Understanding Workplace Burnout as Depression

March 7, 2019

Burnout is a popular buzzword. But new research by Professor Irvin Schonfeld shows that the condition is much more serious than many people think.

Whether it’s the struggle to achieve a living minimum wage, the problem of underemployment, or, conversely, being overworked, the phrase “burnout” has been circulating more and more as labor conditions decline.
Burnout is typically described as feeling emotionally exhausted as a result of poor working conditions, but Professor Irvin Schonfeld (GC/CCNY, Educational Psychology) argues that it actually correlates more strongly with depression and anxiety. And the distinction matters. He’s published extensively on the topic, including a recent article in Psychology, Health & Medicine that he co-authored with frequent collaborator Renzo Bianchi, and another forthcoming in Journal of Occupational Health Psychology with Bianchi and Graduate Center Professor Jay Verkuilen (Educational Psychology).
Schonfeld spoke with the GC about viewing burnout as depression, and why that’s so important.
Graduate Center: When did you see burnout start to garner greater attention among researchers?
Schonfeld: It’s been used before, but the first time that it came out in a social science-type journal, to my knowledge, was about 1974 by a man named Freudenberger. Then, after that, [Christina] Maslach started to conduct research on it; she and her colleagues developed a scale to measure burnout.
GC: It can sometimes seem that this is a matter of language: Someone calls it burnout, another calls it depression. What’s the need here to distinguish between these diagnoses?
Schonfeld: Maslach and others think of burnout as something separate from depression. Just being a skeptic by nature, I question that. When we focus on the core of burnout, which is emotional exhaustion, we get super high correlations with depressive symptom scales. When people go for help, sometimes they say they’re very tired and they don’t mention depression, but a good clinician will figure it out. Fatigue is really what Maslach is talking about when she talks about emotional exhaustion.
GC: And anxiety, too.
Schonfeld: Particularly, in the study that’s forthcoming, we use something called confirmatory factor analysis, where we can control for measurement error. When we do that, we get very high correlations in the .80s. The highest it can be is 1. Emotional exhaustion correlates more highly with depressive and anxiety symptoms than it correlates with [burnout symptoms] depersonalization or reduced accomplishment. What they’re calling burnout also colors your feelings outside of work, which is why I think it’s depression as well.
GC: Could it be said that it’s situational depression because it’s based on an experience of emotional exhaustion stemming from work?
Schonfeld: I recently published a book on work stress and health, and in the third chapter I look at how working conditions impact depressive symptoms and depressive disorders. It’s very clear that adverse working conditions have this impact. They make people feel really badly.
GC: It seems that if we’re able to identify that exhaustion as depression, rather than burnout, the treatment becomes clearer.
Schonfeld: Right. The implication is that if you’re suffering from burnout what you need is a vacation. I’m not against vacation, but it has a two-week half-life. When you come back, you feel good for about two weeks, and then whatever the working conditions are, they’re going to affect you. I want to add that although there are effective treatments for depression, it doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of trying to make working conditions less depressogenic. That’s the other part. Bullying at work is a terrible thing, and there’s quite a bit of that. It has a baleful effect on the mental health of the victim, just as you see in high schools. It’s so important to have good, reliable colleagues.
GC: Given that burnout is such a buzzword now, why do you think more people don’t talk about it in light of depression?
Schonfeld: It could be that burnout has less stigma than depression, so people may be more willing to admit to being burned out.