A guide to deciphering the fuzzy line between stress, burnout, and depression.

By Kylie Gilbert
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If you haven't muttered the words, "I'm so burnt out," lately, well, lucky you. It's become such a common complaint it's practically a #humblebrag. But what is ‘burnout' really? How do you know if you actually have it, or if the daily grind is just getting to you (aka, nothing a little R&R can't fix)? And how do you know when it's full-blown depression you're suffering from?

Here, an explanation of the relationship between stress, burnout, and depression.

What Is Burnout?

"People like to use the word ‘burnout' freely, but real burnout is a serious, life-altering problem because it means you either can't do your job effectively anymore or can't find any enjoyment within it," says Rob Dobrenski, Ph.D, a New York-based psychologist who specializes in mood and anxiety conditions.

Experts haven't determined a clear definition for burnout yet, but it's generally described as a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged work-related stress. In addition to your job being a poor fit or your work-life balance being off, burnout can also come from a lack of success, progress, or growth at work, says Dobrenski.

And while the concept first emerged in the 1970s, it's still debated and has not yet been classified as a distinct condition in the bible of official disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

Is it Burnout—or Just Stress?

While burnout may be the end result of too much stress, it isn't the same as too much stress, according to Helpguide.org, a partner of Harvard Health Publications. Stress causes you to feel like your emotions are in overdrive, but burnout produces the opposite effect: You may feel "empty, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring."

If you feel a sense of urgency to get work responsibilities and pressures under control, it's probably stress. If you're feeling helpless, hopeless, and powerless? It's likely burnout.  According to Dobrenski, here's a quick way to tell if you've ventured into burnout territory: If you go away on a weeklong vacation and find yourself recharged when you return to work, you're probably not suffering from burnout. If within hours or days you're feeling the same way? It's a serious possibility.

How to Tell When Burnout Turns Into Depression

If you're thinking the definition of burnout sounds eerily similar to depression, you're not alone. This is exactly what a recent study in the International Journal of Stress Management sought to determine. What researchers found was pretty staggering: Of 5,000 teachers, 90 percent that the researchers identified as "burned out" also met diagnostic criteria for depression. And last year, a study published in the Journal of Health Psychology (the first to propose a DSM-referenced symptom comparison between burned-out workers and depressed patients) found a massive overlap of symptoms, including sleep change, fatigue, and anhedonia—the inability to find pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable.

While the symptoms of depression and burnout may look similar, there are still key differences. If you perk up outside of the office when you're doing other things, it's likely burnout rather than depression, says David Hellerstein, M.D., professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and author of Heal Your Brain: How the New Neuropsychiatry Can Help You Go from Better to Well. There's also a distinct line when it comes to treatment: The prescription for burnout might be simply be to get a new job, but a new office environment or interesting career opportunity may not help someone who is depressed feel better, says Dr. Hellerstein.

Changing your career may sound dramatic, but recovering from burnout does require some sort of behavioral change—either within the job you already have, from something outside the job, or a balance of the two, says Dobrebski. Think of it this way: "If you're unable to bench press 200 pounds, you have to get someone to help you lift it, or change the amount of weight. If you keep pushing, it gets harder and harder to lift that weight because your muscles are worn out," Dobrebski explains. Burnout progresses in a similar way—the more you avoid dealing with it, the worse it will get. And if someone can't escape their situation or find relief outside of work? This may cause them to develop chronic depression over time, says Dr. Hellerstein.

How to Prevent Burnout

Just because you're starting to feel true burnout doesn't mean you can't avoid the slippery slope. "The best treatment for burnout is prevention," says Dr. Hellerstein. That means prioritizing your emotional and physical health, and continuing the search for that elusive ‘work-life balance.' Here, a few tips to combat the daily stress that can lead to burnout:

  • To revitalize your enthusiasm for work, it's important to be assertive (not be to confused with aggressive), says Hellerstein. That means actively finding ways to explore new projects and tasks that are of most interest to you. (Try 10 Ways to be Happier at Work Without Changing Jobs)
  • Even if you aren't as emotionally or intellectually stimulated at work as you'd like to be, find something you're passionate about outside of work, says Dobrenski.
  • Burnout is contagious, so distance yourself from negative peers and find ways to be motivated by inspirational coworkers, advises Dr. Hellerstein. (Are You Suffering from Secondhand Stress?)
  • And of course, be sure to prioritize sleep, healthy eating, and exercise, Hellerstein adds.