What is the Difference Between Burnout and Depression?

S Sen. NEJM 2022; 387: 1629-1630. Is It Burnout or Depression? Expanding Efforts to Improve Physician Well-Being

Key points:

  • “This growing attention has helped to reduce the stigma associated with burnout, highlighting the health care system, rather than the individual, as the primary driver of the problem.”
  • What is burnout? “One review identified 142 different definitions of physician burnout in 182 studies.3 …the most commonly used is the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which assesses continuous scores for three domains: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced sense of personal accomplishment.”
  • There is a lot of overlap with depression especially with emotional exhaustion. However, depression is still stigmatized as due to individual weakness. “Work-related stress is the primary driver of depression among physicians. A stark illustration of this dynamic is the fact that the prevalence of depression among training physicians before they enter residency is similar to that among young adults in the general population, but depression rates quintuple immediately after residency begins.”
  • “Whether burnout is meaningfully distinguishable from depression, the argument that depression and burnout are caused by fundamentally different precipitants is unsupported by the evidence to date”

My take (borrowed from the author): “Crucially, identification and treatment of depression can help reduce the risk of suicide among physicians. Unfortunately, when we encourage clinicians to consider themselves burned out rather than depressed, they tend not to seek or receive the individual-level interventions that can improve well-being.”

Related NPR Story (11/11/22): Study: Mindfulness-based stress reduction works as well as a popular anxiety drug. This report is based on the following reference: