Dani Blum is an associate writer for Well at The New York Times. the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Philadelphia magazine. She recently penned an article meant to help people distinguish between burn-out, depression, and what do to about each. You can read the full article “How Can I Tell if I’m Depressed or Burned Out?” at NYTimes.com.
Dani writes “Workers can become burned out when they feel like they don’t have control over their day-to-day lives, getting bogged down in the minutiae of their tasks. People who are burned out may feel depleted and cynical about their jobs; they can resent their assignments and co-workers. They might feel irritable and ineffective, like they just can’t get anything done. For people who interact with others in their jobs, like health care workers or people in the retail and service industries, they might start to lose empathy, thinking of patients or customers as just another number, or a rote task to complete. There are also a litany of physical symptoms that can come with the unending stress of burnout: insomnia, headaches, gastrointestinal issues.”
She goes on to write “The World Health Organization includes burnout in the International Classification of Diseases, its diagnostic manual, characterizing it as an “occupational phenomenon,” not a medical condition. Depression, however, is a clinical diagnosis. People with depression often experience anhedonia, the inability to enjoy activities they once treasured. “You can be reading a book you used to love and now you hate it,” said Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis. “Or you love watching Bravo, but now it doesn’t make you laugh anymore.” With burnout, you might not have energy for your hobbies; with depression, you might not find them fun or pleasant at all, said Jeanette M. Bennett, an associate professor who studies the effects of stress on health at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.”
A key differentiator is that burnout gets better when you step away from work, said Dr. Rebecca Brendel, president of the American Psychiatric Association. When you take vacation time, or a mental health day, you feel at least slightly recharged. Depression doesn’t go away if you change your circumstances. “There’s not that bounce-back effect,” she said. “It takes more than that.”
The authors recommend the following for burnout:
- Take a mental health day or a “sad day” off work, if you’re able to, can offer a reprieve from your symptoms.
- Consider a career change — which is easier said than done, Dr. Gold acknowledged. “Being able to say, ‘This is a bad workplace, that’s it, I quit,’ is a privilege beyond privilege,” she said.
- Turn off notifications from your work email or Slack at certain hours.
- If there’s one meeting you consistently dread, try to block off five or 10 minutes right after to do something that can help you relax,
- Accentuate the elements of your job that you find meaningful. Maybe that means mentoring a more junior colleague.
- Exercise can help relieve work-related tension, as can carving out even a few minutes to decompress — without your phone.
But depression is a different story and they recommend:
- Reach out to a mental health provider
- If you tell yourself you’re going on a five-minute walk, you’ll probably end up walking for longer than that, Dr. Gold said. “But it’s hard when you’re exhausted and sad to make yourself do anything.”
- Getting out of the house won’t alleviate all your symptoms, but any kind of movement can help you feel a bit better, she said.
- You can write down coping mechanisms that have been helpful for you — calling a friend, or going for a quick run — and keep the list on your desk or on your dresser for when you’ll need them.
- Pay attention to what works for you, Dr. Gold said. “If you don’t like mindfulness, don’t force it,” she said. “Do the things that actually help you feel better in the moments when you feel bad.”