Is it burnout or depression?

The terms burnout and depression are often used interchangeably. With the right knowledge about the causes and symptoms of both, you will be able to help affected employees more accurately.  

There is an important distinction between depression and burnout: while people suffering from depression generally feel like they have lost their zest for life, burnout is mostly due to excessive energy consumption.

Then why do people often think burnout and depression are one and the same thing? Because the symptoms are so similar. In both cases, people tend to have a gloomy disposition, and they may feel listless, apathetic, and withdrawn.

However, there are a number of subtle differences between both conditions:

  • people suffering from burnout often want to continue working, but they simply don’t have any energy left. When you suffer from depression, you do have the energy, but you don’t feel like doing anything;
  • people suffering from burnout are usually very active in the mornings but tend to come to a standstill in the afternoon. With depression, it is usually the other way around.

Similar symptoms, different causes

If going by the symptoms alone does not give you a clear indication as to whether you’re dealing with burnout or depression, then revealing the causes will help.  

Burnout is always caused by work-related stress. When the workload is too high and the resulting stress continues over a prolonged period of time, people may start to suffer from burnout syndrome. An excessive workload is the key contributing factor here, but it is rarely the only one. Certain aspects from one’s private life, such as hobbies and family relationships, can also contribute to burnout.

Depression is different and can be caused by many different factors, workload being only one of them. The condition may occur due to a combination of mental, social, medical, hormonal and hereditary factors. Major changes in one’s life, certain medications, (the lack of) support from one’s social circle, genetics, etc. can also contribute to depression to a lesser or greater extent.

Which roles do the supervisor and prevention advisor play?

It is clear that burnout and depression are two separate conditions, each requiring a different form of treatment.  

Can you, as a supervisor or HR manager, recognise the symptoms of depression? Refer your employee to their general practitioner or to specialist services. You can either bring this up yourself during a confidential chat, or you can do so after first consulting with the occupational health physician or prevention advisor on psychosocial aspects.

Suspecting burnout? In this case, a prevention advisor on psychosocial aspects can play a key role in detecting the causes behind stress and burnout among your workers, at organisational and individual level. Based on an assessment of psychosocial risks, he or she can identify issues within the organisation that may lead to stress and burnout, and suggest appropriate measures.  The prevention advisor on psychosocial aspects can teach workers and supervisors how to recognise signs of excessive stress. He or she also has the necessary skills to make employees more resilient and therefore less susceptible to stress and burnout.  

At individual level, the prevention advisor on psychosocial aspects provides personal guidance to employees at risk of burnout and to those who have already experienced burnout and are absent from work. This process focuses heavily on teaching employees about stress responses and coping mechanisms to make sure they are better equipped to handle future stressful situations.

Naturally, the confidential advisor also plays an important role as a low-threshold interlocutor. Especially when the supervisor is a stress factor, he or she can lend a listening ear and help the worker take further steps.

In addition, the development of procedures following practice-based scenarios and assigning responsibilities is an essential step for organisations seeking to prevent avoidable absenteeism and focus on First Aid for Mental Problems.

Would you like to prevent or tackle burnout and other mental health issues in your company?

Discover how an approach revolving on First Aid for Mental Health issues helps prevent avoidable absenteeism in your organisation.

Looking for a tailored approach? Together with you, we draw up a prevention plan that will keep your employees energetic, motivated and in balance. You can contact if you have specific questions about burnout in the workplace.

Read all blog posts about ‘mentally fit’.