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Explainer: What Burnout Is, What It Isn’t, and How to Recover

It impacts parents, nurses, doctors, and others in healthcare, as well as teachers, retail workers, and shift workers. It can also affect students and athletes. Individuals who have faced job transitions or other life shifts. Burnout can affect anyone and is not uncommon. Feelings of disconnection and depletion can also emerge for those in creative or knowledge-based fields who have high demands on their productivity, sometimes combined with low job stability.

Younger generations may be particularly susceptible to burnout, possibly linked to social and economic upheavals and pressures (such as the Great recession, COVID-19, and cost of living challenges). Author Anne Helen Peterson writes in her book Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation that millennials often feel uncertain and unstable. This constant feeling of uncertainty can lead the so-called “burnout generation” towards inescapable fatigue.

Hardly uplifting news. But there are ways to deal and cope with various burnout syndrome stages. First, figure out if your lack of interest and energy is due to burnout or depression. Once you identify the cause, you can start to take steps to feel better and recover from burnout.

Identifying Burnout or Depression

As defined by the World Health Organization, burnout is related to work and is considered an occupational, not medical, issue. Symptoms can be physical or emotional, and can include tiredness, cynicism, negativity, and lower productivity. The stages of burnout are distinct – often starting with a "honeymoon phase" of excitement of energy and then devolving to the onsets of stress, chronic stress, burnout, and habitual burnout.

The main difference between depression and burnout is that burnout is more likely to go away or at least be relieved by a day off, rest, or distance from the cause of your anxiety or annoyance.

Looking at the differences of compassion fatigue vs. burnout may provide answers on how to address your self-care and recovery. Compassion fatigue arises from caregiving responsibilities or interacting with individuals who have experienced trauma and taking on their emotional stress. Burnout is linked to more general occupational factors, like stress and overwork.

"Burnout is a serious issue that can affect individuals across all walks of life. It's crucial to recognize the signs early on and take proactive steps to address it before it escalates,” said Charissa Isaacs, LPC, Manager of Therapy with Array.

Burnout vs. Depression

Linked to emotional, social, and physical exhaustion.Involves low mood, sadness, and hopelessness.
Symptoms include lack of motivation, irritability, and mental fatigue.Symptoms include anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure), persistent sadness, and changes in appetite.
Often work-related but can affect any aspect of life.Can last for weeks to months with various types depending on severity.
Usually stems from prolonged stress or overworking without adequate rest or self-care.May not have a clear cause and can be genetic or circumstantial.
Managed by rest, self-care, setting boundaries, and seeking therapy or professional mental health support.Can be managed with psychotherapy and medication.
Typically does not interfere with functioning unless severe.Can lead to interference with functioning and suicidal thoughts.

Steps to Recover from Burnout

Burnout recovery stages can look different for everyone. You can take steps away from habits that may be keeping you in a cycle of burnout.

Identify and Address Triggers

If social media is interfering with your life and happiness, considering closing your accounts or setting a time limit by using an app. If work is affecting your wellbeing, explore ways to create boundaries, such as turning off notifications in the evenings.

Connect to Community

Reach out to friends and family and share what's been on your mind and how you have been feeling. Explore your neighborhood and take long walks. Connecting with your community and environment can be restful and energizing. Better yet, take a walk with a friend or mentor to combine the benefits of social support and immersion in the outdoors. 

Practice Self-Care that Suits You

While self-care is essential, it shouldn't feel like another task on your to-do list. Incorporate self-care practices that make you feel more like yourself and are not burdensome. Are there routines or hobbies that you have fallen away from? Try bringing them back in small ways. Take a few moments to listen to music, read, move your body, or do other accessible activities that bring you joy. 

Prioritize Sleep

Adequate rest is crucial for managing burnout and mental health. Sometimes, mental health conditions can be caused or exacerbated by poor sleep habits. Ensure you're getting enough sleep to alleviate symptoms or burnout.

Consider Employer Responsibility

Employers can also play a role in mitigating burnout by implementing strategies that support employee wellbeing, like inclusive and empowering management approaches, access to mental health support, and positive environments.

Seek Professional Support

Understandably, the above options are not always available and that is when you may want to seek external support for your mental health. If possible, connect with a mental health professional and start a cadence of appointments for professional support.

By gaining awareness and understanding the differences between burnout and depression, individuals can navigate through these challenges more effectively. If you are struggling to manage on your own, therapists and mental health professionals can help you find self-care practices that make you feel refreshed and energized.

"Building a strong support network and seeking therapy can be instrumental in managing burnout. Remember, you don't have to go through this alone," said Isaacs.


If you are or anyone you know is thinking about suicide, experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, or having any other kind of emotional distress, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline to reach free, live support

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If you are in crisis, call 988 to talk with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, text HOME to 741741 to connect to a free crisis counselor, or go to your nearest emergency room.