Are you experiencing symptoms of burnout or depression? Here’s how to tell the difference.

Burnout and depression can have similar mental health impacts. Physical symptoms of burnout may even resemble depression and anxiety, but these conditions are very different.

Knowing the difference between burnout and depression can help you figure out what you’re experiencing, so you can find relief sooner than later.

Burnout vs. depression

  • Burnout and depression can share similar physical symptoms, but they’re not the same.
  • Burnout can lead to a depressive episode, but depression does not cause burnout.
  • There are ways to prevent and cope with burnout and depression.
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Burnout (aka burnout syndrome) is the emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion that comes from long-term exposure to:

  • stress
  • emotionally demanding situations
  • overworking
  • pushing yourself too hard without taking care of yourself and honoring your needs

“Burnout has a negative impact on your physical health and mental health,” says New Jersey-based therapist Aisha R. Shabazz, a licensed clinical social worker.

The most frequent type of burnout is career burnout, she adds. But a 2020 study notes that parental burnout, characterized by exhaustion related to parenting, is possible, too.

A 2019 study suggests that the following groups of people are most commonly affected by burnout:

  • teachers
  • nurses
  • doctors
  • social workers
  • elite athletes
  • parents of chronically ill children

Is burnout a form of depression? Though they share common symptoms, burnout is not a type of depression.

Symptoms of burnout

According to a 2021 study, the main burnout symptoms include:

  • exhaustion
  • trouble with thinking or decision making (cognitive dysfunction)
  • reduced work performance
  • a loss of empathy
  • social withdrawal

Shabazz notes there are other signs that you may be experiencing burnout as well, like:

Depression is a mental health condition and diagnosis. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), depression impacts 8.4% of people living in the United States every year.

Symptoms of depression

Common depression symptoms may include:

Yes, someone can experience both burnout and depression simultaneously. And their causes can be unrelated or exacerbated by the other, says Shabazz.

“Like with most life experiences, we respond to stress differently, and what causes burnout in one person may not cause burnout in another,” she adds.

Does burnout cause depression? And vice versa?

“The external factors that contribute to burnout can cause a depressive episode,” says Shabazz. But depression does not cause burnout, and people who live with depression won’t always experience burnout.

A 2021 study indicates that people who experience burnout are prone to experience symptoms of depression, but that doesn’t directly result in a clinical depression diagnosis.

Causes of depression vs. burnout

“Depression is often defined by the internal experience of a person, sometimes occurring without a root cause,” says Shabazz. “For most people, the catalyst for their depression is unclear.

“Burnout has a definitive root cause and arises because your external environment has a prolonged negative impact on your physical health and mental health,” she adds. “[It’s] the result of being exposed to an unrelenting [and unwelcomed] amount of stress.”

According to Shabazz, potential risk factors and causes of burnout include:

  • long work hours
  • high-stakes responsibilities
  • unrealistic expectations
  • a toxic or fear-based workplace culture
  • expectation to offer high-performance with inadequate resources
  • an unsafe work environment
  • discouraged use of employee benefits, such as paid time off
  • perfectionism
  • low compensation

There are ways to prevent and cope with burnout and depression.

First, setting boundaries is important.

“Have firm boundaries around your time and expectations of how you’d like to be treated,” says Shabazz. “Without boundaries, you’re more likely to be exploited and succumb to the external pressures that are expecting you to push yourself beyond your limits, which will eventually lead to burnout.”

A 2020 study conducted among nurses suggests that mindfulness training can reduce the emotional burden and level of burnout.

These other strategies may help, too:

  • keeping up a self-care routine
  • advocating for yourself when you need help
  • speaking with a therapist

If you’ve been feeling anxious, exhausted, or hopeless lately, you could be experiencing burnout or a depressive episode. But despite their similarities, there are key differences between burnout and depression, as listed above.

If you’re wondering “is it burnout or depression” when thinking about your own experience, consider speaking with a mental health professional. A therapist can help you better identify what you’re going through and help you cope with whatever’s causing you to feel this way.