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Differentiating Burnout from Depression

Melissa Page Deutsch, MS, CCC-SLP, CPCC, ACC

April 25, 2017



Characteristics of depression and burnout overlap quite a bit.  How do I differentiate the two?


Depression is more than just sadness. Depression is the opposite of vitality. So the opposite of depression is not happiness; it is really vitality. Vitality is when a person is able to fully feel all of their emotions and then move on. With depression, there is this gradual graying out of life where everything becomes an effort. This is marked by no longer having interest in daily activities that used to bring the person pleasure.  There might also be fluctuations in weight, difficulty with sleep (insomnia or excessive sleeping), malaise - that lack of energy - and inability to concentrate. Depression can also be marked by feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, and most dangerous of all, recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

This is a really big deal. I think anybody who has ever experienced depression or had family or friends affected by depression knows that when you or someone you love is in the grips of depression, it is hard to reach out and do the things that need to be done in order to get help. I would encourage anyone who thinks this applies to himself/herself to reach out and get some help because depression is treatable and it is very common.  It might take a while to find the right combination of psychotherapy and/or antidepressant medication and/or behavioral changes such as exercise, meditation, sleep, and eating well. But depression can be treated and no one has to suffer.

Depression and burnout have the most common ground in that they are both marked by extreme exhaustion, feeling low and reduced performance. Here is where they differ: With depression, there is low self-esteem and there can be suicidal tendencies. You might have noticed that hopelessness is listed as one of the descriptions of burnout. However, the hopelessness in depression is more global; in burnout, the hopelessness tends to be more job-specific.

It is important to recognize that not every case of burnout is going to stem from depression. It is not going to have depression at its roots; however, burnout can lead to depression.  For example, a client once said to me, "You know, I used to have such a positive outlook. Now I bring my work home with me. I worry about it all the time, and I think my boyfriend is getting sick of hearing about it, and I am getting sick of it." She went on to say, "I just want to get my perspective back and have that peace of mind again." She did get that back. We did some coaching and she got it back and ended up finding a fantastic workplace for herself.  She did not begin with depression and go into burnout. She was worn down by some toxic relationships at her workplace.

It is imperative to get the diagnosis correct because the treatment for depression and burnout are very different.  For burnout, taking time off really can help. There have been studies both with mice and with medical students. Researchers studied medical students who had just finished some end of year exams. When they looked at their brains they noticed an increase in the size of the amygdala. There were actual structural changes within their brains when they were under the chronic stress of studying for exams. Four weeks after completion of their exams and after they had had time off, their brain structures had returned to their regular sizes. So there was a resilience that came with taking a break, and that helped burnout.

With depression, that might not be the answer. Depression needs to be treated with psychotherapy and possibly medication. 

Please refer to the SpeechPathology.com course, Burnout Be Gone: Finding Wholeness Again, for more in-depth information on burnout, its impact, what contributes to it, and ways to prevent and reduce it.

melissa page deutsch

Melissa Page Deutsch, MS, CCC-SLP, CPCC, ACC

Melissa Page Deutsch is a certified personal development and transition coach and an SLP. She presents nationally and locally on navigating mindful transitions in one’s personal and professional life. Melissa coaches speech pathologists who are in transition and want to re-connect with their best self. 

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