Is it Burnout or Depression?

Jim Kendall, LCSW, CEAP

Burnout, according to the World Health Organization, results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It feels a lot like depression, but results from career. While you may be able to perform your job, you just don't feel the same level of satisfaction or joy. 

Burnout, which has also been termed "career fatigue," is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion caused by experiencing excessive demands on your emotional resources in the workplace. Emotional exhaustion is the first phase of work-related burnout. Someone can feel fatigued, irritable, frustrated, and overextended.
  2. Increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job.
  3. Reduced professional efficacy. This is when you don't feel successful in your work and feel you aren't performing at your peak.

According to burnout experts Christina Maslach, PhD and Michael P. Leiter, PhD in Reversing Burnout, mitigating or reversing the impact of burnout and "rekindling" our passion for our work requires both a personal and systematic strategy. We must identify workplace frustrations and on a personal level, implement strategies for intentional self-care.

Here are 6 tips to keep in mind as we continue down this path:

  1. Engage in conversations with coworkers. Acknowledging the emotional impact and normalizing discussions about mental health and well-being are essential to help us get through this period.
  2. Assess your own health risks and take action to reduce those risks. The Health Plus Go for the Gold program is one way to assess your health and  take action to achieve a healthier and more productive life.
  3. Learn about resources when colleagues are struggling. While some are struggling with depression, grief, and anxiety, others are languishing. Your Well-being Navigator helps you locate programs and services to enhance your well-being. 
  4. Look for the good. We have evidenced great resilience in our adaptations and hopefully, we can experience post traumatic growth from this journey.
  5. Recharge through a favorite activity - Engage in activities that you enjoy to help replenish your energy. Some activities might include painting, traveling, exercising, reading, or practicing mindfulness. Whatever it is, make time in your schedule to do it.
  6. Seek harmony between work and your personal life. It can be challenging to be present at home when you have work on your mind. Practicing balance and prioritizing important things in your everyday life can help you reduce burnout. Even though we can't always eliminate things in our routine, we can try to add hobbies that refresh us and help us engage.

"Beating burnout is not just a matter of reducing the number of negatives," notes Maslach and Lietner. "Instead, it is often more useful to think about increasing the number of positives, and of building the opposite of burnout, engagement. When burnout is counteracted with engagement, exhaustion is replaced with enthusiasm, bitterness with compassion, and anxiety with efficacy."

Depression is a medical condition that impact the way you feel and function. The symptoms include sad or depressed mood, irritability, sleep or appetite changes, loss of interest and motivation, decreased energy, and sometimes feelings of hopelessness.  It is a treatable condition with the right treatment that might include medication and therapy.

It is important to start with a good assessment to differentiate what might be causing your emotional state. 

Work/Life Connections-EAP is available to help you determine if your symptoms are from burnout or depression, can assist your department or workgroup with facilitating discussions, acknowledging the emotional impact, encouraging self-care, learning strategies for coping, and educating VUMC employees about enhancing their well-being as well as mitigating the impact of burnout. Call 615-936-1327 to consult about an intervention.

Reference: Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2005). Reversing Burnout. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 3(4), 43–49.