Burnout vs. Depression

I am a lawyer coach who specializes in helping professionals deal with attorney fatigue, lawyer burnout and lawyer depression.

The terms burnout and depression are different but are often confused because of context. Burnout is simply a descriptive term applied in the vernacular for situational depression caused by stress. The term depression is technically a medical term caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. These imbalances are commonly caused by heredity or severe trauma, either physical or emotional. 

The symptoms of burnout and depression are practically identical. Mental and physical exhaustion, inability to cope, physical or emotional isolation and overeating often hallmark both conditions. Burnout is usually attributed to work and the result of stress and overwhelm caused by lack of training, supervision or rest. 

Burnout can be avoided by proper training, nutrition and rest. Clinical or chronic depression must be treated by drugs or even electroshock treatment. Stressors may or may not contribute to clinical depression but are not necessary. 

In 2004, I experienced burnout depression and was forced to quit my career as a trial attorney in order to avoid a nervous breakdown. I experienced all of the classic symptoms of situational depression – exhaustion, isolation, mood swings, poor nutrition and lack of sleep. My therapist told me that given all of the stressors in my life, she would have been more concerned if I wasn’t depressed. It was not a medical condition, but an inability to cope. 

Ultimately, burnout describes the feeling of exhaustion caused by stress overload and work-related depression. Because the symptoms of situational depression and medically caused depression are so similar the terms have become interchangeable. However, there is a difference.