Workers and stress

Burnout vs Depression

What is the difference between « burnout » and depression?

Since the 90s, studies conducted at the Centre for Studies on Human Stress have demonstrated that cortisol has some interesting properties. This hormone is secreted by the body to generate changes that affect other hormones and it is particularly rapid at reaching the brain. Previously, researchers had never thought that a hormone could reach the brain.

As a steroid that easily passed through the blood-brain barrier, cortisol assesses the brain in about eight minutes. It begins by affecting the hippocampus implicated in learning and memory.

This allows us to demonstrate that when a person is exposed to cortisol over long periods, this hormone ends up modifying the capacity of the individual to detect and negotiate with novelty, unpredictability, and to have a sense of control.

After fifteen years of study, researchers have successfully found important patho-physiological differences between people who suffer from « burnout » and those who suffer from depression : individuals suffering from « burnout » do not produce enough cortisol, as if the body decided to go on strike. As a reversal, those who suffer from depression produce too much of it.

For specialists, this hormone is actually becoming a « biomarker » capable of detecting very early on people at high risk of developing « burnout » when the rate is decreased, while in a depression, the rate is increased. This « biomarker » could offer a differential diagnosis between « burnout » and depression and could potentially help weed out genuine cases. Here, it is important to note that if specialists are able to detect abuses, this would help people who truly suffer, since, in the long-run, it is them who pay too high a price.

The importance of precise cortisol detection

To determine its importance, researchers have studied a determinant number of individuals over a four-year period. The results they found demonstrated that those who produced too much cortisol have a hippocampus atrophied at 14%. In those who are exposed to this hormone for too long, we have also observed memory deficits.

Cortisol and presenteeism

Stress affects learning, memory, and our capacity to perform. Some attempts at the laboratory have demonstrated a cause and effect relation between cortisol and presenteeism. For example, the brain of a stressed person while they are participating in a clinical study in relation to activation of their brain is inhibited by stress. An inhibited brain evidently becomes unproductive.

Conclusion : How to treat detected cases?

There are three treatment possibilities : pharmacological drugs, social politics, and the power of knowledge.

a- Phamacological drugs

At the Centre for Studies on Human Stress, researchers and specialists are not in favour of using drugs. It is too easy to control this hormone. However, we do not believe that preventing stress should involve medications. Stress is generated by interpretations people make of their environment. Helping people to modify their perception of this environment is much more promising to halt the stress epidemic than is the administration of pharmacological drugs.  

b- Social politics

Scientific researchers can attempt to influence social politics by giving convincing arguments. However, the scientific community evidently favors the third voice, the power of knowledge.

c- The power of knowledge

A situation is stressful if it is interpreted as being so. If researchers help a person to recognize what is stress, this will undoubtedly have a positive effect. In fact, in teaching people to detect and to cope with stress, we think we can reduce this problem in individuals. Studies have demonstrated that if a person stays home long enough because they lack control, they will end up producing enough cortisol with long-term effects.

In order to modify the manner in which a person processes information, it must diminish their capacity to secrete too much cortisol. We have calculated that if such a project is efficient in only 10% of people suffering from the effects of stress on mental health, a net economy of one billion dollars per year would be generated.


La nécessité d’investir dans la santé mentale au Canada - See more at:
La nécessité d’investir dans la santé mentale au Canada - See more at: