Burnout vs. Depression: Which Dumpster Fire Are You?

By: Russ
Estimated Length: 10 Minutes

COVID was not fun. Independent of where you landed philosophically, you could have been scared, frustrated, disappointed, bored, enraged, or any combination of those things simultaneously (for my money, scared-bored is the most entertaining). It’s rare to run into such a pervasive problem that spans the globe. Economic disasters do an excellent job of screwing up the works, but it’s hard to beat a good old-fashioned plague.

When it comes to mental illness, COVID rang a loud bell. It played a huge role not only in the big 3 (depression, anxiety, and OCD) but also contributed to generalized stress, which strained marriages, parent/child relationships, careers, pet care, and finances. It was–and continues to be–a prickly character.

Given the mosaic of suffering brought on by this calamity, it can be difficult to identify true feelings, let alone tease apart what’s causing what. So for this post, we will focus on two issues many currently struggle with.

Depression and burnout are primarily identified by their utter lack of chill. They are not a good time. In the drama production of life, they’re those muppets that sit in the balcony and shit on everybody for doing what they love. They’re also like those muppets in that people know they’re different but don’t quite know how to tell them apart or if it’s even important to do so.

The two grumpy muppets in the balcony are making fun of my depression vs. burnout metaphor

Why does the difference between burnout and depression matter?

In actuality, telling those loser muppets apart is pivotal because they require different attack strategies. What works for depression will not work for burnout, and what works for burnout will not work for depression.

This becomes important when we factor in that in the world of depression treatment there are some pretty big guns. Anti-depressants are not children’s strength Tylenol–they do stuff, and sometimes that stuff shuffles your deck real hard. Of course, your deck may require a good shuffle in times of great need, but if you don’t need it, you’d be wise not to mess about.

What is depression?

Depending on your information source (and there are more than a few), depression can be commonly identified by 12 traits. If you identify with enough of them, you “win” a major depressive episode. May the odds forever be in your favour.

  1. Depressed Mood
  2. Low Interest
  3. Appetite Change
  4. Sleep Change
  5. Agitated
  6. Low Energy
  7. Worthlessness
  8. Thinking Problems
  9. Suicidality
  10. Exhaustion
  11. Cynicism
  12. Inefficacy

Careful to note here that depression has both mental and physical dimensions. It’s more than just hating yourself; it can also have a physical quality (like an appetite change or body pain).

Depression has the uncanny ability to turn the awesome parts of life into an emotional beige. Certain things may feel thoroughly terrible, but there’s an echo of depression that has a way of sucking the joy from everything else.

In keeping with the theme of it being a bit like a shitty blanket, depression does an admirable job of making the sufferer feel like they’re mostly terrible at all of the things.

What is burnout?

Burnout is more about stress and being overwhelmed by tasks, often characterized by a feeling of going through the motions. As it progresses, it can even take on a character of depersonalization. This is the feeling of detachment from yourself, as if you’re watching your life unfold from a different vantage point.

It also can introduce a reduced sense of accomplishment, as if what you’re doing makes no difference to anything or anybody. Effort goes in, but nothing comes out. Your cup has a hole in it; no matter how you fill it, it keeps draining.

Whereas depression can act like flood water on the Titanic, getting into every compartment it shouldn’t, burnout is more like if the Titanic wasn’t built by an egomaniacal coward. Its problems can be more isolated to the damaged area and sealed off. You can run into the icebergs of life but still enjoy the view.

Burnout can make you feel like you’re a failure, but that feeling is mainly constrained to the work areas of life. You can still find value in yourself and admit that you’re not a total disaster in general, but when it comes to your career or your various tasks, the asshole voice gets louder.

What causes them?

Depression is very tidal. Yes, it can be triggered by an event, but it can roll into town like an unwanted family member. Depression doesn’t need a reason to show up, which causes further problems if people slip into a shame spiral of “ya but I have no reason to feel this way.”

Burnout meanwhile will have a genuine cause. While it’s typically confined to the boundaries of our careers, it’s important to remember that “work” can happen anywhere. It’s just as easy to burn out at your job as it is at home where your work still exists (and it could be worse because you don’t get paid, and sometimes the boss throws pureed vegetables at you).

Depression doesn’t need a reason to show up… Burnout tends to ramp up quickly when you encounter a terrible fit.

Burnout tends to ramp up quickly when you encounter a terrible fit. For example, maybe your passion is painting, but you do paperwork all day. Maybe you recharge by organizing things in a quiet environment, but you get pureed vegetables thrown at you instead. Doing paperwork or being a parent aren’t categorically bad things, but if they aren’t your things, the mismatch can lead to problems.

A common misconception is that burnout results from too much work or stress. The oversimplification of this viewpoint is that some people positively thrive in environments that are veritable avalanches of work or responsibility. It can be intensely meaningful when that work or responsibility aligns with their passions or values. But, again, it’s a matter of fit, not necessarily intensity.

Different Remedies

How we address both of these issues is essential. More often than not, people will give ass-backward advice to a person relative to what they’re going through. For example, you can’t give a depressed person a beach vacation unless you want them to stare listlessly into their piña colada, too tired even to cry. Similarly, you can’t give somebody who’s burned out a Prozac colada and then inform them that you’ll need them to do more with less due to layoffs. The burnout needs the work to go away, while the depressed person needs a new mindset.

The burnout needs the work to go away, while the depressed person needs a new mindset.

Depression, being a mind-and-body issue, will require a mind-and-body solution. Solutions showing the most promise would include therapy, medication, diet adjustment, exercise, or other healthy options. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to lay out a roadmap for depression maintenance because people are obnoxiously unique. Some people will find what works for them almost immediately. In contrast, others will require years of painful experimentation, therapists that don’t jive with them, or medications that need a lot of balancing.

While it’s a nearly-insane oversimplification, a lot of the potential remedies for depression have a very similar outcome. Many studies show that therapy, drugs, exercise, diet, meditation, yoga, and whatever else you can classify as healthy behaviour can be subbed in for one another. What’s key is you have to find your combination. For this reason, anybody who offers tone-deaf advice such as “the cure to depression is going for a walk” needs to let their man-bun down and maybe spend some quiet reflection on why they’re an asshole. It’s complicated.

Burnout is an environmental issue requiring an environmental solution. The workload balance needs to be adjusted to find a better fit. Maybe the job is fine, but the immediate task sucks and needs to be remedied. In a more complicated scenario, perhaps the job is a poor fit, in which case the solution must be more aggressive.

In some ways, this is the biggest issue with burnout. On paper, depression is more damaging and problematic because it rolls in like a sad fog that settles on everything, while burnout seems preferable because at least it’s somewhat isolated. However, things get worrisome when somebody finds themselves in a job they can’t technically leave without incredible hardship. Maybe they live in an area with no alternate jobs, or they’re specifically qualified for the one thing they despise, or they’re a single parent and can’t afford to make less for a few years to retrain for something more aligned with them.

A lobster man at the circus is sad he can’t be a dentist

Depression, being a mind-and-body issue, will require a mind-and-body solution… Burnout is an environmental issue requiring an environmental solution.

In this case, options become limited. The environment will need to be changed from the inside, or the personal outlook will need to be adjusted. Yes, I’m suggesting you look on the bright side, and that’s easier said than done, but at a specific point, options get scarce. Prolonged stress of a certain kind is toxic, so for some, the decision will tragically come down to finding a way to make it work or becoming ill (in mind or body, but likely both). From a logical perspective, it makes sense to move or retrain because financial problems suddenly seem relatively cool and groovy once you lose your health. Tell that to a single mom though, and you’ll realize quickly that saying it is a lot easier than being in it. On the other hand, if the question is what things look like to continue on this trajectory for five more years and the answer is “dead,” then those previously-scary alternatives get a lot less scary.

Should you find yourself in the unenviable position of being unable to change your environment, the next option is to attempt to change the self. I will reiterate that this option is challenging and it sucks, but again, we aren’t exactly bathing in viable solutions here. Some potential places to focus on might be:

Exploring Time Boundaries

Many people do five tasks at a time all day, understandably failing the whole way. Exploring the idea of mono-tasking could be of benefit. For example, somebody who’s very efficient with their email will quickly develop a reputation of being “crazy quick email response person,” which might look nice on a performance review, but that’s mostly where the benefits end. Responding to email generates more email, so dedicating a block (or blocks) of email time instead of staying on it all day long can lower that particular load.

Learn to say no

Many of us have been taught that saying no is a bad thing, a career threat, or the quickest way to disapproval. Unfortunately, our constant need for approval means that every “no” we give hurts. At some point though, we need to respect our own needs just as much as we respect everybody else’s, which will mean letting them down occasionally.

How much does your role define you?

Some people wrap their responsibilities so tightly around their sense of self that it becomes difficult to determine where one starts and the other ends. Of course, this isn’t a problem until your boss pivots and unloads a ton of work on you, your performance takes a nose-dive, and suddenly sucking at work means you also suck at life.

Examining what you are might be a lofty task, but perhaps we can start with what you’re not. In this case, you (the entire you) are not an accountant, doctor, bus driver, or even a mom. Those might be roles you play, but they aren’t you. If your boss had to lay you off tomorrow, you wouldn’t turn to ash in the morning breeze.

Sleep is the captain now

One of my favourite lines on sleep was reported back to me from a friend who took a course on how to be a high performer at work: if you aren’t getting 8 hours of sleep per night, you aren’t going to be high performing at anything. You will perform, possibly even admirably, but you won’t do it to your maximum potential.To learn more, check out Why We Sleep, by Dr. Mathew Walker.

This used to drive me nuts when my kids were younger. So you’re simply stating that for as long as these screaming bags of meat wake up at night, I can’t be optimal at anything? Looking back, it’s harsh, but ya, it’s mostly true. It’s also OK. That sliver of time is reserved for something larger than yourself, so that period of your life will not see you taking the gold medal in anything that doesn’t involve dodging pureed vegetables. Even then, you’ll probably suck at it.

Can I get both? It feels like I have both.

I have terrible news! You can! Usually the pathway is depression leads to a drop in work performance, which causes an insane buildup of work, which triggers burnout. It can go either way, but technically the direction doesn’t matter.

While both afflictions are separate, they have some overlapping parts, which is why they can sometimes feel so similar. In such a case, you might get to do the entire play as a solo act. Therapy, exercise, etc. plus the environmental reorganization. These are big problems to address individually, so if you’re stuck trying to knock them both back, go slow and try to focus on one issue at a time.


Even writing this, I can recognize most of these solutions won’t work for everybody. It’s a complex problem, and if it had an easy solution then we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. Unfortunately, no pill magically removes burnout and no beach that takes away depression. It all takes work, and we need to determine the varying combination of what works best for your particular make-up and situation.

So the first key is to figure out which of the problems you have and then formulate a plan based on that. For example, did you find yourself nodding along to a few too many of those requirements for a depressive episode? Is your distress more related to your life tasks? Once you can determine whether it’s one or the other, you can work on adjusting your bodymind or environment.

For depression, see a therapist if you’re financially able to. Consider moving your body as much as you feel you’re able, and experiment with other healthy behaviours such as eating plants, getting on a healthy sleep schedule, journalling, meditating, yoga, dancing, or lending a hand to somebody else.

For burnout, experiment with what can be manipulated in your environment. For example, can you speak up and ask for help with your workload or adjust your schedule so it’s less heavy? Eliminating to the best of your ability what doesn’t fit with you will keep you from burning all your energy, so if there’s a way to adjust, by all means, give it a try.