If you're feeling burned out, you should examine whether you have symptoms of depression, too.
That's one takeaway from a study of 1,386 U.S. teachers, recently published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences and reported in today's Wall Street Journal. The teachers who had high burnout symptoms reported more depressive traits than those with low burnout symptoms.
Though that may not seem surprising, it's a significant finding: In their abstract, the researchers note that burnout and depression are generally considered distinct conditions, both medically and by dictionary definition. These findings call into question the relevance of that distinction.
"The backdrop for the study is a widely held view that burnout and depression are separate entities," notes Dr. Irvin Schonfeld, co-author of the study and a researcher from City College of New York, in a public comment on the WSJ article. "My colleague Renzo Bianchi and I have evidence that they are not." Bianchi, the other co-author of the study, is a researcher at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.
In a nutshell, burnout is generally considered a condition of exhaustion; by contrast, depression is considered a psychological condition. According to the study, though, the hopelessness and helplessness usually linked to depression are symptomatic of burnout, too.
The researchers used questionnaires to assess the burnout and depression levels of the teachers. About 75 percent of the teachers were women. Most were in their early-to-mid 40s and had taught for an average of 14.4 years. Among those with burnout, severe depressive symptoms were reported by 50 percent of men and 38.2 percent of women. Moderately severe depressive symptoms were reported by 22.7 percent of men and 36.3 percent of women with burnout. Perhaps most tellingly, not one participant who reported burnout was free of depressive symptoms.
The key conclusion, Schonfeld and Bianchi told the WSJ, was that redefining burnout could lead to more effective treatment for those with burnout. As it stands, those with burnout are often less likely to seek help than those with depression. They think that rest is all they need, when in reality, they need medical and/or psychological attention.
Schonfeld added to this conclusion in another public comment on the article. "Getting the diagnosis right is important for at least two reasons," he wrote. "First, people who identify themselves as burned out tend not to seek healthcare. They may think they need a vacation; however, within two to three weeks of returning to work, symptoms are likely to re-appear. By contrast, people who identify themselves as depressed, tend to seek healthcare. Second, there is more high-quality research on treatments for depression than treatments for burnout. It is thus very important to get the diagnosis right. Getting the diagnosis right means getting the appropriate treatment."
The WSJ also noted a key caveat to the study: Burnout and depression were self-reported via the questionnaires. The participants were not assessed with clinical interviews, nor did the questionnaires explore whether the participants had histories of depression.