Burnout has many definitions, but they all point in the same direction: too drained by responsibilities to keep up with responsibilities. However, feeling drained isn’t always a result of your responsibilities. Therefore, this feeling isn’t always due to burnout. You could be exhausted for other reasons, or just tired of life.

So how do you know if you’re actually burned out at work, or if there’s something else causing your lack of energy?

What’s the difference between being burned out, depressed, exhausted, or tired of life?

Burnout is defined by its connection to work and responsibilities. According to the Mayo Clinic, many people are quick to label their experience as burnout, but when you look closer, work isn’t always the cause of feeling burned out. So, another label for your symptoms might be more appropriate.

According to a publication featured on PubMed, a database maintained by the National Institutes of Health, being burned out isn’t a clear-cut medical diagnosis. For instance, burnout symptoms are known to overlap with depression symptoms. Both burnout and depression involve feeling drained, but there are also other reasons you might feel this way – like being plain exhausted or tired of life.

To distinguish between burnout and other labels for your experience, we have to look at the root cause of how you’re feeling.

Depression vs burnout

While many acknowledge the overlap in burnout and depression symptoms, author Ashley Abramson cites research on the root similarities between burnout and depression: “Depression and burnout symptoms can look a lot alike. Natalie Dattilo, PhD, a psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, says they’re usually both driven by a sense of helplessness. Both burned-out and depressed people often feel ineffective, like they can’t gain traction — that nothing seems to be working, no matter how hard they try to get out of a slump.”

To differentiate between depression and burnout, take a look at your timeline.

  • Has this happened before?
  • Were you working at the same pace last time this happened?
  • Have you felt this way at a time without any work stress?
  • Do your symptoms get worse when you experience family drama, rejection, a breakup, or any other emotional events?

If your answer to any of the above is yes, then you might be in a depression pit rather than burned out. You may be able to beat depression without help, but most people need support through the process – whether that’s medication, therapy, peer support, or the presence of a friend.

Exhaustion vs burnout

Are you burned out because of your responsibilities at home? Or, have you been running down your social battery with friends and events? The most accurate label for this might be exhaustion.

Emotional or physical exhaustion can leave you feeling burned out – completely lacking energy, sleepy, less talkative, wishing you didn’t have to keep up. Whereas typical burnout often leaves you unable to keep up, exhaustion doesn’t usually keep you from maintaining responsibilities.

If you’re burned out at work, the quality of your work usually declines, and you might drop the ball on responsibilities. However, if you’re exhausted by family life for example, you usually have the capacity to continue picking up your kids, feeding them, etc. If you’re exhausted by social life, you may choose to attend fewer events, but the exhaustion doesn’t usually cause complete withdrawal.

If you do experience total withdrawal or an inability to function after social exhaustion, it’s possible you’re an introvert. It’s also possible that you’re experiencing autistic burnout, which is separate from regular burnout.

Being tired of life vs burnout

Sometimes you feel burned out because you’re tired of life. Being tired of life often involves:

For assistance with each of these symptoms, click the list item for a downloadable self-help worksheet.

Burnout in the traditional sense

If neither of the above options explains your symptoms, you might be experiencing burnout in the traditional sense – related to work. The Mayo Clinic lists the following indicators as signs of burnout. So, if you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, you are likely burned out or burning out, whether you want to admit it or not.

  • Have you become cynical at work?
  • Is it hard to get out of bed, into the office and engaged with work first thing in the morning?
  • Have you noticed you are more irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Have you found yourself with less energy for productivity and struggling to concentrate?
  • Have you felt less or a complete lack of satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Have you noticed that your job is less fulfilling than you thought it would be? Are you feeling let down by it?
  • Have you begun using drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel or think about work?
  • Have your sleep habits changed?
  • Have you experienced unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?

If you are experiencing burnout, don’t feel guilty. Psychology Today explains that few burnout victims see it coming until it’s too late. And good news, there is a silver lining: if you identify signs of burnout early enough, you can reverse the downward spiral.

Could you be burned out but struggling to accept it?

77% of participants in a study by Deloitte say they have experienced employee burnout at their current job. And more than half say it has happened more than once. 

Whatever, though, right? You hear about people burning out all the time. Surely, it couldn’t be happening to you, because…

  • You are too young and too early in your career to be burned out. Also,
  • You care deeply about the mission of your company and you know your role is crucial to its success. Or maybe….
  • You have always been incredibly motivated and driven, and…
  • You have finally landed your dream job, the one you’ve been working towards for so long.

It could be happening to you.

Of those surveyed by Deloitte,

  • 84% of millennials say they have experienced burnout at their current job as opposed to 77% of all respondents. And nearly 50% of millennials say they’ve left a job specifically because of burn out, compared to 42% of of all respondents.
    • Takeaway: If you’re a millennial, burnout is way more likely.
  • 87% reported being passionate about their current job, but 64% say that they are frequently stressed — and therefore not immune to burnout.

According to The Mayo Clinic, you are much more prone to burnout if you identify so strongly with work that you lack balance between your work life and your personal life. Your risk also goes up if try to be everything to everyone at work.

We know the drive to push, strive, and do all you can to succeed. We also know the feeling of pride that can come from pouring your body, heart, and soul into work.

But working extremely hard towards your dream job, and even landing it, may put you at higher risk for burnout at the end of the day, as we see in this article published by Forbes.

I’m still not sure if I’m burned out or if it’s something else. What can I do?

If you’re still not sure how bad your symptoms are or how to label them, test yourself to see where you fall on the burnout continuum. 

Try some of these suggested tests to both give yourself a break, and to better understand the severity of your burnout:

Test 1: Treat yourself to a relaxing and stress-free weekend… 

Treat yourself to a relaxing and stress-free weekend (or any consecutive 2-day period where you can cut off from work and anything in your life causing stress entirely). That’s right: no emails, calls or even texts. Remember, your one job (no pun intended) is to avoid stress entirely for two and a half days.

  • Sleep in both days
  • Eat well. 
  • Keep yourself busy with relaxing activities you enjoy…read, write, go to yoga, cook, get your nails done or have lunch with friends. Enjoy and treat yourself!

After these two and a half days, if you wake up dreading work, and are finding yourself unable to get out of bed – you probably aren’t just exhausted and in need of a little break. You, my friend, are burnt out. 

DON’T PANIC. Here’s another test to determine just how severe your burnout is:

Test 2: Take two weeks off

Don’t stress, take a deep breath. You’ve earned the vacation time that you likely haven’t been taking because work has been just too busy. Or at least that’s what you’ve been telling yourself. The rules are same as before! 

  • Eliminate all stressors
  • Add stress reducers
  • Get in a routine
  • No unhealthy emotional or physical exhaustion
  • Try to get at least 8 hours of sleep a night
  • Eat at least 3 (ideally healthy) meals a day

If you still feel the same after two weeks, your burnout may be pretty extreme (or you may want to consult a doctor about an underlying issue). 

Moving forward

No matter how you define your experience, depression, exhaustion, and burnout all impact your quality of life!

To recover from being so drained, it’s time to reevaluate your current lifestyle. You need to reflect on what changes you could make to help yourself recover. Maybe you need to sit down with your manager and set boundaries to help you maintain a better work/life balance. Perhaps you can make changes to your lifestyle or relationships.

Whatever the technical label for your symptoms, the fact is that feeling drained and exhausted affects both your physical and mental health.

Just remember, no matter how hard you work or how many hours you dedicate to friends and family, no one can do a good job when running on empty. Not forever, and if you made it here, likely not for much longer.