How To Tell The Difference Between Depression And Burnout

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Whether you love your job or not, you’ve likely experienced occasional exhaustion, frustration, disillusionment, and a desperate urge to hurl your alarm clock across the room and hunker back down under the covers until further notice. That’s not a depression symptom, right? Or is it?

Most of us don’t consider burnout to be a form of depression. After all, it’s just the boss who’s a jerk, the coworkers who don’t pull their weight, and the work that’s tedious and thankless. Never mind the hellish commute, day after day. But a new study suggests that burnout and depression are not so dissimilar.

In the study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, researchers surveyed nearly 1,400 American public school teachers during the 2013-2014 academic year. Based on the survey responses, they identified a set of teachers who showed signs of burnout. When they matched the teachers’ symptoms to a depression scale, fully 86% of those with burnout met the criteria for a provisional diagnosis of depression. By contrast, less than 1% of their colleagues without burnout could be considered candidates for depression. What’s more, the teachers with burnout were also about twice as likely to have a history of anxiety disorders, three times as likely to have a history of depression, and nearly four times as likely to be taking antidepressants.

“Our evidence is that burnout overlaps depression, that they’re on a continuum, like temperature,” says study coauthor Irvin S. Schonfeld, PhD, a psychology professor at the City College of New York’s Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. “If you go back to the original paper that was published about burnout, by Herbert Freudenberger—in which he studied people who volunteered at a drug treatment center and who dealt with very difficult patients—one of the ways he described burnout was: ‘It looks like depression.'”

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