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Life as we know it: Are you depressed or burned out?

WHO includes burnout in its diagnostic manual as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ whereas depression is a clinical diagnosis
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Dani Blum   |   Published 07.09.22, 03:17 AM

The concept of burnout comes from workplace psychology, said Angela Neal-Barnett, a professor at Kent State University, US, and author of Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman’s Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic and Fear.

Typically, therapists associate burnout with work, although researchers are also studying parental burnout, when caregivers feel chronically exhausted. Burnout has become pervasive in the cultural lexicon, especially during the pandemic. On TikTok, the trend of “quiet quitting”, or doing the bare minimum at a job, has gone viral, as people share stories about feeling burned out by long hours and a punishing “hustle culture”.

Workers can become burned out when they feel like they don’t have control over their day-to-day lives, getting bogged down in the minutiae of their tasks. People who are burned out may feel depleted and cynical about their jobs; they can resent their assignments and co-workers. They might feel irritable and ineffective like they just can’t get anything done.

People who interact with others in their jobs, like healthcare workers or people in the retail and service industries, might start to lose empathy, thinking of patients or customers as just another number or a rote task to complete. There is also a litany of physical symptoms that can come with the unending stress of burnout: insomnia, headaches, and gastrointestinal issues.

The World Health Organization includes burnout in the International Classification of Diseases, its diagnostic manual, characterising it as an “occupational phenomenon,” not a medical condition.

Depression, however, is a clinical diagnosis. People with depression often experience anhedonia, which is the inability to enjoy activities they once treasured. “You can be reading a book you used to love and now you hate it,” said Dr Jessi Gold who is a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis, US. “Or you love watching Bravo, but now it doesn’t make you laugh anymore.”

With burnout, you might not have energy for your hobbies; with depression, you might not find them fun or pleasant at all, said Jeanette M. Bennett, an associate professor who studies the effects of stress on health at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, US.

As with burnout, people with depression may sleep too much or too little, and may struggle to focus. People with depression may isolate themselves from others; they may feel like it takes a lot of energy to shower or eat. Depression can induce an overwhelming sense of sadness and hopelessness.

In severe cases, people with depression may start having thoughts that they are worthless or that life is not worth living. These symptoms tend to last for at least two weeks, Gold and Neal-Barnett said.

A key differentiator is that burnout gets better when you step away from work, said Dr Rebecca Brendel, president of the American Psychiatric Association. When you take vacation time or a mental health day, you feel at least slightly recharged. Depression doesn’t go away if you change your circumstances. “There’s not that bounceback effect,” she said. “It takes more than that.”

What to do if you think you are burned out? Taking a mental health day or a “sad day” off work, if you’re able to, can offer a reprieve from your symptoms. If you feel constantly burned out, you might want to consider a career change — which is easier said than done, Gold acknowledged. “Being able to say, ‘This is a bad workplace, that’s it, I quit,’ is a privilege beyond privilege,” she said. There are smaller ways to set boundaries, like turning off notifications from your work email or Slack at certain hours. 

You can also try to accentuate the elements of your job that you find meaningful. Maybe that means mentoring a more junior colleague, Gold said, or offering to hand off responsibilities you enjoy less to a co-worker in favour of helping them with a project you’re more interested in.

Exercise can help relieve work-related tension, as can carving out even a few minutes to decompress — without your phone, Bennett said. “If you sit on a computer for your job, and then you’re on your phone while you’re commuting, and then you come home and watch whatever Netflix series you’re into — all of that is stimulation,” she said. Your brain needs a break so that it can help buffer against stress — which means stepping away from screens, but also giving yourself moments of quiet, without distractions.

What to do if you think you are depressed? Reach out to a mental health provider, who can help develop a plan to treat and address your symptoms. Start small and simple. If you tell yourself you’re going on a five-minute walk, you’ll probably end up walking for longer than that, Gold said. “But it’s hard when you’re exhausted and sad to make yourself do anything.” Getting out of the house won’t alleviate all your symptoms, but any kind of movement can help you feel a bit better, she said.

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