Sometimes people find themselves dealing with low mood, inability to get motivated, irritability, and a feeling like they can’t get anything done at work. If this has ever happened to you, you might wonder “Is this depression or is it burnout? Are they the same thing?” They share some of the same symptoms including exhaustion, difficulty sleeping, withdrawal from social activities, concentration problems, irritability, and low mood, so it’s not surprising it can be hard to differentiate the two.
I thought it might be helpful to write about some of the similarities and differences. Before I begin, I’d like to remind you that if you’re experiencing mental health symptoms, you should consult with your family doctor, psychologist, or other licensed mental health professional for individualized assessment and advice. Although I love sharing ideas through my writing, I can only offer so much nuance through a general blog. This is very different from ongoing and personalized care with someone who knows your situation and knows you.
So, how are they different?
As a feminist psychologist, I work hard with clients to look at the context that leads to our mental health struggles. For both depression and burnout, I see these issues as largely impacted by the context we’re living in. One difference would be in the types of experiences and situations that most often put us at risk.
When clients are dealing with depression, we might explore some of the current or past experiences that could be contributing to it. For example, childhood neglect, trauma, loneliness and isolation, and shaming experiences could be seen as contributing factors. Johann Hari has an incredible book called “Lost Connections” on the contextual factors that contribute to depression. In it, he identifies disconnection as the primary source of depression. Specifically, he talks about disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from others, disconnection from meaningful values, disconnection from status, disconnection from nature, disconnection from a secure and hopeful future. He also writes about childhood trauma, changes in the brain, and genetic factors. This falls in line with the widely accepted biopsychosocial model, which suggests that some people have risk factors such as genetic predisposition, and it also ascertains that there are many factors both in our histories, current personal circumstances, and the more global context that can lead a person to experiencing depression.
Unlike depression, which can be related to many factors, burnout is primarily related to our work. In fact, it’s defined this way. As of 2019, burnout was recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon (WHO, 2019). Burnout differs from other mental health disorders because it is tied directly into a person’s relationship with their work.
What we can do about burnout
Because burnout is defined this way, it means that people who are experiencing burnout and are able to take a break or extended leave from work will likely start to feel better. Of course, it takes time to recover, and we need to be patient with ourselves through the recovery process. But, largely, removing yourself from the situation that has made you feel unwell will start to bring relief. Working through depression, on the other hand, isn’t as straightforward as leaving a job or taking a break.
If you think you might be experiencing burnout, you could ask yourself some of the following questions:
I’d also encourage you to watch my mini course on How to Prevent Burnout, because I share the definition of burnout, the workplace-related causes of it, and some ideas of what you can do to prevent it (other than just quitting your job!)
Footnote: Hari’s book, in my opinion, can come across as a bit anti-medication. I wanted to note that this is not my stance, and I don’t want to further stigmatize or shame the pathways that work for people. I’m supportive of what works best for my clients, which sometimes involves medication, and sometimes does not.
In my work, two of the biggest themes I talk about a lot are burnout and shame resilience—I even have an online workshop on How to prevent burnout and my most recent one is about Shame Resilience Skills. If you've been following me for a while, you might already know this. What you might not know yet, though, is that there’s an overlap between the two.
Here’s what I've noticed: at the root of overworking (which eventually leads to burnout) often lies a sense of shame. We might feel that our worthiness is directly connected to our productivity—either because we've been told so or been made to feel so in indirect ways.
In trying to get away from the uncomfortable experience of shame, many of us strive to be perfect. We might make demands to ourselves to appease that voice: "I'll just achieve more at work, I’ll be pleasing in my relationship, I’ll give more in my community…" But, at some point, we reach our limits. We’re only human, so we get exhausted, our bodies break down, and resentment settles in.
I often have clients who come to me with the goal of getting better at being perfect. Although this is an impossible standard, they’re beating themselves up for not continually being able to meet it. Instead of giving them strategies to “get more motivated” and just get on with achieving more than they possibly can, what I do is work with them on the root feeling of shame. Why? Because I believe that they are good and worthy just as they are, without having to do anything more, and I want to help them feel that way.
What can we actually control?
This push to be perfect doesn’t always come from inside ourselves, though. Many times we’re actually made to feel guilty or ashamed of our choices by other people, even if they don’t mean to, like when someone tells you “Wow, you’re leaving early!” or “I wish I could do that but I have a lot more work to do!” Unfortunately, as many of my clients have found, if you’re waiting for someone else to change, you might be waiting a long time. This is why, instead of waiting for other people to realize what they’re doing and change their ways, I focus on behaviours that we ourselves can do differently.
Another thing we can get really caught up in is trying to get someone else’s permission or acceptance of our boundary, to convince people that we have the right to our own boundaries. It’s important to learn that we can simply do what we need to do for ourselves and let other people deal with their own discomfort around it.
Setting the boundary and then sticking with it when we get pushback will feel uncomfortable for us, too: here’s where accepting our feelings and practicing self-compassion can be really useful. We might have to remind ourselves that you can be a good person, even if other people are disappointed, or that other people don’t have to understand your boundaries in order to respect them. This is the heart of burnout prevention and shame resilience.
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.