Knowing the difference between burnout and depression can help you find the right solution, and get back to enjoying life again, writes Nikki Crossman from M1 Psychology.
“Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life” … This quote and many others like it have become part of the common rhetoric, encouraging people looking for jobs to pursue the things that they enjoy, rather than what makes the most money or has the most stability.
But it’s not always that easy, and many people find themselves in a position where work becomes a struggle and they find themselves both physically and mentally exhausted.
Feeling mentally and physically exhausted is one of the common signs of burnout, but it can also be a sign of depression or several other possible health issues.
Symptoms Shared by Burnout and Depression
Beyond mental and physical exhaustion, burnout and depression share a wide range of symptoms including:
- concentration issues;
- sleeping issues;
- detachment or numbness towards activities that were previously enjoyable; and
- reduced productivity.
Because of the frequent overlap of symptoms it is easy to mistake one for the other, which can result in approaching the issue from the wrong angle.
Getting it wrong can mean that someone who is experiencing depression is told to take time off work instead of receiving the support that they need, while someone experiencing burnout may be put on antidepressant medication that possibly isn’t necessary.
Key Differences Between Burnout and Depression
Which brings us to the question: How do we tell the difference?
Because of the similarities in the symptoms of burnout and depression, it can be difficult to identify which one you are experiencing.
Typically, though, burnout is more specifically related to a single context such as work or sport, and may improve by taking time away from that particular activity. People experiencing burnout may find other areas of their life affected by the symptoms of burnout, such as fatigue, but are typically still able to enjoy engaging in these areas of their life.
On the other hand, depression is typically associated with symptoms that are pervasive across many different areas of a person’s life – such as their relationship with family and friends, their engagement in hobbies, and their work.
Because of the pervasiveness of the negative thoughts and feelings associated with depression, it’s much more difficult and potentially harmful to take time away. The reason taking time away is not beneficial for depression is because it would mean withdrawing from almost all activities including family, friends, and hobbies, all of which have been demonstrated to be valuable supports for overcoming depressive symptoms.
It is also important to remember that someone can be experiencing both burnout and depression, where their situation at work has resulted in (or added to) problems in other areas, and as a result they have experienced an increase in depressive symptoms.
If you feel you are experiencing either burnout or depression, reach out to your local GP or Psychologist to help you identify the best solution for you.
How to Prevent or Reduce Symptoms
Because burnout and depression are similar and share many qualities there are some tools and strategies that have been demonstrated as effective in reducing both. Physical activity, sleep hygiene, and deep breathing are three examples of strategies that can easily be introduced into your everyday schedule.
Physical Activity: Increasing the amount of physical activity an individual engages in, is associated with a decrease in signs and symptoms of both depression and burnout.
The guidelines for a healthy amount of physical activity for adults is at least 2.5 -5 hours of moderate physical activity a week. But remember:
- Anything is better than nothing;
- Do something active everyday;
- It’s important to get the heart rate up;
- If you’re busy, find ways to build physical activity into your day such as:
- Walking or cycling instead of driving short distances,
- Jogging on the spot for 5 – 10 minutes before you get dressed in the morning,
- Exercise while watching TV;
- Make it a social event – eg pair up with a friend who will keep you accountable, or join a team sport.
Sleep Hygiene: Getting a good night sleep is very important. Setting up good habits around bed time can be an effective way to improve the quality of sleep, and help you to wake up feeling refreshed. Good sleep is often cited as a strategy for addressing stress-related concerns such as burnout and depression.
Good sleeping habits include:
- Having a regular time to wake up every day. This helps your body get used to waking up at the same time and sets your body clock accordingly. It’s more important to have a consistent waking time than to go to bed at the same time each night;
- Making sure your environment is conducive to sleep:
- Reduce light and noise,
- keep the temperature in a comfortable range;
- Establishing a night time routine (even something as simple as getting dressed, brushing teeth). This routine will serve as a cue for the body that it is now time to sleep;
- Reducing things like screen time, caffeine and meals leading up to bed time.
Deep Breathing: Deep breathing helps to regulate the physiological responses to stress, such as shallow breathing and increased heart rate. This makes it an ideal tool to help you remain calm and think clearly in challenging and emotional situations.
Depression and burnout are both associated with stressful life situations. Practising deep breathing regularly can help reduce stress during the day, as well as giving you the opportunity to get used to the technique so that when you are faced with a challenging situation, it feels comfortable and natural to use deep breathing to help you manage the negative feelings.
The average person takes roughly 12 breaths per minute and this increases when we’re experiencing emotional distress. The aim of deep breathing is to breathe slowly and deeply, reducing breathing down to 3-5 breaths per minute.
Here’s a simple exercise to help you practise deep breathing:
- Pick a time that you will be able to incorporate deep breathing each day (before bed is often a good option);
- Sit comfortably;
- Breathe in for 4 seconds, feeling your stomach expand as your lungs press down on your diaphragm;
- Hold your breath for 4 seconds;
- Breathe out for 4 seconds;
- Wait for 4 seconds before breathing in again.
This method can take some getting used to. If you’re not comfortable with it, start by just breathing in and out slowly, then add a short hold at the top, and eventually a short hold at the bottom.
And remember, a psychologist can help whether you are experiencing burnout, or depression.
Author: Nikki Crossman, B Psych Science (Hons).
Nikki Crossman is a Master of Psychology (sport and exercise) candidate at the University of Queensland, passionate about the benefits of sport and exercise for mental health. She takes a holistic approach to wellbeing that recognises the strong connection between our body and our mind, and draws on evidence-based therapies such as CBT and Interpersonal therapy.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129
Physical activity recommendations:
- Bianchi, R., Schonfeld, I. S., & Laurent, E. (2015). Burnout–depression overlap: A review. Clinical psychology review, 36, 28-41.
- Lindwall, M., Gerber, M., Jonsdottir, I. H., Börjesson, M., & Ahlborg Jr, G. (2014). The relationships of change in physical activity with change in depression, anxiety, and burnout: A longitudinal study of Swedish healthcare workers. Health Psychology, 33(11), 1309.
- Wolf, M. R., & Rosenstock, J. B. (2017). Inadequate sleep and exercise associated with burnout and depression among medical students. Academic psychiatry, 41(2), 174-179.
- Kakiashvili, T., Leszek, J., & Rutkowski, K. (2013). The medical perspective on burnout. International journal of occupational medicine and environmental health, 26(3), 401-412.
- Toker, S., & Biron, M. (2012). Job burnout and depression: Unraveling their temporal relationship and considering the role of physical activity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 97(3), 699-710