Burnout and depression share specific symptoms and can be challenging to tell apart. Burnout symptoms tend to center around work, while depression affects all areas of life.

Both burnout and depression can negatively impact a person’s mental well-being and share similar symptoms, but they are not the same.

Because the two are similar, people may mistake burnout for depression and vice versa. This may lead to a delay in treatment.

This article explores the similarities and differences between burnout and depression and their symptoms, causes, and treatment. It also answers commonly asked questions about both conditions.

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People commonly refer to depression and burnout interchangeably to describe feelings of exhaustion, emptiness, and inability to cope.

Burnout may mirror symptoms of depression, but burnout is not a medical condition. The World Health Organization (WHO) includes burnout in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). WHO defines it as an occupational phenomenon.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) considers burnout an experience rather than a diagnosis. It is a result of prolonged interpersonal stressors at work.

Burnout commonly occurs in service-oriented or “helping” professionals and those who persistently experience high stress levels, including:

  • social workers
  • teachers
  • correctional officers
  • doctors
  • nurses
  • therapists
  • trauma counselors

In contrast, depression or major depressive disorder (MDD) is a clinical diagnosis. It affects how a person thinks, behaves, and feels and can lead to a range of emotional and physical problems.

A 2017 study suggests that the two appear to share a common biological basis. Several studies also show a positive correlation between burnout and depressive symptoms. This may mean there is an overlap between burnout and depression or that burnout is a potential risk factor for developing depression.

However, a 2020 study found that their symptoms are distinct.

A critical difference between the two that can help people and professionals distinguish them is that burnout is situation-specific and often related to a person’s working environment.

In contrast, depression can show up regardless of a person’s circumstances and environment.

Burnout and depression may have similar symptoms, including extreme exhaustion and feeling down. However, the two conditions also have important differences.


To receive a diagnosis of depression, a person must have at least five of the following symptoms for at least 2 weeks, and they must cause a change in a person’s previous level of functioning:

  • depressed mood
  • loss of pleasure or interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • increased fatigue or loss of energy
  • changes in appetite
  • presence of slowed movements or speech or an increase in purposeless activity
  • feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • suicidal thoughts
  • difficulty concentrating, thinking, or making decisions

Learn more about the effects of depression on the body.


Burnout has three main symptoms:

  • Exhaustion: This may include feeling drained, emotionally exhausted, tired, down, unable to cope, and not having enough energy. Physical symptoms include pain and gastrointestinal distress.
  • Alienation from activities: People may become cynical about their work and colleagues and increasingly distance themselves from them. They may also feel numb about their work.
  • Reduced performance: People feel negative about their duties and tasks, causing them to become listless, lack creativity, and have difficulty concentrating.

There is also a link between burnout and reduced work performance, which may manifest as:

  • withdrawal
  • absenteeism
  • desire to leave the job

Read more about burnout symptoms here.

The following outlines the causes of depression and burnout.


Depression occurs as a response to genetic, environmental, and psychosocial factors. These include:

  • abnormalities in neurotransmitters
  • severe early stress
  • hormonal abnormalities
  • experience of uncontrollable life events
  • certain personality traits


Burnout is typically a response to a stressful workplace but can result from other stressors, such as taking care of an ill family member.

It results from performing at a high level until an overburdening workload or extreme or prolonged physical or mental exertion takes its toll.

Aside from the workplace, other factors may affect burnout. These include:

The following outlines the treatment of depression and burnout.


Depression is treatable, and the treatment depends on the type of depression. Treatments such as medications, psychotherapy, and lifestyle modifications can help manage depression.

Some of the medications approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of MDD include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).

However, a 2019 study suggests that up to two-thirds of people with depression do not respond to initial treatment with antidepressants.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy are forms of psychotherapy that medical professionals commonly use to treat depression.

A 2020 review of studies found that CBT is an effective treatment for depression, and combined therapy consisting of medications and CBT is significantly more effective than using medications alone.

Meanwhile, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) was the most effective treatment for severe major depression. Below are indications for ECT:

  • acute suicidality
  • severe depression during pregnancy
  • refusal to eat or drink
  • severe psychosis
  • catatonia


Treatments for burnout all aim to:

  • restore the balance between effort and rest
  • facilitate recovery from chronic stress
  • improve coping skills

The following may help people dealing with burnout:

  • performing self-care, including eating right, getting enough sleep, and regularly exercising
  • practicing self-compassion
  • doing fun and enjoyable activities
  • seeking social support from friends, family, and workmates
  • being aware of one’s mindset and being open to changing perspectives
  • reflecting on one’s profession
  • identifying and managing workplace stressors
  • improving coping skills such as communication and problem-solving skills
  • ensuring that work demands are manageable and reasonable
  • aiming for work-life balance

People with burnout and those who think they are depressed may find it helpful to reach out to a mental health provider. A mental health professional can help provide a diagnosis and a treatment plan.

A person with thoughts of self-harm, suicide, or death is having a mental health crisis. They may call 998 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline for free and confidential emotional support.

People who are uncomfortable speaking through a phone may text HOME to 741741 to connect with a volunteer Crisis Counselor at Crisis Text Line through text, chat, or WhatsApp.

The following are frequently asked questions about depression and burnout.

Is burnout worse than depression?

Burnout and depression have some similar symptoms, but burnout tends to revolve around work stressors. In contrast, depression affects different areas of a person’s life.

Can you have depression and burnout at the same time?

A 2019 review found that burnout may be a risk factor for depression, meaning that chronic, unresolved burnout may lead to depression.

However, burnout and depression have distinct symptoms. Most burnout issues are work-related, while the negative thoughts and feelings of depression are about all areas of life.

Depression and burnout can cause similar physical and mental health problems, making it difficult for those affected to identify if they are experiencing depression or burnout.

Understanding the differences can help people identify whether they should seek help and treatment.

A person who thinks they need help for depression or burnout should speak with a mental health provider. Other resources, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Crisis Text Line, can offer additional support.