How to differentiate burnout from depression and acute stress


Burnout and depression can look very similar. Both are often characterised by feelings of fatigue and low energy, sleep disturbances, feeling sad and distressed. But unlike burnout, depression is a psychiatric diagnosis with symptoms which have a global impact – not limited to occupational context. Depression is potentially a severely debilitating condition, affecting many areas of the person’s life.

As Toker and Biron (2010) point out:

How to differentiate burnout from depression and acute stressCompared with depressed individuals, individuals high in job burnout:

  • Make a more vital impression and are more able to enjoy things (although they often lack the energy for it);
  • Rarely lose weight, show psychomotoric inhibition, or report thoughts about suicide;
  • Have more realistic feeling of guilt, if they feel guilty;
  • Tend to attribute their indecisiveness and inactivity to their fatigue rather than to their illness (as depressed individuals tend to do);
  • Often have difficulty falling asleep, whereas in the case of depression one tends to wake up too early (Hoogduin, Schaap & Methorst, 1996 )’

“Quote Source: Toker, S. & Biron, M. (2012). Job Burnout and Depression: Unraveling their Temporal Relationship and Considering the Role of Physical Activity. Journal of Applied Psychology. 97(3). 699-710.”


Burnout may be the consequence of long term stress, but it is different from being under extreme stress.

Stress is characterised by the following

  • Feelings of over engagement
  • Emotions are overactive
  • Produces urgency and hyperactivity
  • Loss of energy
  • Leads to anxiety disorders
  • Primary damage is physical
  • May kill you prematurely

Burnout in comparison is characterised by the following:

  • Feeling of disengagement
  • Emotions are blunted
  • Produces helplessness and hopelessness
  • Loss of motivation, ideals, and hope
  • Leads to detachment and depression
  • Primary damage is emotional
  • May make life seem not worth living
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