The term ‘burnout’ has become a hallmark of millennial culture, but as much as it defines the zeitgeist, only recently did the World Health Organization (WHO) start recognizing it as an ‘occupational phenomenon’. WHO defines ‘burnout’ as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

‘Burnout,’ WHO maintains, is in its own category, separate from any medical or mental health diagnosis, including depression. Some experts believe that though burnout can be a risk factor for an individual to develop depression, or be a trigger for a depressive episode for those individuals already diagnosed with a major depressive disorder, burnout and depression are not the same conditions. Additionally, due to the fact that most burnout research is related to occupational burnout, many experts view burnout as solely a work-related syndrome, whereas depression is seen as more omnipresent, and as a medical condition that can impact all aspects of an individual’s life.

On the other hand, there are experts that are under the impression that we are failing to understand burnout altogether, and that rather than being a separate diagnosis, it is just another name for depression.

What does experiencing burnout vs depression look like?

The symptoms of burnout and depression can look quite similar, as they are both usually diagnoses driven by a sense of helplessness an individual feels. Individuals struggling with either burnout or depression can often feel ineffective like they can’t gain anything despite putting in all their effort and can often feel a sense of emotional exhaustion.

A study done by Irvin Schonfeld, a professor of psychology at The City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Centre, researched the correlation between depression and burnout. Based on his research, he believes that emotional exhaustion, which is the core component of burnout correlates significantly with symptoms of depression.

Schonfeld doesn’t agree with those who view burnout as a solely work-related syndrome and depression as universal, as he believes the distinction between an individual’s work environment and home environment isn’t so black and white. An individual’s work environment can contribute just as much to already existing depressive symptoms — especially for those who work jobs with large workloads and little to no independence — and elevate them as their home environment can. Schonfeld’s work uses the example of teachers to explain this idea. He suggests that when teachers get jobs where they’re exposed to violence or disrespect, their depressive levels rise significantly.

Similar to how depression can affect an individual’s ability in their workplace, or a workplace environment can affect an individual’s level of depression, once work-based burnout begins to start affecting other parts of an individual’s life, like their personal relationships the diagnosis can start to look and feel a lot like depression.

Managing Burnout and Depression

Since burnout and depression can look the same clinically, it’s important to recognize the difference in the way they are being treated now, and how that should be changed. For an individual to be able to manage their burnout and the other health-related symptoms that come from exposure to high-stress environments, Schonfeld believes, we must start to consider burnout for what it is; a kind of depression that occurs in reaction to harsh working conditions.

The way in which psychologists and organizations currently understand burnout has set the preface on how it should be treated. Currently, in a traditional work context, the solution to burnout tends to be taking some extra days off of work. However, if burnout is redefined as a form of depression, extra time off isn’t the right course of action to manage the diagnosis as once these individuals are back to their normal, stressful routine post those vacation days, the same negative effects of that environment will kick back in. Instead, Schonfeld believes that the best approach to dealing with depressive symptoms whether that be in the realm of burnout or otherwise should be to seek the support of a psychotherapist or psychiatrist.

No matter what the label of the diagnosis, it is essential that an individual’s mental health is being dealt with appropriately in the workplace. Reach out to your chat therapist or 1:1 video therapist if you are showing any signs of Burnout or Depression.