When Life Is Too Much Work: Is It Depression Or Burnout?

The symptoms of clinical depression are almost identical to burnout — with one big exception. When life is too much work and you’re questioning if you need psychological help, read this first.

Recently, a well-respected leader in her field told me that her doctor diagnosed her with depression. She walked out of that appointment, prescription in hand, feeling ashamed that she “didn’t have it together anymore.” Even worse, she feared how her diagnosis could impact her future work performance. 

I asked her: “Is it depression, or is it burnout?”

She didn’t know, and neither did her doctor. In fact, burnout hadn’t even come up in that conversation. While my friend did mention her work stress, it was passed off as a given — a normal experience of being an adult, working professional.  

But what wasn’t normal was her shame associated with having a mental health diagnosis with an accompanying prescription for psychotropic medication. All she could think was: Am I losing it? A terrifying thought for someone whose success was built on having her shit together. 

Working hard is a given in any job or career. As working women, we rise and meet that expectation. It’s what we sign up for. But when it all becomes too much work, therapists call it a psychosocial stressor. Soon the stressors add up, and your psychological health declines. 

It’s Time To Talk About Your Mental Health

I’m a licensed mental health counselor and have performed therapy for 20 years. The most common mental health complaints are depression and anxiety, which almost exactly mirror the symptoms of burnout. 

For example, the symptoms of major depression are: 

  1. Depressed or sad mood more often than not
  2. Diminished interest in pleasure
  3. Weight loss or gain without trying
  4. Sleeping too much or too little
  5. Feeling keyed up in your body, or feeling like your body is heavy and slow
  6. Fatigue 
  7. Feelings of worthlessness
  8. Problems with concentration
  9. Suicidal thoughts or plans

(American Psychiatric Association, 2013 — diagnostic criteria paraphrased) 

The symptoms of clinical depression are almost exactly the same as the symptoms of burnout. While there are a lot of symptoms of burnout, the most obvious three are:  

  1. Emotional exhaustion
  2. Sarcasm
  3. Inability to get things accomplished 

Like depression, burnout impacts your heart, mind, and body. Emotional exhaustion is a feeling of emptiness. You used to care — a lot. But your passion has slowly eroded, to the point where it’s impacting your cognition. You can’t concentrate, and your attitude is cynical and dark. Your energy is non-existent, your to-do list just keeps getting longer, and your health is falling apart. 

But there is one major difference between depression and burnout: Burnout is always about work. 

The symptoms of clinical depression are almost identical to burnout -- with one big exception. When you’re questioning if you need psychological help, Dr. Amy O’Hana explains the difference.

Is Your Depression Misdiagnosed?

It’s easy to misdiagnose depression. But when it’s really burnout, you can clearly see a relationship between your mental health symptoms and your work. 

Work is about productivity, which makes you feel independent and (hopefully) increases your self-esteem. Even deeper, work is connected to your sense of meaning and what you have to contribute to the world. When you lose productivity and purpose, it’s just as hard on your psyche as other life stressors. 

Burnout is always about work. 

Burnout is a normal reaction when life is too much work. You’re not crazy, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. But it’s imperative that you are diagnosed properly. If you are being treated for depression, you should inform your providers about your work stress so that you can get the help you need.

The good news? You can beat burnout and create a life you love. Get started by clicking the image below to subscribe for heart-felt, practical tips. If you’re not quite ready to subscribe, then keep scrolling for an activity you can try right now. 

Is It Burnout? Try This Activity

Create a horizontal timeline of your work, from the time you started working until today. Above the line, write dates and significant events that happened, both positive and negative, such as graduating from your training program, getting a promotion, an incident of sexual harassment, etc. Below the line, document your emotional, mental, and physical symptoms. When did your symptoms start? Have there been periods of time when they have been better or worse? Now look at your whole timeline and observe if there is a link between work events and burnout. Show your timeline to your prescriber or therapist.  

Check out my book Beyond Burnout, which helps you make things work again! 

Reference: American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

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