Burnout Classified as Legitimate Clinical Syndrome by World Health Organization

Office burnout
Office burnoutPeopleImages / Getty Images

Everyone knows the taxing feeling of being burned out from work. Debilitating headaches, mental fatigue, difficulty concentrating—it’s an overwhelming feeling that’s hard to shake. As such, the World Health Organization just released new guidelines defining burnout as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” in an updated version of the International Classification of Diseases, or ICD-11, NPR reports. It’s also classifying burnout as a clinical syndrome, legitimizing it for the first time.

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Previously, the WHO had defined burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion,” but the updated language is much more specific. Under the new definition, burnout has three aspects: exhaustion and low energy levels, cynicism or “increased mental distance from one’s job,” and lowered productivity and efficacy in the workplace.

In addition, it’s defined as a work-specific syndrome, unrelated to experiences or feelings outside of the office. The WHO guidance stops short of calling burnout a medical condition, and advises that anxiety, mood disorders, and other stress-related issues should be ruled out before diagnosing someone with burnout.

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Experts say the new language is a step in the right direction. Torsten Voigt, a sociologist at RWTH Aachen University in Germany whose studied the issue, told NPR that the prior definition “was kind of this weird in-between ‘you’re not really sick, but you’re not fully capable of doing your work.’”

This update makes clear that burnout is something to take seriously: “People who feel burnout are finally fully recognized as having a severe issue,” he said.

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Elaine Cheung, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University, told NPR that she’s hopeful the WHO update will show employers they need to step up to help prevent burnout. That includes things like building a sense of community at work, assigning manageable workloads, and making sure employees have a good work-life balance.

“I think a lot of people have a lay definition of what burnout may be,” she said. “But I think by highlighting the specific facets of burnout—my hope is that it might create greater awareness.”

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