How Burnout and Depression are More Alike than Believed

Burnout and depression have long been viewed as two different things, although a new study found the two may be more similar than traditionally believed.

Burnout is typically associated with factors in the workplace, such as heavy workloads or the ongoing workday that never seems to end. It tends to result in a feeling of being exhausted, detatched and dissatisfied with the job.

Depression is also believed to be associated with factors in the workplace, although personal factors are believed to have a heavy influence. Depressive symptoms can range from inability to concentrate to feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness.

A new study found that burnout is not only associated with factors in the workplace, but personal factors can have an influence as well.

About the Study

The study, published in the “Journal of General Internal Medicine,” surveyed more than 1,500 medical interns about:

  • Depressive symptoms
  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Depersonalization

Depersonalization refers to the persistent feeling of observing yourself from outside your body. Depersonalization and emotional exhaustion are two of the three components of burnout. The third is lack of personal accomplishment.

Study authors then measured the levels of depressive symptoms, emotional exhaustion and depersonalization. They measured depressive symptoms using a standard Patient Health Questionnaire. Emotional exhaustion and depersonalization were measured using a truncated Maslach Burnout Inventory.

Participating interns were asked to gauge their satisfaction with their learning environment and workload, as well as provide information on personal factors such as:

  • Age and gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Relationship and parenting status
  • History of depression and childhood stress
  • Level of neuroticism

Neuroticism is an important personality trait looked at in psychological reviews. Those with high scores in neuroticism tend to have a higher chance of experiencing fear, frustration, anger, worry, guilt, loneliness and moodiness.

What the Study Found

When all the data was assessed, the study discovered that depression and burnout share a significant overlap in contributing factors.

  • Personal factors accounted for about two-thirds of the contributing factors to both depression and burnout
  • Workplace factors accounted for about one-third of the contributing factors to both depression and burnout

What This Means

In addition to illustrating how personal factors play a larger role in burnout than initially believed, the study shows that assessing individuals or groups for depressive symptoms may serve as a viable alternative to assessing for burnout.

Equally as important is the idea that interventions used to help address depression may be equally as useful for addressing burnout. The same would hold true the other way around.

Rather than being viewed as separate entities with separate contributing factors, depression and burnout are actually similar in their contributing factors. This is a notable discovery for burnout, which is a relatively new term in the world of psychology.

The term was first coined in the 1970s, and the definition has been varied and unclear ever since. Unlike depression or driving anxiety and driving fear, burnout has been challenging to classify and understand. A deeper understanding of burnout can result in enhanced methods of helping those who suffer from it.