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Burnout and Depression Are Not the Same. Here’s What You Need to Know.

In many of the conversations I’ve had recently with leaders, we’ve spoken about burnout. There is concern the term is being overused as a euphemism for having too much work, feeling overstretched and stressed, and that in some instances it’s being used as an excuse.

While statistics suggest there has been a big increase in the amount of burnout being reported during the time of Covid. A survey from Flexjobs and Mental Health America reported that 75% of employees have experienced burnout and 40% said it was directly linked to being exposed to the global pandemic

But the other question being asked is whether there is such a thing as burnout at all.
I’ve heard comments such as,

“Burnout is just a form of depression.”
“There is no such thing as burnout, only people who can’t get their act together and think they’re too stressed.”
Suck it up Princess, we’re all busy, just take a long weekend and you’ll be fine.”

Even some medical professionals see burnout as part of the continuum of depression.

I disagree.

Burnout and depression are not the same, although they can coexist and many of the symptoms are very similar.

How can I say this?
Because I have experienced both.

 

What burnout is

The World Health Organisation reclassified burnout as an occupational phenomenon (they were very careful not to label it a medical condition) resulting from being exposed to severe chronic stress that has not been managed.

The triad of symptoms associated with burnout will be present to varying degrees and include:

  1. Extreme mental, emotional, and physical fatigue.
    For me, this meant I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed, to get dressed or to hold a conversation.
  2. A growing dissatisfaction or interest in our work.
    This can take the form of resentment, cynicism, and disinterest in what you have previously been passionate about.
  3. A drop in professional efficiency
    This is hardly surprising when you’re waking up from sleep already exhausted, lacking motivation and wishing you could be anywhere else except where you are right now.

Burnout is an individual experience by which I mean, what triggers burnout in you and what you experience, and the severity of your burnout is unique to you.

It develops slowly over time. You might notice the symptoms within yourself and take steps to avoid it getting any worse.

It can also recur if insufficient attention has been paid to the triggers or to have developed the self-awareness needed to know how your own thoughts, beliefs and behaviours can contribute.

Burnout is preventable and treatable, even when severe.

 

Who is at risk?

1. It has long been recognised that those working with people in the “caring” professions are especially at risk. When you come from a place of service to others, always putting the needs of others before your own and perhaps ignoring your own needs. It’s no surprise that doctors, nurses, and others in the allied health professions and counsellors, and those on the front line – paramedics, the police and the fire service take podium position.

2. Entrepreneurs, solo operators, start-ups who have put their heart and soul into their new business

3. Highly committed, high achievers dedicated to their work and careers who put work first before anything else.

4. Those whose occupations mean they are exposed to continual high levels of stress. This might include parents with children with disability, new parents of a baby that cries non-stop, caring for your partner living with Alzheimer’s or a terminal illness, caring for your ageing parents.

The problem with burnout is the damage it does to an individuals’ capacity to function, the added strain to the family of the affected person and the economic cost to the business whose employee must take significant time off or leave altogether.

In 2016 the annual global cost of burnout was put at $322 bn. One shudders to think what the current cost is during the global pandemic. 

The 2020 Global Leaders Wellbeing Survey revealed the worrying statistic that of the 2000 CEO’s surveyed, 84% were experiencing some level of burnout.

What a waste of human potential.

Differentiating burnout from depression is about recognising that burnout is stress-induced either by the environment you find yourself operating in (think unreasonable deadlines, excessive workload, lack of downtime) and, or the pressures you put on yourself (think perfectionist and over or high achievers who push on, ignoring all the stop signals despite feeling extraordinarily fatigued). Depression is a mental mood disorder where while exposure to severe chronic stress or a traumatic event may play a role, it is the emotional expression of a low mood, sadness that is all-pervasive. There can be associated thoughts of worthlessness, the futility of everything, hopelessness, and sometimes suicidal ideation.

The main difference is that in burnout the workplace environment is a significant contributor to a person’s ongoing stress levels.

Have you ever found yourself working ridiculously long hours, consistently? Because that’s the only way you can see to get all your work done?

Have you ever questioned why you continue to put yourself though so much pain, and to what end?

Do you experience mental blanks, where you can’t think straight, can’t concentrate, and can’t remember much of what you’ve tried to learn or read during the day?

Do you ever ask yourself, why am I struggling so much with this, when everyone else seems to be managing just fine?

Is this you?

As Michael Leiter PhD at Deakin University notes that while extreme fatigue is a hallmark of burnout, “it is a crisis in the psychological connection with work that is the problem.” That’s why signing up your staff for, yet another resilience program doesn’t help. It’s not resiliency that is the issue, (I suspect your employees already have plenty) rather it is how their job makes them feel.

The main problem is that a proportion of people remain unconvinced that burnout exists or fail to recognise it in themselves or don’t see that things are bad enough to warrant seeking assistance.

What do you do if your boss doesn’t believe that you have burnout and thinks you just need to go to your GP and get an antidepressant?

What do you do when you’re beyond exhausted, but your family are counting on you, so you keep on pushing through even when you know you need to stop?

What alternative do you have when you are the sole caregiver, business owner, start-up entrepreneur who has no one available who can lend a hand to allow even one day off?

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight, and several different stages have been identified.

 

There are 5 stages of burnout

Not everyone with burnout will fall into a heap and there are plenty of opportunities to reverse burnout in the early stages if recognised. However, it is not uncommon when more severe to require time off to recover, professional help through a counsellor or psychologist and in some instances medication for any associated symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Stage One – The Honeymoon Phase

This is the period when you’ve just begun a new role or started a new job. While there will be additional and new stressors in this period of adjustment, you’re excited and managing everything well.

Stage Two – The Honeymoon is Over

This is when you start to appreciate that things aren’t quite as wonderful about your new job as you first thought. The rose-tinted glasses have not only come off, but you also sat on them in the car, and they are broken. Some days you may find your enthusiasm on the wane following a particularly stressful event, or you felt unsupported in a particular role. Reality is starting to look a little frayed around the edges.

Stage Three – Browned Off

Things are getting a bit tough. You’re feeling stressed nearly every day, you’re finding it harder to switch off, you’re snappy and irritable with your partner and the kids and you’re relying more on coffee to get you through your day. Sleep is elusive even though you’re exhausted. Your libido packed its suitcase and left the building, and everything feels like hard work.

Stage Four – The Cliff Edge

You may be aware you’re not yourself and need to do something differently but have no idea where to start and you dare not stop. You want to run away – to nowhere in particular but the idea of escaping makes you feel temporarily a bit better. You’re pulling away from friends and family, your head is constantly pounding, and your outlook is pessimistic.

Stage Five – Living in Burnout

This stage is now putting you at risk of chronic fatigue, a mental mood disorder and chronic burnout syndrome. It’s time to put up the white flag if you haven’t already and seek professional help.

One other key differentiator is that removing yourself from the source of your stress quickly leads to feeling better and you regain some of your energy. Unfortunately, that is quickly lost when you return to the same stressful environment.

In depression, you’re less likely to get that positive kick. You may feel better away from work or people, but those negative thoughts and rumination persist.

If you are a leader, high-achiever, busy professional, carer, parent juggling 10 different things at once and feeling consistently stressed to the point it is interfering with your ability to perform your tasks to the best of your ability, you could be on the path to burnout.

In another post, I’ll explore the different treatment options.

Meanwhile, if you’re keen to explore some other resources. I highly recommend Gordon Parker’s new book “Burnout: A Guide to Identifying Burnout and Its Pathways”. As  Professor of Psychiatry at UNSW and Founder of the Black Dog Institute, he knows what he’s talking about and this book gives a beautifully clear, concise and very readable insight into what to look out for if you think you could be burned out and some readily applicable management strategies to help get you back to being your best bushy-tailed and bright-eyed self.

And please, if your symptoms are worrying you, seek help from a qualified professional. The sooner you know what you’re dealing with, the quicker you’re on your way to recovery.

 

Are you interested in finding out more about mental wellbeing and how to stay mentally healthy? The next intake of the Thriving Mind Academy begins on Sept 6th.

And, if you’re keen to develop your leadership skills to be the best leader you can be, the Thriving Leaders Retreat at the Bunker Bay Pullman Resort is being held October 7th to 11th.

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase.

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