Burnout or depression? A psychologist explains the difference

Posted on 5 July 2022

If you’ve been feeling low lately, you could be experiencing burnout – or you could be suffering from depression. A counselling psychologist explains how to get the help you need. 

Burnout and depression can be confusingly similar. Both leave you feeling low, tired and lacking in motivation – but they’re two different conditions with different causes and treatments.  

For starters, burnout and depression have different causes. “The differences can be seen in the causes and the treatment. In addition, depression is longer term than burnout, which is often situational and mostly work related,” says Charon Streit, a counselling psychologist at Mediclinic Kimberley and Mediclinic Gariep. “The World Health Organization defines burnout as a depletion of energy, cynicism and poor efficacy at work, whereas depression is classified as a mental disorder and part of category of mood disorders. But left untreated, burnout can lead to depression.”  

Symptoms checklist 

While there is some overlap between the symptoms of burnout and depression, there are also significant differences. If you can tick off more symptoms from one list below than the other, that’s a first step toward identifying what you’re dealing with. 

Burnout symptoms:   

  • Lower motivation 
  • Cynicism and negative thoughts 
  • Detachment/loneliness 
  • Sense of failure and self-doubt 
  • Hopelessness and feeling defeated 
  • Lower satisfaction/discontent 

 Depression symptoms: 

  • Disturbances in sleeping and eating habits 
  • Increased emotionality (including anger, irritability, sadness) 
  • Hopelessness 
  • Lower concentration 
  • Low drive 
  • Poor memory 
  • Anhedonia (No joy) 
  • Feelings of guilt 
  • Thoughts around death (not necessary suicide) – these could be active or passive 

While depression is a mood disorder that has to do with your brain chemistry, burnout is situational – which means you can avoid it. A good place to start? Revisit your priorities and set some boundaries, suggests Streit. “COVID-19 and the consequential working from home has caused many people to struggle with boundaries.” If you’re still working from home, she suggests being firm about your time – dedicating periods for at-the-office time, me time and family time. “Switch off the work phone if needed,” she adds. 

If you’re already feeling burnt out, Streit says your main focus should be on lifestyle changes and self-care. This goes beyond bubble baths and scented candles. “Self-care includes becoming aware of negative self-talk, plus relaxation techniques like meditation, and yoga. Assessing priorities and time management is also vital.” The key is to achieve a healthy balance of good diet, sleep hygiene, relaxation and physical activities.  

Psychotherapy & medication 

Left untreated, depression can take over your life – and lead to suicidal ideation. While treatment for depression includes many of the lifestyle and self-care changes used to treat burnout, you might need medication too. “The reason for this is the need to balance neuro-transmitter substances in depression,” explains Streit – that’s the brain chemistry mentioned earlier. “You’ll usually need a long-term prescription,” she adds. “Medication should be taken with care and according to the doctor’s prescription. It is not addictive.”  

For treatment to be effective, the key is to combine medication with psychotherapy. “Often people only use prescribed medication and then don’t get perspective on their trauma or problems. When they stop using the medication, the issues recur,” says Streit.  

Whether you’re feeling burnout out or suspect you have depression, reach out to a Mediclinic psychologist, who will be able to give you the help and guidance you need. If they think you may need medication as well, you’ll be referred to a Mediclinic psychiatrist – a specialist doctor who is qualified to diagnose your condition and prescribe the appropriate medication.  


Published in Healthy Life

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.