In this short article I will briefly summarise the differences between Depression and Burnout in terms of classification, causes, symptoms and treatment. 

While there can be some overlap in presenting symptoms, there are significant differences between Depression and Burnout.  One of the biggest differences is how they are classified.  Depression, or as it is more formally known in its most prevalent form, Major Depressive Disorder, is classified as a mental illness and is therefore in the DSM-5.  Burnout was classified by the WHO in May 2018 as an “occupational phenomenon” and is not in the DSM-5, at least not yet.  It will however be listed in the next edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

One of the most significant differences between the two are the causes.  While it is known that MDD can have multiple causes including genetic or familial predisposition, chemical imbalances, environmental conditions, and trauma, Burnout is caused entirely by workplace factors, known as domains.  One of the most common misperceptions when it comes to Burnout is that it is caused entirely by people being overworked, yet work demands is in fact only one of 6 domains with the other 5 being lack of autonomy, lack of positive feedback, poor interpersonal relationships, unfairness and value inequity. 

The symptoms, which in Burnout are referred to as dimensions, also differ significantly.  There are many symptoms of MDD but two of the most integral ones are profound sadness and loss of interest in all usual activities.  In Burnout there are three dimensions, namely exhaustion, cynicism and reduced personal efficacy.  An employee is only suffering from Burnout when they present with all 3 dimensions – if they present only with exhaustion, this is not Burnout.  A person who is suffering from MDD will experience persistent symptoms at all times, in all areas of their lives regardless of where they are or what they are doing.  People with Burnout on the other hand, demonstrate their symptoms or dimensions in the workplace and once removed from it, can get on with their lives relatively “symptom-free”.  To highlight this, it you take a person with MDD on a 5-star holiday to the Seychelles, they will still be depressed, but if you take a person with Burnout on the same holiday, they will likely have a fabulous time.  

Based on the fact that there are no familial predispositions or chemical imbalances in Burnout, there is no pharmacological treatment for this condition.  On the other hand, psychotropic medication can have life changing benefits for people with Depression.  Therapeutic intervention can also yield good results for people with MDD.  So how then are people with Burnout treated you may ask?  Well, essentially they’re not…instead, they need to remove themselves from the workplace that is causing the 3 dimensions.  Having said that, therapeutic intervention can have some benefits especially with the development of insight into the condition and it’s causes.

Finally, while Burnout can lead to Depression, the opposite is not true. 

If you would like to know more about the complexities of Burnout and in turn significantly reduce the risk in your organization or your team, please get in touch.


Take care everyone.

Your Partner in Mental Health Matters @ Work




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