Psy-Q: What is the difference between burnout and depression?


A growing body of research suggests that burnout and depression are closely linked, and perhaps should no longer be described as two separate conditions (as they have since the 1970s when burnout syndrome was first defined).

Renzo Bianchi, PhD, Ambizione Researcher (SNSF) at the Institute of Work and Organizational Psychology, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, called the distinction between burnout and depression “untenable” in his study looking at the overlap between the two conditions. In his analysis, he found that burnout dimensions correlated more closely with depression than with each other (see additional perspectives in our weekly roundup).

Here, Dr. Bianchi discussed the relationship in more detail with Psycom Pro.


Psycom Pro: Can you talk about the shift in thinking about burnout and depression as distinct to considering burnout as a depressive condition?

Dr. Bianchi: Researchers have increasingly realized that the logic, etiology, and symptomatology of burnout are fundamentally depressive in nature. In fact, the reason for considering burnout a non-depressive entity has never been very clear. The arguments invoked have generally been weak. For instance, the view that burnout is a social phenomenon whereas depression is an individual phenomenon is difficult to understand.

Indeed, both burnout and depression can be studied from either a social or an individual standpoint. Ironically, burnout has always been assessed based on individual symptoms. In a similar vein, the argument that burnout is a different phenomenon because burnout is job-related falls short: Depressive symptoms can also develop in response to job stress. At an empirical level, in-depth research and the use of increasingly sophisticated analytical techniques have allowed researchers to understand that burnout and depressive symptoms are reflective of the same thing.

Psycom Pro: What work needs to be done to change the perception of burnout as a separate entity?

Dr. Bianchi: It is crucial to understand that depressive symptoms do not arise out of nowhere. In individuals with no identifiable vulnerability to depression, depressive symptoms constitute basic responses to situations of insurmountable adversity (also known as unresolvable stress). Depressive symptoms are, in fact, very common. We probably need to demystify depression. It is not a phenomenon that would only affect some “intrinsically weak” individuals – whatever that means. Even the most resilient individuals have their limits. If the degree of adversity that you encounter in your (work) life strongly exceeds your defense and coping abilities, depressive symptoms are to be expected.

Psycom Pro: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected work-related stress, burnout, and depression?

Dr. Bianchi: The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of work-related stress, burnout, and depression has been highly heterogeneous. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased work-related stress, burnout, and depression in certain occupational groups and not at all in others. In some occupational groups, the COVID-19 pandemic has even resulted in a decrease in work-related stress, burnout, and depression [including among mental health professionals]. A variety of factors come into play, such as the basic nature of your job, your sector of activity, the flexibility of your organization, your personal situation (eg, can you work at home in a calm and supportive environment), or your personality (eg, are you an anxious person). There is no “one-size-fits-all” conclusion here.


Last Updated: Dec 17, 2020