World Health Organizations Declares Burnout An Official Medical Condition


In the latest update of its catalogue of diseases and injuries around the world, WHO defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognised burnout in its Internal Classification of Diseases (ICD). This classification is widely used as a benchmark for diagnosis of various conditions.

This decision was reached during the WHO Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland – which concludes on Tuesday, May 28 – this also displays the progress of the medical community in defining what exactly burnout is.

In the latest update of its list of diseases and injuries, WHO defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

It said the syndrome was characterised by three symptoms:

– feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

– increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job

– reduced professional efficacy.

“Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life,” says the classification.

The changes from the last edition are relatively small, but experts are hopeful that the updates will add legitimacy to an emerging and misunderstood problem.

Included for the first time in the ICD’s tenth edition, burn-out was initially explained as a “state of vital exhaustion”. The international agency’s new definition is a little more fleshed-out.

Drawing on a growing body of research, the eleventh edition now claims that this syndrome is due solely to “chronic workplace stress” and “should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

The modern ailment is chaptered-up with several other “problems associated with employment” that are not technically considered illnesses, but can nevertheless have serious medical repercussions.

Here’s how the WHO characterises burnout: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

The parameters of burn-out are in desperate need of clarity, and these new international standards could greatly improve diagnosis and treatment. Currently, there is no neat or universal way to tease out symptoms of burn-out from symptoms of other mental health conditions, such as depression.

Within certain people-oriented professions, the norm is to be selfless and work for others, but it isn’t long before the demands of altruism take their toll. Far from being an excuse for laziness, WHO’s own research suggests that burn-out occurs when the demands of a job far outweigh the rewards, recognition, and times of relaxation.

As a result, workers who are burned out often feel like their ambitions, idealism, and sense of worth are slowly being strangled. The losses from this syndrome are not simply financial, and they could have a large impact on public health.

Some research has shown that the profound emotional exhaustion and negativity brought on by burn-out can actually change a worker’s brain, making it harder for them to deal with stress in the future.