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Mental Health Matters: Is It Stress, Burnout, or Depression?

Is it Stress, Burnout, or Depression Photo 3
By Sarah Noll Wilson and Dr. Teresa Peterson

First, let us be extra explicit here: we’re not medical professionals. Depression is a clinical diagnosis, and we’re not in the business of diagnosing anyone. The following piece contains original thoughts and perspectives pulled from our lived experiences and observations from our work with the amazing teams we serve. 

We encourage you to consult a trusted care provider if you think you might need additional support. 

Have you been feeling off lately? You’re not alone. Together, we’re continuing to navigate the implications of a multi-year pandemic that’s changed how we live and work, the social/political heat that seems to rise every day, and all the complexities that go with simply being a human in relationship with other humans.


We hear a lot of words thrown around to describe this overwhelm and swirliness. Are you stressed? Are you burned out? Are you depressed? What’s the difference, how do you know, and what do you do about it once you find out? Specificity is important because when we’re honest with ourselves about where we’re at, we can take more definitive positive action, whatever that may be.

Stress is a common experience defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as: “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation. Stress is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives. Everyone experiences stress to some degree. The way we respond to stress, however, makes a big difference to our overall well-being.”

We know that there’s healthy stress and unhealthy stress. We also know that some people perform better under a fair amount of stress, processing it as energy and momentum. For others, that same amount of stress could feel the opposite of productive. Understanding where you fall on the spectrum and how to navigate your unconscious stress responses can help you move forward. To do that, try listening to The Impacts of Stress On Your Body and Brain and reading The Stress Responses: Understanding The Five Major Stress Responses and Their Impact on Workplace Behavior.

Burnout, according to the WHO, is “an increased mental distance from one’s job, feelings of energy depletion and negativism, and reduced professional efficacy” as well as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

And its numbers are on the rise. 

In this age and pace of work, taking active steps to help teams mitigate and avoid burnout is a radical and important act. Managers and leaders are at the nexus of this burnout challenge. If yours is a company that says it’s committed to taking care of its people, that means being willing to look at burnout as an outcome and to reimagine your systems so that they work better for humans.

What is your relationship with work and burnout? Are you in the honeymoon phase, the healthy coping phase, the numbing phase, the exhaustion phase, or full-on habitual burnout? Learn all about the different stages (and more) by reading  The State of Leadership Burnout Today: A White Paper. 


Depression, according to the WHO, is “characterized by low mood or loss of pleasure or interest in activities for long periods of time” and is “different from regular mood changes and feelings about everyday life.” Some of those symptoms can feel similar to those of too much negative stress or the exhaustion or habitual stages of burnout, but we know that depression is a disorder, not a moment.

This is an oversimplification, but it’s a helpful lens as we consider this larger question: Say you feel like you need a break, so you go vacation. Or maybe you even change your current job because of the negative stress or feelings of burnout. In that case, the stress or burnout generally won’t come with you immediately when you change your environment. If you’re depressed, though, those symptoms will follow you. 

(And again, we’re not medical professionals. Please contact a trusted healthcare provider if you need support.)

What’s Next?

For more honest discourse on mental health, listen to A Conversation on Our Mental Health Journey or browse our dedicated mental health category of blog posts, which touches on everything from intrusive thoughts to stress responses to why it’s time to end the 40 hour work week.

 | Website

Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.

Dr. Teresa Peterson
Director of Learning and Development | Website

Dr. Teresa Peterson is the Director of Learning and Development for Sarah Noll Wilson, Inc. In her daily work, she serves as Sarah’s key content collaborator. Teresa enjoys facilitating, researching, and is passionate about applying best practices for learning to make our experiences meaningful, engaging, and accessible for all types of learners. Teresa holds a Doctorate in Education from the University of Northern Iowa and brings over twenty years of experience teaching, facilitating, and leading to our team. Our clients love Teresa’s grounded energy, depth of thought, and ability to listen deeply.

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