activities they once treasured. “You can be reading a book you used to love and now you hate it,” said Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis. “Or you love watching Bravo, but now it doesn’t make you laugh anymore.” With burnout, you might not have energy for your hobbies; with depression, you might not find them fun or pleasant at all, said Jeanette M. Bennett, an associate professor who studies the effects of stress on health at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

As with burnout, people with depression may sleep too much or too little, and may struggle to focus. People with depression may isolate themselves from others; they may feel like it takes a lot of energy to shower or eat. Depression can induce an overwhelming sense of sadness and hopelessness. In severe cases, people with depression may start having thoughts that they are worthless, or that life is not worth living. These symptoms tend to last for at least two weeks, Dr. Gold and Dr. Neal-Barnett said.

A key differentiator is that burnout gets better when you step away from work, said Dr. Rebecca Brendel, president of the American Psychiatric Association. When you take vacation time, or a mental health day, you feel at least slightly recharged. Depression doesn’t go away if you change your circumstances. “There’s not that bounce-back effect,” she said. “It takes more than that.”

A complex combination of genetic and environmental factors can contribute to depression. People who endure a traumatic event, or go through a major life change, are at higher risk for developing depression; so are people who have family members with depression. Burnout itself can also be a risk factor for depression, Dr. Neal-Barnett said.

And you can experience both burnout and depression at the same time. “Given the effects of Covid, given racism as a public health crisis in this country, it’s important for us to be watchful of that combination,” Dr. Neal-Barnett said.

What to do if you think you are burned out​

Taking a mental health day or a “sad day” off work, if you’re able to, can offer a reprieve from your symptoms. If you feel constantly burned out, you might want to consider a career change — which is easier said than done, Dr. Gold acknowledged. “Being able to say, ‘This is a bad workplace, that’s it, I quit,’ is a privilege beyond privilege,” she said. There are also smaller ways to set boundaries, like turning off notifications from your work email or Slack at certain hours. If there’s one meeting you consistently dread, try to block off five or 10 minutes right after to do something that can help you relax, Dr. Gold suggested. “Being able to have some control is a preventer from burnout,” she said.

You can also try to accentuate the elements of your job that you find meaningful. Maybe that means mentoring a more junior colleague, Dr. Gold said, or offering to hand off responsibilities you enjoy less to a co-worker in favor of helping them with a project you’re more interested in.

Exercise can help relieve work-related tension, as can carving out even a few minutes to decompress — without your phone, Dr. Bennett said. “If you sit on a computer for your job, and then you’re on your phone while you’re commuting, and then you come home and watch whatever Netflix series you’re into — all of that is stimulation,” she said. Your brain needs a break so that it can help buffer against stress — which means stepping away from screens, but also giving yourself a few moments of quiet, sitting with your thoughts, without distractions.
If you are struggling to cope with burnout, consider speaking with a mental health professional.

What to do if you think you are depressed​

Reach out to a mental health provider, who can help develop a plan to treat and address your symptoms.
In the meantime, start small and simple. If you tell yourself you’re going on a five-minute walk, you’ll probably end up walking for longer than that, Dr. Gold said. “But it’s hard when you’re exhausted and sad to make yourself do anything.” Getting out of the house won’t alleviate all your symptoms, but any kind of movement can help you feel a bit better, she said.

You can write down coping mechanisms that have been helpful for you — calling a friend, or going for a quick run — and keep the list on your desk or on your dresser for when you’ll need them. Pay attention to what works for you, Dr. Gold said. “If you don’t like mindfulness, don’t force it,” she said. “Do the things that actually help you feel better in the moments when you feel bad.”
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