Job Burnout and Depression

If you are experiencing job burnout you know how painful it can be. But it does not have to be that way; there is a way out.

There are three common and avoidable mistakes people often make that keeps them feeling overwhelmed, stressed-out, and headed for burnout.

I have developed a free online course that can help you understand and avoid continuing to make these mistakes. To learn more and to register for the course, click here.

Burnout is not the same as depression. But the two are closely related.

The relationship between burnout and depression is not a simple one. It is complex and multi-directional. That is…

  • burnout can contribute to depression (Maslach, 1982)
  • depression can contribute to burnout (Glass et al., 1993)
  • both burnout and depression can be related to some other factor (Glass et al., 1993; Sears, 2000)

Other problems that may result from and also contribute to burnout include physical and medical problems, other psychological problems, increased use of alcohol and drugs, poor self-esteem, a sense of failure, dislike of people, conflicts in relationships, irritability, suspiciousness, paranoia, frustration, and apathy. (Maslach, 1982)

As you can see, job burnout can take a heavy toll. It’s not fun to be burned out.

What is job burnout?

Job burnout is a condition that involves three clusters of symptoms:

  • emotional exhaustion
  • depersonalization
  • reduced personal accomplishment. (Maslach, 1982)

Burnout can be a viscous downward cycle.

Emotional exhaustion is the experience of feeling drained of all energy or all used up. When people begin to experience emotional exhaustion they may try to reduce the emotional stress of working with other people by detaching from others. They commonly begin to maintain an emotional distance from others.

This detachment can be expressed by an indifferent attitude toward others. People experiencing job burnout may have hostile, critical interactions with others. It is also common for a burned out person to view others as objects or numbers. Withdrawing from others is a frequently response.

Another common response to burnout is for the burned out person to try to reduce his or her workload. This may be done by avoiding work, absenteeism, doing the bare minimum when at work, not doing certain tasks that are experienced as more stressful and spending more time doing other tasks that are considered less stressful.

These responses often result in a decline in job performance--both work quality and work quantity can suffer. The person experiencing job burnout then feels guilty for the poor work performance. The self-critical attitude that develops further contributes to the emotional burden and increases the job burnout.

What causes burnout?

Originally, burnout was thought of as a problem experienced by those who have a people-helping job. Such jobs include teachers, police officers, doctors, nurses, psychologists, lawyers, store clerks, customer representatives, receptionists, and so on. Even a parent can be placed in this category. After all, the mom and dad’s job is to help their children.

The symptoms of burnout were believed to result from the interaction between the helper and the person receiving help. (Maslach, 1982)

Additional research, however, has found that job burnout not only occurs in people-helping situations, but also is experienced in other stressful jobs. (Leiter & Robichaud, 1997; Posig & Kickul, 2003) In fact, one study found that the symptoms of job burnout did not vary across several different occupational groups including human service work, industry related jobs, and transport related jobs. (Demerouti et al., 2001)

When job demands are high, burnout symptoms increase--especially the emotional exhaustion component of burnout. (Bakker et al., 2003) Emotional demands and workload demands both contribute. (Vegchel et al., 2004)

Other factors have also been found to relate to high levels of job burnout--these include...

  • experiencing traumatic events on the job (van der Ploeg et al., 2003)

  • confusion, conflict and ambiguity related to job role (Posig & Kickul, 2003)

  • risk and safety factors (Leiter & Robichaud, 1997)

  • being undermined by a supervisor--or believing that the supervisor has undermined you (Westman & Etzion, 1999)

  • low levels of social support (Brown & O’Brien, 1998)

  • inadequate job resources (Lee & Ashforth, 1996)

What helps burnout?

Lower levels of job burnout have been found to relate to social support.

One powerful source of support is supervisors. When supervisors give positive feedback to supervisees concerning their skills and abilities, the supervisees tend to experience less burnout. (Russell et al., 1987) Also, employees experience less burnout when they believe that they are supported by their organization. (Armstrong-Stassen, 2004) Support from colleagues has been found to relate to lower burnout as well. (Ross et al., 1989)

The support does not have to just come from job related sources, however. Research has found that support from family can be very important in relieving burnout--even more important than supervisor support. (Baruch-Feldman, 2002)

Vacations have also been found to reduce burnout. The impact is very short term, however. After the employee returns to work the burnout symptoms return very quickly. (Westman & Eden, 1997)

Doing another type of work for a brief period may be beneficial, as well. In one study reservists who were called to active service experienced a decline in stress and burnout as a result. The more detached they were from their jobs during the period of active service the more relief from burnout they experienced. (Etzion, et al., 1998)

One of the most hopeful and encouraging research finding is that a person can reduce job burnout by coping in an effective and healthy manner. One study found that less burnout is experienced by those who are confident in their ability to handle problems and to tolerate stress. (Elliot, et al., 1996) Believing one’s stressful situation has meaning and is of value has been found to relate to low levels of stress as well. (Pines, 2004)

Active, task oriented coping has been found to relate to lower burnout. (Armstrong-Stassen, 2004; Maslach, 1982) Maslach explains that people can do much to cope effectively and to, thus, reduce burnout.

Some coping techniques that are helpful include maintaining a balanced life with appropriate boundaries, keeping one’s job in perspective, setting realistic job related goals, varying routines, taking breaks, resting and relaxing, taking care of one’s self, being aware of the positive, coping with feelings.

Here is an interesting video of a psychologist talking about the impact of burnout on the people he works with.

For a list of references sited in this article, click here.