Burnout vs. PTSD: What's the difference?

by Alexis Collins — September 15, 2021


Burnout is being cited as one reason that a record number of people are leaving their jobs in what is being called the Great Resignation of 2021. However, there is considerable overlap between the symptoms of burnout and PTSD. Both disorders have seen a steady increase in their diagnosis over the past few years. So how can you tell if the symptoms you’re experiencing are caused by PTSD or Burnout?

What is Burnout?

According to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), burnout "...is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed". In other words, burnout is an illness that results from prolonged work in a highly stressful environment causing extreme physical and mental exhaustion. The five leading causes of burnout are 1. Unfair treatment at work, 2. Unmanageable workload, 3. Lack of role clarity, 4. Lack of communication and support from the manager, and 5. Unreasonable time pressure. A Gallup poll from 2018 found that about two-thirds of all full-time employees experience burnout, and professions in medicine, law and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) are most likely to experience burnout.

What is PTSD?

The American Psychological Association describes PTSD as a psychiatric condition characterized by intense, prolonged psychological distress caused by having one or repeated exposures to a traumatic event(s). A traumatic event includes directly experiencing, witnessing, or learning of an event that can cause death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Examples of traumatic events include, but are not limited to, natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat, or rape.

What is the difference?

The significant differences between burnout and PTSD are:

  • The presence of a traumatic event. To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must experience a traumatic event, whereas this is not the case with burnout.
  • Onset. PTSD is known as the disorder of stalled recovery. Experiencing PTSD symptoms is normal after a traumatic event. However, an individual can only be diagnosed with PTSD after these symptoms have persisted for at least one month following the traumatic event. Whereas, the onset of burnout happens gradually after months of periods of prolonged chronic stress.
  • Causes. PTSD is caused by witnessing, experiencing, or hearing about a traumatic event, whereas burnout is caused by work characteristics such as workload.
  • Medical Classification. PTSD is characterized as a disorder whereas burnout is labelled as a syndrome. Both disorders and syndromes are medical conditions, however, a disorder is deemed as a higher level of analysis. According to the DSM-V for a condition to be considered a disorder it must 1. Significantly affect an individual’s functioning or level of distress and 2. Can be accurately described and diagnosed 3. Must be significantly different from the disorders already classified in the DSM.

Are they mutually exclusive?

No, burnout and PTSD are not mutually exclusive. For one, a person diagnosed with PTSD can also be diagnosed with burnout and vice versa. Both disorders often co-occur with other illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Burnout can predict and worsen the development and severity of PTSD. Both disorders can harm our interpersonal relationships.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of burnout and PTSD are distinct, but there is some overlap. Depression, depersonalization, anxiety and feelings of negativism or cynicism are symptpms of both burnout and PTSD.


What to do if you suspect you might be experiencing burnout or PTSD?

  • If you believe that you may be suffering from burnout or PTSD, you should speak to your family physician. They will refer you to the mental health professional that is right for you.
  • You can try using online mental health resources such as connexontario.
  • Participate in research studies to help develop new resources and further understand PTSD.