Stephen Porter had not been feeling like himself for quite a while. He had lost the will to get off his couch, whereas watching television, a happy pastime, now lacked the joy it once enumerated.
Like a hamster on the wheel, Porter found himself stuck in an endless cycle of work, to the point where he was consumed by a wave of exhaustion and simply had no strength left to read any more emails or take calls. He feared his inbox chime.
It was like running on empty, being on autopilot every day
“It was like running on empty, being on autopilot every day,” 45-year-old Porter, a British expat in the UAE, said. “I would get text messages from people at work and I would take on their worries, their anxiety. I was exhausted but I couldn’t sleep.”
Porter’s experience, turns out, is common and shared by many.
Marianne Sarcich, a 57-year-old American who runs cancer support groups in Delaware, US, described undergoing similar feelings of burnout.
Things began to unravel for Sarcich when her work environment became stressful recently. She felt like her colleagues did not seem to understand her.
I don’t have depression that I know of, but I was having these symptoms, anxiety and extreme exhaustion. I was taking triple naps a day and I wasn’t even sick.
“I felt like a nuclear bomb, and I was afraid that I might just completely shred them [her colleagues],” Sarcich said. “I don’t have depression that I know of, but I was having these symptoms, anxiety and extreme exhaustion. I was taking triple naps a day and I wasn’t even sick.”
The turmoil of emotions and acute exhaustion birthed a sense of “hostility” in Sarcich, she said, ultimately pushing her to take some time off work and distance herself from everything for a while.
Residing not far from Sarcich and sharing similar feelings is Christie Lynn Wright, a 32-year-old pursuing a PhD in organisational psychology, who described similar experiences of burnout.
“I experience burnout and fatigue on a regular basis,” the mum of two, based in Delaware, US, said. “I constantly feel that I don’t have the energy or motivation to do things, I just want to sleep and I am tired all the time.”
It's always a question of what it is that I am facing, is it just burnout or is it depression? I am always trying to figure out where I am on that spectrum
Feeling perplexed by these bouts of exhaustion, Wright has often found herself questioning if these waves of burnout are signaling something more serious, such as depression.
“It is always a question of what it is that I am facing, is it just burnout or is it depression?” she said. “I am always trying to figure out where I am on that spectrum.”
The exhaustion, when it hits, is all-consuming. You don’t feel like getting up and the most trivial tasks seem gigantic. You want to go out with your friends and family but somehow fail to muster the energy. You fumble for the right words to explain what you are feeling to others and yourself.
How do you know if this wave of weariness signals a case of burnout or full-blown depression?
The term burnout was coined in the 1970s and is primarily based around the workplace, said Tess Pereira, a licensed organisational psychologist and public health consultant based in the UAE.
Burnout is not a clinical diagnosis as opposed to depression and considered more of an “occupational hazard”, according to Pereira. The key distinction between burnout and depression is that burnout can be remedied by taking yourself out of the situation and temporarily stepping away from work whereas, with depression, there tends to be no bounce-back effect.
Depression can be constant and last over a prolonged period. There is a continued feeling of isolation, sadness, and hopelessness. People with depression experience anhedonia, the inability to enjoy the activities they once treasured.
Anhedonia: Knowing the difference
When we are burning out and we go take a holiday or spend quality time with our friends and families... we feel better. For people in depression, it doesn’t do much for them. You can put all these amazing external features in front of them but their state of mind is not able to manifest the stimuli and they just feel flat.
“When we are burning out and we go take a holiday or spend quality time with our friends and families, we feel replenished, we feel better,” Pereira said. “For people in depression, it doesn’t do much for them. You can put all these amazing external features in front of them but their state of mind is not able to manifest the stimuli and they just feel flat.”
An important way to identify if you are merely burnt out at work or suffering from depression is to look at the “spread and duration” of your burnout, said Dr Stevie Grassetti, a licensed clinical psychologist and the Director of Psychological Services and Training Center at the University of Delaware, US.
There is a bit of a difference between the sense of feeling temporarily burnt out and stressed in one context like work versus feeling down and sad nearly every day and having difficulties across settings because the feeling is so overwhelming.
“I would look at how much this burnout from work is spreading to other parts of your life and making it difficult to do things that you care about,” Grassetti said. “There is a bit of a difference between the sense of feeling temporarily burnt out and stressed in one context like work versus feeling down and sad nearly every day and having difficulties across settings because the feeling is so overwhelming.”
It is common for people to feel stressed at work, especially now with workers returning to office after more than a year of remote work. Stress activates the fight-or-flight hormones in our bodies. The adrenaline levels rise, cortisol rushes through our veins, and the serotonin decreases, which may cause our bodies to shut down.
It is important to note that constant feelings of stress and burnout can lead to depression.
Issues at the workplace such as workload, competing demands, and an unreasonable boss can leak into the rest of your life, propelling burnout towards depression. If steps such as taking time away from work, creating a more manageable work schedule, slowing your pace, and even receiving some leeway from your boss are not altering your feelings or helping you escape the exhaustion, your burnout might be turning into depression.
At times like these, you must seek professional help and identify what you are feeling. Pereira explained a few ways to make this distinction and how to cope with it.
Tips on how to cope
Depression is a slow burn and happens over a continued period. People with depression may sleep too much or too little and may struggle to focus. Their attitude may completely change and they may isolate themselves from others; they may feel like it takes a lot of energy to shower or eat.
Depression can induce an overwhelming feeling of sadness and hopelessness. In severe cases, people with depression may start having thoughts that they are worthless, or that life is not worth living. These symptoms tend to last for at least two weeks, Pereira said. As opposed to burnout, depression doesn’t go away if you change your circumstances.
In both burnout and depression, it is vital that you seek the help of a mental health professional. Popular solutions like taking a day off work or going on a vacation to ease your feelings are easier said than done and demand a privilege that not many possess, especially now that companies are announcing massive layoffs to cut down costs.
There are, however, smaller ways that may offer a reprieve from your symptoms. Consider turning off notifications from your work email at certain hours; try doing something relaxing for 10 minutes after attending a strenuous zoom call.
Try practising mindfulness — calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, and deep-breathing exercises for a few minutes every day to decompress and unwind. Your brain needs a break from the constant stimuli, which means stepping away from screens and giving yourself a few moments of quiet, alone with your thoughts, without distractions.
More importantly, you need to practise self-empathy and identify who your people are, your core, those who give you strength, Pereira explained.
Keep those who care for you close
“When we are upset or under stress, we are looking for a connection, you may not want to share anything with them but you know that someone is watching out for you and caring for you,” she said.
You can make a list of similar coping mechanisms that work for you, calling a friend or family member, listening to your favourite song, or going for a run, and keep that list on your office desk or kitchen table for whenever you may need it.
Pay attention to what works for you and reach out to a mental health professional who can develop a plan to treat and address your feelings.
- The writer is a journalist based in the US.