Is It Burnout Or Depression? The Key Symptoms You Need To Watch For

Plus, tools to address both.

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Is it burnout or is it depression?

How would it impact you to know the answer to that question?

I often ask my clients this question when they’re reflecting on their desire for more clarity about their present experience.

When exploring the difference between burnout vs. depression, the answer may prove useful to acknowledge the distinction and assist in creating a plan for recovery.

Of those in the experience of burnout, clients have replied, "I literally can not take in another piece of information and I’m irritable all the time!"


Their experience speaks about how much life is happening to them and that they don’t feel they have control over any relationships, their work-life, or themselves. 

RELATED: 6 Causes Of Burnout To Avoid At Work

Other clients in the depths of depression have shared not wanting to exist anymore, that it’s a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. As the moment they’ve opened their eyes the reality of overwhelm hits them at once and they struggle to move. 

These two experiences have a similar quality to their outline.

While the symptoms of both burnout and depression overlap, there’s value in knowing the differences between them.


Here are the symptoms of burnout vs. depression.

1. Burnout symptoms

You struggle with work-life balance.

You find yourself with limited focus.

You may be trying to numb yourself to avoid feelings.

You are more irritable than usual.

You find yourself with a lack of self-trust or second-guessing decisions.

Get curious about where your symptoms exist in each arena of your life.

Often, the patterns exhibited in one area of life are exhibited in others. When you’re irritable due to the experience of burnout your mood permeates throughout your life. There’s no one target for the sharp response or the heavy sigh at a simple inquiry. 

Sitting in a company meeting with an attempt to focus is unsuccessful in similar ways to the attempt to hear your partner’s recount of their day. The words and stories just don’t land.


At the end of the day, you can feel worse for not feeling successful in work or supportive in relationships. The self-doubt seeps in and the cycle continues. 

2. Depression 

Feels related to failure and loss.

You detect a noticeable shift in appetite.

You experience of low mood, or sadness most of the time.

You struggle to maintain significant relationships.

There are serious forms of depression that require intervention and often medication to support individuals in increasing their level of functioning.

RELATED: What Is Burnout & The Symptoms That Are Your Body's Cry For Help

Depression is another form of internalized aggression — anger turned inward to avoid conflict with others but the consequences are compounded resentment and sadness.


I work with clients who struggle to know and name what they want from their lives, work, relationships, themselves. Once we start to dig into their journey, we find their symptoms of depression are often connected to their struggle to live their lives in full expression. 

Living from a place of inner knowing and self-expression requires awareness and the capacity to share a lived experience, feelings, and thoughts. 

When you deny yourself the ability to speak your voice by cutting yourself off the consequence, you internalize these unexpressed emotions.

If you’re not able to speak freely to the people in your life, the end result is resentment, poor boundaries, and people-pleasing behaviors that can lead to self-doubt, sabotage, and depression. 


Once you become aware of the symptoms of burnout and depression, here are 5 ways to address them.  

1. Create space and take breaks from your day-to-day life.

One of the goals of therapy is to identify where a client can create some distance between the circumstance that’s present for them and their reaction.

There’s a need to gain some perspective on what the client is in control of vs. the assumptions being made or the story they’re telling themselves about the experience.

2. Practice noticing and naming your feelings before they start to run your life. 

When my clients give their feelings the space to exist, they often find that they have control of them. They’re manageable and they move through them more easefully.

Conversely, when clients fight their feelings, attempt to avoid or numb them, they persist and grow.


3. Practice mindfulness. 

Developing a practice of mindfulness or meditation has been shown to improve sleep and reduce stress.

There are a diverse number of methods for practicing mindfulness. However, the simplest way to engage in the process is to notice the breath or to sit still and glance down at the body.

Bringing awareness to the whole self (ie. not just the mind) can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which facilitates rest and recovery.


4. Set boundaries. 

Practicing firm boundaries at work models a sense of self-trust and informs the people around you about where you begin and end, moreover the difference between what's OK and what's not OK.

Understanding the value of your "yes" is only as strong as the value of your "no" is critical when working to find a work-life balance.

5. Develop a practice of self-compassion.

I often invite my clients to develop an awareness of how they're treating themselves in their experiences.

The critical voice is often the first to come out and drives perfectionism, over-functioning, and perpetuates burnout. Dr. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion offers an alternative approach.


Knowing and understanding the differences between burnout vs depression can offer clarity for those in either experience.

Whether you’re living in a constant state of overwhelm and exhaustion or collapsed inside your own mind and body, there’s a tremendous amount of support to be found in either case. 

RELATED: 7 Surprising Things That Make Your Depression Even Worse

Christine Vargo, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, a certified Gestalt Therapist, a Certified Daring Way Facilitator (CDWF-Clinician), and the Co-founder of Full Expression: The Human Condition currently in private practice. In your work with Christine, you will develop a transformative connection with yourself through embodying your core values, practicing self-compassion, and living your purpose. Contact Christine today for consultation via her website