How Burnout Affects Depression
We know that some symptoms of burnout look like depression (as well as anxiety from this article we wrote a few months ago!). When it comes to depression and burnout, the research into the role cortisol strongly suggests that there is a link between the two. We expect that as you experience burnout you will also experience symptoms of depression.
Things we know.
A stressful lifestyle can put people under extreme pressure, to the point that they feel exhausted, empty, burned out, and unable to cope. Stress at work can also cause physical and mental symptoms. Possible causes include feeling either permanently overworked or under-challenged, being under time pressure, or having conflicts with colleagues. Extreme commitment that results in people neglecting their own needs may also be at the root of it. Problems caused by stress at work are a common reason for taking sick leave. If someone has problems at their workplace, changes in their working environment can already make a positive difference. For people who can no longer cope with the stress of caring for ill relatives, more concrete support can help to improve their situation.
Exhaustion is a normal reaction to stress, and not necessarily a sign of disease. So does burnout describe a set of symptoms that is more than a “normal” reaction to stress? And how is it different from other mental health problems?
Where the research stands currently is at a bit of a standstill. Most papers show a link between burnout and depression, but it wasn’t until a 2019 meta-analysis came out that showed that although there was a link between burnout and depression, they were in fact, two separate constructs. This leads us to hypothesize that there are symptoms of depression that are associated with depression, and there are symptoms of depression that are associated with burnout. These are two different constructs.
What does this paper show us?
Bianchi and Brisson (2017), for instance, examined to what extent individuals with burnout and depression attribute their feelings to their job. What the researchers found was that the number of the participants who attributed their burnout feelings to their job was proportional to the ones who attributed their depressive symptoms to their job as well, indicating that there might be an overlap between burnout and depression in relation to their antecedents. Many studies have also shown that there is a positive correlation between burnout and depression (Glass and McKnight, 1996; Schaufeli and Enzmann, 1998; Bianchi et al., 2013, 2014, 2015b; Bianchi and Laurent, 2015). Indeed, as Bianchi et al. (2015a) mention in their systematic review, it has been found that inventories that assess burnout, and more specifically the subscale of emotional exhaustion–the core component of burnout–are positively correlated with depressive symptoms (Takai et al., 2009; Bianchi et al., 2013; Ahola et al., 2014). Several researchers have argued that because studies have found a consistent medium to high correlation between the two concepts, this might suggest an overlap and that burnout might not be a distinct psychological phenomenon but a dimension of depression (Bianchi et al., 2015b). Additionally in terms of consequences, in a recent study by Bianchi et al. (2018a) it was observed that both burnout and depression were associated not only with the increased recall of negative words, but also with the decreased recall of positive words. The authors concluded that burnout and depression overlap with each other and this overlap extends also to emotional memory.
What we can conclude is that individuals who are more prone to experiencing higher levels of depression are also more likely to develop burnout as well. This means that these symptoms can potentiate the symptoms of diagnosable disorders such as depression. What that also means is that sometimes we miss the bigger picture.
If symptoms of burnout look like depression, as this paper suggests, then we need to treat your burnout to help your depression.
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