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Blues Qs: What’s the Difference Between Depression and Burnout?

Managing Depression

September 15, 2022

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Collage design by Ryan Hamsher

Collage design by Ryan Hamsher

by Sam Dylan Finch


Medically Reviewed by:

Jacquelyn Johnson, PsyD.


by Sam Dylan Finch


Medically Reviewed by:

Jacquelyn Johnson, PsyD.


Blues Qs is an advice column covering all things clinical depression, written by Bezzy Depression community guide Sam Dylan Finch. Diagnosed with clinical depression over a decade ago, Sam has seen it all — from medication mishaps to grippy-sock “staycations.” He’s here to help you navigate your own depression journey with a little humor and a lot of heart.

I remember the last time I experienced burnout at a job. In some ways, it looked a lot like low grade depression; I felt resentful, dejected, and absolutely exhausted. My pile of work was growing taller, my resolve was growing weaker, and no one but me seemed to notice that I was drowning.

It got to the point where I started dreading work every day. It felt like I had given so much of myself, yet I was getting very little in return. Unappreciated and overworked, I started to feel like I lost a part of myself to my job.

Fortunately, I took this as the sign that it was: I needed to either make changes at my job or change jobs entirely. I chose the latter, and after some hardcore rest and relaxation, I was able to start my new job with renewed enthusiasm and excitement.

As someone with clinical depression, it can be confusing to parse out the difference between burnout and a depressive episode, because in the initial stages, they can present in such similar ways.

But the key difference is this: burnout is a situational experience.

By engaging in restful and enjoyable activities, setting firm boundaries, and putting some space between yourself and the stressors that are causing burnout, you’re likely to see improvements.

Depression is a bit different, though. It persists regardless of the context.

While certain situations or events can trigger a depressive episode, depression is not considered situational, whereas burnout is.

People with burnout tend to have a strong sense of what stressors need to be addressed in order to see improvements — they can identify the issues they’re struggling to cope with and can imagine what steps might be taken to improve them.

People living with depression can feel a much deeper sense of despair. They experience hopelessness and emptiness, lose interest in their favorite activities, often grapple with low self-esteem and guilt, may isolate themselves from loved ones, and some even consider suicide.

A simple change in perspective or situation is rarely enough to pull someone out of the depths of a depressive episode.

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To put it into perspective, here’s a nifty table to help you sort out the differences:

Note: I created this table myself, drawing on the diagnostic criteria for depression and this Psych Central article.

anxiety/worrying related to work or caretaking rolesdespair or cynicismemotional, mental, and physical exhaustion
high levels of stressloss of interest in favorite activitiesissues falling asleep or staying asleep
negativity or pessimism about a situationhaving low self-esteemfeelings of irritation or frustration
feelings of betrayal or lack of appreciationself-isolating or pulling away from loved onesloss of motivation
specific, identifiable causeguiltsense of inefficacy and/or loss of purpose
responds well to removal of stressorsfeelings of emptinessfeeling a lack of control over one’s environment
responds well to rest and enjoyable activitieshopelessness about the futurepoor job performance
thoughts about suicideheadaches/unexplained pain

As stated, burnout is firmly rooted in a situational cause and responds well when that situation is changed. You may experience negative emotions, but it’s usually tied to the role that’s causing you burnout (i.e., a caregiver, parent, student, or employee), rather than life overall.

Burnout is common in roles where you feel you’re giving more than you’re receiving — hence the strong feelings of betrayal or unappreciation.

A depressive episode involves negativity, too, but that negativity is usually hopelessness, low self-esteem, withdrawal, and thoughts of suicide. Life as a whole can feel like a desolate, uninhabitable place. While you may experience a similar lack of purpose and lack of control to burnout, the resulting despair is much deeper and more disabling.

People experiencing burnout find it hard to continue working, but usually find ways to cope in other areas of their lives until they can make a change. People experiencing depression find it hard to continue living, and can feel immobilized when trying to take action in any area of their lives, regardless of their situation.

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Here’s the tricky part, though: If you’re experiencing burnout and let it fester, it can turn into a depressive episode

This is especially true for people who have experienced depression before.

You can also experience burnout at the same time as depression, making it challenging to parse out where one ends and the other begins.

So, if burnout is creeping in, it’s important not to wait for it to resolve on its own. Getting rest, practicing rigorous self-care, and, if possible, negotiating new boundaries are all positive steps you can take to resolve burnout.

The truth is, it may be hard for us to distinguish between burnout and a depressive episode, especially when we’re in it.

The bottom line

If taking a break isn’t helping to resolve your feelings of negativity and exhaustion, it may be best to speak with your mental health professional to get an assessment.

Many of the early signs of a depressive episode (fatigue, irritation, pessimism) are so similar to burnout that it can be hard to distinguish the two, and that’s okay! It isn’t your job to figure it out, but rather, to access as many supports as you can to carry yourself through it.

A mental health struggle is a lot like a leaky pipe. You wouldn’t wait for your basement to flood before seeking out a plumber, would you?

Similarly, when you start to notice the early signs of burnout or depression, it’s always a good idea to get a second opinion — sooner rather than later.

Medically reviewed on September 15, 2022

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Connect with thousands of members and find support through daily live chats, curated resources, and one-to-one messaging.

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About the author

Sam Dylan Finch

Sam Dylan Finch is a writer and content strategist based in Seattle, WA. You can say hello on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or learn more at

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