More Than Burnout? 4 Ways Mental Health Issues Can Mask as Work Stress

For many workplaces, burnout is a common problem. It can attack employee productivity, heighten stress levels, and lower work quality. However, sometimes what looks like a case of being overworked may be something a little more serious.

Mental health in the workplace is a real concern. Taking steps to prevent burnout can certainly help, but it’s important to recognize when things have progressed beyond what a vacation can solve. Moreover, burnout and significant mental health issues often exacerbate each other. For example, a recent study demonstrated that while burnout has a significant association with depressive and anxiety disorders, they are each different and robust constructs.

While they frequently go hand in hand, simple burnout may be treated with a vacation or change in workload, while issues like depression might need intense therapy and can’t be addressed by a workplace manager.

What Is Burnout?

Before we get started, let’s look at what burnout is. Burnout is a form of mental exhaustion that stems from work-related factors. Long hours, uncomfortable workspaces, and lack of appreciation are all issues that can cause burnout.

Employees suffering from burnout can have several symptoms. A sudden decrease in productivity, unusual irritability, feeling detached from work, or appearing to “space out” in meetings can all be indicators of burnout.

While no business is burnout-proof, there are steps you can take to limit burnout. Offering rewards and recognition, reducing workloads, and adequate time off can help to manage and treat burnout in the workplace. Additionally, ergonomic solutions can help make employees more comfortable in their environments which can help to reduce burnout.

What Is Mental Health?

Your mental health includes all aspects of emotional well-being, as well as mental disorders and other aspects of your non-physical health. Burnout is a mental health condition! However, most mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or issues like bipolar disorder, must be treated by a mental health professional, usually through various types of therapy or medication.

In the same way your body can get sick, your brain can “contract” mental illnesses. Each year, roughly one in five adults will experience some form of mental illness. If you’re on a team of five or more, it’s likely that someone on your team has struggled with their mental health.

How Burnout Can Hide Mental Health Issues

As a specific mental health condition, burnout can share symptoms with more serious mental illnesses. Knowing the difference between them can be imperative to creating a positive work environment and creating a plan for yourself.

High-Functioning Depression

Sometimes people struggling with depression don’t always fit our stereotypes. Those with High-Functioning Depression struggle greatly, but appear to put on a brave face and have less noticeable symptoms. Because of this, it can often be mistaken for less significant disorders, like burnout. Symptoms include:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Lack of energy
  • Insomnia, or sleeping too much

Learning to recognize these symptoms can be vital to helping someone who is struggling. It’s easy to see how these symptoms can be confused with burnout.

Social Anxiety

Social anxiety, especially in a workplace that has a strong culture of community or working in person, can seriously affect productivity. Frequently, it mimics the way burnout causes social withdrawal or irritability.

Typically, younger people suffer from social anxiety, and it is less likely to develop in the same way other disorders or burnout do. These signs would likely be apparent for an extended period and may have onset before an employee was hired.

However, there are steps you can take to make your workplace more inclusive for people struggling with social anxiety. Allowing workers to have their cameras off in video calls, being conscientious and specific when presenting feedback, and setting clear guidelines and expectations can all help mitigate anxiety for employees.

Major Depressive Disorder

Major depressive disorder, or clinical depression, is what most people think of when they hear “depression.” And, the signs of depression are much more pronounced in people suffering from major depressive disorder than those with high functioning depression. Unfortunately, severe cases of depression can lead to suicidal thoughts.

Sometimes, significant bouts of burnout lead to an employee becoming depressed. This affects all aspects of their life and is much more significant than work exhaustion. If an employee had been suffering from burnout and wasn’t getting better after treatment, it may have morphed into depression.

It’s important to note that depression is more than just feeling sad. It is a mental illness that can significantly impact one’s health. Therefore, treatment from a mental health professional is imperative for someone suffering from depression. You can’t just “snap out of it.”

Chronic Stress

Burnout deals with acute stress, as it relates to a specific stressor like your job, a specific project, or poor management. Chronic stress, however, is more all-encompassing and may need more than some time away to take care of it.

Chronic stress is characterized by incessant feelings of pressure and being overwhelmed, which leads to an inability to focus, aches and pains, social isolation, and insomnia. The differences between chronic stress and burnout can be subtle. As the name implies, chronic stress can last for a long time. It may have initially come from a period of burnout.

Managing chronic stress requires comprehensive treatment. Lifestyle changes, medication, and therapy are all options and are frequently used in conjunction with one another.

How to Recognize the Difference

This is not a comprehensive list of all mental health disorders. There are others that can present similarly to burnout, and as we’ve covered, many of them can come from untreated cases of burnout.

If removing the source of initial burnout stress doesn’t improve mental health, it’s likely not burnout. On top of that, keep in mind that your coworkers and employees can help you to recognize behavior that could indicate burnout.

Lastly, be mindful in the way you discuss and approach cases of burnout. Create a culture where everyone feels valued, and make sure you’re adequately managing everyone’s workload. Encourage healthy work-life balance for people on your team, and make sure they feel comfortable talking about burnout and taking time for themselves when they need it.

Final Thoughts

While burnout is a mental health condition, it can usually be managed in the workplace. However, more serious conditions can sometimes appear to be burnout but need much more significant treatment plans. Mental health issues can feel personal, and some people might not feel comfortable sharing when they’re struggling. Creating an environment where mental health conversations are valued can help employees to prioritize their wellness and thrive in the workplace.

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