Burnout is now a medical condition, proving your work exhaustion is a legit health issue

ByTebany Yune

"Burnout" — the long-term, absolute, and total exhaustion a person feels due to non-stop stress in the workplace — has mostly been used in association with millennials, but perhaps not for much longer. Thanks to a new decision from the World Health Organization (WHO), a United Nations agency that focuses on promoting global health, burnout is now an international health issue that can be recognized and treated with the same severity as other conditions that contribute to poor health of people worldwide.

As reported by CNN on May 27, the WHO plans to include workplace burnout in the 11th version of its International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-11). The ICD serves as a guideline for determining medical conditions and health problems that's used by medical professionals all over the world, and the new classification for burnout will be seen in the edition that's out on January 1, 2022.

Written in the ICD-11 as "burn-out," the entry for the condition describes it as resulting from "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." The WHO defines burnout not as a problem that hits you for a short moment — it has to be something that persists and lingers over a long period of time. So a day or two of stress won't qualify, but months or years of intense damage will.

The ICD-11 lists three elements that make up burnout:

  1. Constantly feeling exhausted or 'empty.'
  2. Feeling distant, cynical, and/or negative about your job.
  3. Reduced productivity.

According to the Mayo Clinic, these elements can cause other issues like fatigue, insomnia, and extremely altered moods. These problems, and burnout as a whole, can affect both a person's mental and physical health, as they increase the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and alcohol or substance abuse.

According to a 2018 Gallup report, approximately two-thirds of full-time U.S. employees feel burnout from their workplace. These people are 63 percent "more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job" than their peers, per the report, as well as 23 percent "more likely to visit the emergency room."

In the same report, Gallup found that the primary cause for burnout isn't the employee's high expectations for themselves — it's poor management. The report listed five factors that often contribute to burnout:

  1. Unfair treatment at work.
  2. Unmanageable workloads.
  3. Lack of clarity about the employee's role.
  4. Lack of communication and support from the manager.
  5. Unreasonable time limits and pressure.

The WHO warns that the characteristics of burnout shouldn't be confused with symptoms of other conditions, such as ones associated with anxiety or fear, mood disorders, and adjustment disorders. According to the ICD-11, the primary difference between burnout and the other disorders noted is the direct connection between burnout and a person's workplace. At this time, the WHO lists burnout as a health condition that's caused only by a stressful workplace environment, not any other aspects of life such as a person's home life or social interactions.

With burnout becoming so commonplace, The Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace now encourages employers to take steps to prevent burnout in employees, such as providing clear expectations and ongoing training and support, enforcing reasonable work hours, and setting realistic expectations for deadlines and goals. The organization also suggests companies consider creating recovery plans for employees suffering from the condition that focus on recognizing their victories and successes. Even discussions about areas of improvement can help show burnt-out employees that they have support from their managers.

As for the employees themselves, self-care is key when trying to recover from burnout — or avoid it completely. Regular exercise and minimal use of alcohol and caffeine can keep you physically prepared against any sicknesses looking for a weakened target. Setting boundaries for yourself at work can also help; be confident in saying "no" to your manager, try to avoid unnecessary overtime, regularly recognize your own accomplishments, and stay connected with friends and family outside the workplace.

As CNBC notes, the addition of burnout to the ICD-11 shows that the WHO is taking important steps to recognize the mental health problems that can come from unstable work environments or employee mistreatment. But the frequency of burnout shows there's clearly more work to be done, and so if you find yourself feeling more stressed than usual and need some help, don't be afraid to reach out to a doctor and take some necessary time for yourself.