Are you depressed… or suffering from the dreaded burnout?

Negative thoughts, lack of motivation and wanting to be alone – you would be forgiven for worrying, these were signs that you have depression.

In fact, they are also symptoms of burnout, a state of exhaustion that experts say has become increasingly common since the Covid pandemic.

Gillian McMichael, a transformational coach and meditation teacher from Edinburgh, said that because burnout has become a “buzzword,” there is a risk that people will use it without addressing its true causes.

She said, “I think a lot of people get burnout and depression mixed up. We have to be careful not to self-diagnose too much.’

The criteria of the two conditions overlap in a number of ways. Here, experts explain how to spot the few differences.

Are you depressed or suffering from the dreaded burnout

“Burning the candle from both ends” is often how we casually refer to this very real and serious problem

What is a burnout?

“Burning the candle from both ends” is often how we casually refer to this very real and serious problem.

Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh, a clinical psychologist, said: ‘Burnout is one of the most talked about health problems in the UK because there is debate about what it actually is and what the symptoms are.’

Although burnout syndrome is not listed in the DSM – a manual used by mental health professionals worldwide – it was recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019.

The leading experts described burnout as a result of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Telltale symptoms

According to them, someone with a burnout is exhausted, mentally detached from their work and no longer productive.

Dr. Aria said, “Burnout is related to work stress and a work imbalance.

“It experiences high work demands, without sufficient resources to meet those demands.”

As a result, “you feel overwhelmed and so exhausted that you are unable to keep up with the constant demands you face and unable to do your job effectively,” said Dr. Sarah Brewer, medical nutritionist at Healthspan.

She added: “Burnout is mainly associated with emotional symptoms where you become detached and detached – you feel empty, hopeless and helpless with little motivation to do anything.”


While it’s normal to feel down from time to time, people with depression can feel persistently unhappy for weeks or months.

Depression can affect anyone at any age and is quite common – about one in ten people are likely to experience it at some point in their lives.

Depression is a real health condition that people can’t just ignore or “pop out.”

Symptoms and effects vary, but may include feeling constantly upset or hopeless, or losing interest in things you used to enjoy.

It can also cause physical symptoms such as trouble sleeping, fatigue, low appetite or sex drive, and even body pain.

In extreme cases, this can lead to suicidal thoughts.

Traumatic events can trigger it, and people with a family history may be more at risk.

It’s important to see a doctor if you think you or someone you know has depression, as it can be controlled with lifestyle changes, therapy, or medication.

Source: NHS Choices

But Gillian said physical symptoms can also appear, “such as headaches, stomachaches, a bad back or trouble sleeping.”

She said: ‘The earliest symptoms are just feeling pretty tired and run down. You may notice that you get more coughs and colds, or aches and pains.

“You may feel more anxious than usual, irritable, and less tolerant of the things you may have been tolerant of before. You may lack self-care, which can show in appearance.”

Difficulty getting out of bed and bingeing TV shows could be more subtle signs, Gillian said.

She added, “There’s a critical point where you can catch burnout and do something about it before it turns into something more serious, like depression.”

So how is it different from depression?

While some of the symptoms of burnout are similar to depression, there are some important differences.

While burnout is a product of work pressure, depression has a number of causes.

Dr. Brewer said: ‘Depression is a biological disease associated with an imbalance of brain chemicals such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.

“These neurotransmitters pass messages from one brain cell to another, and imbalances slow you down both physically and mentally.

Depression is associated with heredity, hormonal imbalances, childhood trauma, death, lack of vitamin D/sunshine, social isolation, low self-esteem, pessimistic personality, abuse of alcohol, nicotine or illegal drugs, or having a serious illness such as cancer, heart disease , diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease.’

Typical symptoms of depression are a persistent low mood, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, sadness and crying for no apparent reason. In severe cases, a person may feel suicidal.

“In the beginning, you can safely eat and gain weight,” said Dr. Brewer. “But as depression kicks in, you tend to lose your appetite, have trouble sleeping, and wake up early in the morning.”

Dr. Aria said, “The experience of depression is not specifically described. A person may feel exhausted or have a lot of energy.

“They may feel irritable and frustrated about work, or they may be underperforming at work. That would be characteristic of depression.’

What must we do

Neither burnout nor depression should be something you sit on.

“If you think you have depression, and it’s affecting your ability to function and sleep and stop you seeing pleasure in things you used to enjoy, seek medical advice before your mood takes a turn for the worse.” said Dr. Brewer.

Treatment is based on the severity of a person’s depression and includes talk therapies and antidepressants.

Experts say tackling burnout should prioritize self-care, commitment to positive change, and workplace support.

Gillian – who said there is no quick fix for burnout – tells clients to reassess their daily routine, including their diet, exercise, social media use and sleep.

She said, “You have to make a conscious decision to put your needs at the top of the list. Take baby steps. If you stick with a new habit for about a month, it will feel more natural. Don’t give up after three days because you don’t see results.’

Dr. Aria said it takes a lot of courage to address the workplace practices that largely influence burnout.

He said: “It can be so difficult to take that first step of talking to a colleague or your supervisor because there can often be the perceived fear of being seen as someone who can’t handle it.

“Share that you want to do this work as well as possible, but that this is not possible given the expectations.”

How do you recognize the difference between burnout and depression?


Symptoms: The World Health Organization (WHO) characterizes burnout by three dimensions; feelings of lack of energy or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and decreased professional effectiveness. These factors can often cause a person to feel tired, helpless or trapped, distant or alone, and overwhelmed.

Caused by: Work pressure that outweighs the resources that can support a person. The WHO defines burnout as ‘chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.

Treatment: Burnout is treated by taking time to recover and can therefore be alleviated by taking time away from work. However, a person must be committed to addressing their work-life balance to really move forward. Depending on how burned out a person is, their commitment to making changes, and other factors such as workplace support, it can take anywhere from three months to a year to recover.

Key Difference: Burnout is specific to the context of work. It can be managed without medication. However, burnout can lead to depression.


Symptoms: Feeling down, tearful, worthless, empty, angry, irritable, hopeless, and tired. People with depression may no longer find pleasure in things they used to enjoy and prefer to remain isolated. Behaviorally, a person with depression may self-harm (or have suicidal tendencies/thoughts), use more addictive substances, have different eating and sleeping habits, lose interest in sex, and have trouble remembering things or concentrating.

Caused by: There are many causes of depression, says the charity MIND. They include – and can be a combination of – childhood experiences, life events, negative thinking patterns, health problems, recreational drugs/alcohol, a family history or chemical imbalance.

How long it lasts: There is no average length of depression, as it depends on a number of factors. For example, depression caused by grief can last for several weeks, while untreated depression can last for several years.

Treatment: Depends on the severity of the depression. Ranging from mild to severe, it can include self-help, talk therapies, and medication.

Key Difference: Depression has several causes and a person may not be able to identify what makes them feel depressed. In severe cases, it can cause a person to have suicidal thoughts.