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I’ve had many people share that they have had burnout.
I’ve had many people share that they have experienced episodes of depression.
I’ve also heard how those who believe they have burnout were told by their employer they are depressed, and those who believe themselves to be depressed told they are suffering from burnout.

Confusion reigns and the symptoms of each are very similar, but there is a difference and the reason this is important, is because the management of each differs.

Depression. It’s a leading cause of disability globally. One in five adult Australians is at risk of developing a mental health disorder in any given 12 months. In corporate Australia, the statistics are even worse with one study reporting one in three workers from across a range of industries is suffering from some form of mental illness. Of these 36% were diagnosed with depression, 33% had anxiety and 31% were suffering from unsustainable work stress.

The diagnosis of depression is made by a health practitioner based on a history of long and sustained intense low mood that may also be accompanied by suicidal ideation, disturbed sleep, appetite and loss of energy. It can be associated with life events or personal factors. It may have a familial component and is more common in chronic “worriers”, those with low self-esteem, perfectionists and those who take a more negative view on life.

Burnout was reclassified by the World Health Organisation in 2019 as an occupational syndrome resulting from exposure to chronic unmitigated work stress resulting in extreme physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and reduced performance.

It is estimated that 5-7% of the working population are affected.

The biggest red flags to your risk of burnout include being a perfectionist and or workaholic, while early research also found that those identified as being most psychologically sound, competent and resilient had a higher risk of burning out compared to those with less “robust” constitutions! Diligence, competence and emotional stability does not necessarily provide protection.

There are three components to the development of burnout

1. Overwork is the biggest menace, especially when it has been embraced into being the “norm” for a workplace culture. The pressure of always working, not being able to switch off, feeling exhausted from the perpetual task of continuing to deliver without the reward of pausing to celebrate completion is dangerous. While burnout is one outcome, death from overwork, called Karoshi by the Japanese is associated with a higher risk of heart attack, stroke or suicide.

2. Increasing frustration with the growing sense that you’re missing out on the other important aspects of your life, like being able to attend your children’s sports day or being able to get to the dentist, take an ageing parent to a doctor’s appointment, or even to get to the shops. This can lead to a growing indifference to what you do. Those in the caring professions feel less empathetic to the needs of their clients and begin to actively dislike work, lowering their level of contribution and commitment.

3. Despair eventuates when there appears to be no end in sight to the monotony, where each day brings dread and increasing difficulty in managing tasks which would normally be handled without any problem. Sleep disturbance, loss of appetite, headaches and extreme fatigue make every day a trial.

The two can co-exist

Depression does not cause burnout. Burnout does not cause depression. They do however not infrequently overlap which is where confusion can arise. Similarly, anxiety and panic disorder can also co-exist with burnout.

In the management of depression, an antidepressant may be prescribed for moderate to severe cases. Psychological intervention is frequently recommended because the journey to recovery can take time and it’s important to ensure the person with depression remains safe and has sufficient support. Time away from work may be considered if necessary, but many people with diagnosed depression are able to continue working.

With burnout, this may entail a significant amount of time away from work during the recovery phase to allow energy levels to be restored and the psychological components dealt with. This is the time to address overwork and other job-related stresses including toxic relationships with colleagues or the boss.

Both may also include stress management strategies, resilience training and cognitive behavioural therapy.

When burnout becomes contagious

We all handle our different stressors differently. There is no right or wrong here. However, while burnout is frequently described as what affects an individual, the reality may be that an underlying workplace pressure-cooker environment is putting susceptible individuals at risk, especially if the leader themselves is under excess work stress with their maladaptive behaviours resulting in increased mental distress and stress in others.

Self-care is imperative, meaning assuming self-responsibility in granting permission to put into place those aspects of lifestyle that are supportive of your wellbeing. But, if the prevailing wind around you is one of negativity and pessimism, it’s hard to stay on track no matter how many yoga classes you attend or loaves of sourdough bread you make.

Nurturing a positive workplace environment keeps everyone safe

This is where effective leadership comes into its own. In addition to promoting mental wellbeing and psychological safety, having a burnout prevention strategy reduces the risk of losing competent and capable staff, boosts resilience and self-awareness, and creates a culture founded on care, empathy and encouragement.

Burnout and depression are not necessarily one and the same. Both are destructive to wellbeing and both need to be addressed and preferably prevented by having a mental wellbeing and burnout prevention strategy in place.

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.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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