What If Burnout Is Actually Depression?

The symptoms can be similar. So how do you know what you’re experiencing?

Ashley Abramson
Elemental
Published in
6 min readFeb 17, 2020

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Illustration: Virginia Gabrielli

EEvery year, dozens of medical leaders and health care administrators travel to Half Moon Bay, California, a beach town 30 miles south of San Francisco, to learn how to help their doctors combat burnout. The Chief Wellness Officer course is part of Stanford’s WellMD Center, an initiative designed to keep stressed-out doctors mentally and physically healthy by promoting evidence-based practices like exercise and mindfulness.

The idea of “burnout” goes back to the 1970s, when American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term to explain the consequences of extreme stress in “helping” professions like health care.

Since then, the meaning of “burnout” has evolved. It now applies to more professions than just health care workers and includes more symptoms — for example, “errand paralysis,” as writer Anne Helen Petersen describes her inability to complete mundane tasks. In her viral BuzzFeed article about millennials and burnout, Petersen argues that anyone can get burned out, because it’s the product of a culture that demands people go on working even when their internal resources are depleted.

By definition, burnout is more than just “work stress.” Being burned out can also lead to deterioration in the quality of one’s work, which can result in a negative self-image. The ongoing stress that accompanies burnout is also linked to a heightened risk for mental illness: According to a recent study of burned-out resident doctors, burnout can contribute to a higher risk for depression, along with suicide and substance abuse.

Recently, some researchers have attempted to capture exactly how much burnout affects U.S. workers: A 2018 study found 28% of the general U.S. workforce experiences “overall burnout,” while a Gallup study from the same year found that 23% of American workers report feeling burned out “often or always.”

Burnout has become such a hallmark of American culture, especially among millennials, that Petersen calls it “the contemporary condition.” But as much as it defines the zeitgeist, only recently was burnout formally recognized as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organization (WHO)…

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Ashley Abramson
Elemental

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.