23.06.2024

Are you depressed… or suffering from the dreaded burnout?

Negative thoughts, a lack of motivation and wanting to be alone are all known symptoms of depression. But they might also be signs you’re suffering from the ever-more common condition burnout, which experts say is on the rise since the Covid pandemic.

Gillian McMichael, a transformational coach and meditation teacher from Edinburgh, said it is important to recognise the subtle differences between the two – and that, because burnout has become a ‘buzzword’, there is a risk people are using it without addressing the true causes of stress and fatigue.

She said: ‘I think a lot of people can get burnout and depression confused. We’ve got to be careful that we’re not self-diagnosing too much.’

The criteria of the two conditions overlap in a number of ways. Here, experts explain how to spot the differences.

‘Burning the candle from both ends’ is often how we casually refer to this very serious problem

'Burning the candle from both ends' is often how we casually refer to this very serious problem

What is burnout?

‘Burning the candle from both ends’ is often how we casually refer to this very real and serious problem.

Dr Aria Campbell-Danesh, a clinical psychologist, said: ‘Burnout is one of the most widely discussed health issues in the UK because there is debate about what it actually is, and what the symptoms are.’

Although burnout syndrome is not listed in the DSM – a diagnostic guidebook used by mental health professionals globally – it was recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019.

Its experts described burnout as a result of ‘chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.

Tell-tale symptoms 

According to the WHO, someone with burnout is exhausted, mentally detached from their work, and is no longer productive.

Dr Aria said: ‘Burnout is related to job stress and an imbalance at work.

‘It’s experiencing high job demands, without adequate resources to manage those demands.’

The result is that ‘you feel overwhelmed and so drained that you are unable to keep meeting the constant demands you are facing and are unable to do your job effectively’, said Dr Sarah Brewer, medical nutritionist at Healthspan.

She added: ‘Burnout is mainly associated with emotional symptoms in which you become detached and disengaged – you feel empty, hopeless and helpless with little motivation to do anything.’

WHAT IS DEPRESSION?

While it is normal to feel down from time to time, people with depression may feel persistently unhappy for weeks or months on end.

Depression can affect anyone at any age and is fairly common – approximately one in ten people are likely to experience it at some point in their life.

Depression is a genuine health condition which people cannot just ignore or ‘snap out of it’.

Symptoms and effects vary, but can include constantly feeling upset or hopeless, or losing interest in things you used to enjoy.

It can also cause physical symptoms such as problems sleeping, tiredness, having a low appetite or sex drive, and even feeling physical pain.

In extreme cases it can lead to suicidal thoughts.

Traumatic events can trigger it, and people with a family history may be more at risk.

It is important to see a doctor if you think you or someone you know has depression, as it can be managed with lifestyle changes, therapy or medication.

But Ms McMichael said physical symptoms can present too, ‘such as headaches, stomach aches, a bad back or trouble sleeping’.

She said: ‘The earliest symptoms are just feeling pretty tired and rundown. You might notice that you get more coughs and colds, or aches and pains.

‘It could be feeling more anxious than normal, irritable, and less tolerant of the things that you might be tolerant about before. You might be lacking in self-care, which can show up in appearance.’

Difficulty getting out of bed and bingeing TV series may be more subtle signs, Ms McMichael said.

She added: ‘There is a critical ticking point where you can catch burnout and do something about it before it moves into something more serious, such as depression.’

So how is it different from depression?

Although a number of symptoms of burnout are similar to depression, there are some key distinctions.

While burnout is a product of workplace pressures, depression has a number of causes.

Dr Brewer said: ‘Depression is a biological illness associated with an imbalance of brain chemicals such as serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine.

‘These neurotransmitters pass messages from one brain cell to another, and imbalances slow you up both physically and mentally.

‘Depression is linked with heredity, hormone imbalances, childhood trauma, bereavement, lack of vitamin D/sunshine, social isolation, low self-esteem, pessimistic personality, abuse of alcohol, nicotine or illicit drugs, or having a serious illness such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes or Alzheimer’s.’

Typical symptoms of depression include a persistent low mood, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, sadness and crying for no apparent reason. In severe cases, it can make a person feel suicidal.

‘You may comfort eat and gain weight initially,’ Dr Brewer said. ‘But as depression takes hold, you tend to lose your appetite, have difficulty sleeping, and wake early in the morning.’

Dr Aria said: ‘The experience of depression isn’t specifically described. Someone could feel worn out or have lots of energy.

‘They could be feeling irritable and frustrated towards work, or they might be achieving at work. That would be distinctive to depression.’

What to do

If you have symptoms of either burnout or depression, you should take action.

‘If you think you have depression, and it is affecting your ability to function and sleep and leaves you unable to see any pleasure in things you used to enjoy, then seek medical advice before your mood spirals any lower,’ Dr Brewer said.

Treatment is based on the severity of a person’s depression, and includes talking therapies and antidepressants.

Experts say tackling burnout requires self-care prioritisation, commitment to positive change and support from the workplace.

Ms McMichael – who said there isn’t a quick fix for burnout – tells clients to reassess their daily routine, including their diet, exercise, social media use and sleep.

She said: ‘You need to make a conscious decision to put your needs at the top of the list. Take baby steps. If you do a new habit for about a month, it will feel more natural. Don’t give up after three days because you’re not seeing results.’

Dr Aria said it takes a lot of courage to address workplace practices, which largely influence burnout.

He said: ‘It can be so difficult to take that first step in order to speak to a work colleague or your supervisor, because often there can be that perceived fear that you will be seen as someone who’s unable to cope.

‘Share that you want to do this work to the highest of your capability, but this isn’t possible given what’s being expected.’

How to spot the difference between burnout and depression?

Burnout

Symptoms: The World Health Organisation (WHO) characterises burnout by three dimensions; feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy. These factors can commonly make a person feel tired, helpless or trapped, detached or alone, and overwhelmed.

Caused by: Work pressures that outweigh resources that can support a person. The WHO describes burnout as ‘chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.

Treatment: Burnout is treated by taking time to recover, and therefore may be relieved by time away from work. However, a person needs to be committed to addressing their work-life balance in order to truly move on. Depending on how burnt out a person is, their commitment to making changes, and other factors such as the support of their workplace, it could take between three months to a year to recover.

Key difference: Burnout is specific to the context of work. It can be addressed without medication. However, burnout can lead to depression.

Depression

Symptoms: Feeling down, tearful, worthless, empty, angry, irritable, hopeless and tired. People with depression may no longer find pleasure in things they used to enjoy and prefer to stay isolated. Behaviourally, a person with depression self-harm (or have suicidal tendencies/thoughts), use more addictive substances, have different eating and sleeping habits, lose interest in sex and have difficulty remembering things or concentrating.

Caused by: There are many causes of depression, the charity MIND says. They include – and may be a combination of – childhood experiences, life events, negative thinking patterns, health problems, recreational drugs/alcohol, a family history or chemical imbalance.

How long it lasts: There is no average duration of depression, as it depends on a number of factors. For example, depression caused by grief may last a few weeks, while untreated depression can last several years.

Treatment: Depends on the severity of depression. Ranging from mild to severe, it can include self-help, talking therapies and medication.

Key difference: Depression has a variety of causes, and a person may not be able to identify what is making them feel low. In severe cases, it can cause a person to have suicidal thoughts.

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