“Burnout” – a Medical Syndrome

The World Health Organization (WHO) has officially recognized burnout in its 11threvision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD). The WHO has defined burnout as a medical syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

The decision was made at the World Health Assembly in Geneva and will come into effect on the 1st of January 2022. The World Health Organization has said that the 11th revision of the ICD, named ICD-11, has been “updated for the 21st century and reflects critical advances in science and medicine.”

As a condition, burnout has been subject to a lot of debate, as some medical professionals believe that other conditions such as mental health conditions anxiety and depression lead to burnout, meaning that it is not a condition of its own.

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger is responsible for the first formal studies of burnout with a scientific paper published in 1974, according to a 2017 literature review carried out by researchers Linda and Torsten Heinemann.

From their literature review, the Heinemanns found that despite hundreds of studies investigating burnout over the following 40 years, it was not considered a mental disorder. The researchers say that this was in contrast to the fact that burnout is “one of the most widely discussed mental health problems in today’s society.”

“Vagueness and ambiguity” are just one of the reasons that burnout has only just been recognized as a legitimate medical condition in 2019.

According to their review, this ambiguity stemmed from a large portion of research on the condition focussing on the causes and “associated factors” of burnout instead of developing diagnostic criteria.

Now, burnout is defined as a type of stress specifically related to the workplace and a person’s job, and symptoms should not extend into other areas of a person’s life.

However, burnout caused by a person’s job can significantly affect physical and mental wellbeing and anyone who believes they may be experiencing burnout is advised to speak to a healthcare provider for support.

Diagnostic criteria for job-related burnout

If a patient gives positive answers to a certain set of questions, it can indicate that they are experiencing job-related burnout. These questions can include:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  • Do you have trouble getting started?
  • Do you use food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
  • Do you lack the energy to be productive?
  • Do you feel irritable or impatient with co-workers and customers?

Other symptoms can include unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, changes in sleep pattern, and a range of other physical problems.

A lack of control around scheduling, workload, or the resources to carry out your work effectively can contribute to burnout, as well as dealing with unclear job expectations, poor workplace relationships, a poor work-life balance, or an over-abundance or lack of stimulation.

Some consequences of work-related burnout can include high levels of stress, fatigue, heart disease, high blood pressure, and even type 2 diabetes.

It is believed that those most at risk from burnout are those who do not maintain a good work-life balance, those who have a very high workload, and those working in professions that require staff to care for others such as healthcare.

2018 systematic review of the prevalence of burnout among physicians found that out of a cohort of 109,628 participants, overall burnout prevalence ranged from 0 to 80.5 percent.

It also found that the ways in which burnout was measured differed greatly and as such the prevalence estimates were subject to high variability, although this review did highlight the “importance of developing a consensus definition of burnout”.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said that this is the “first time” that burnout has been given a place in the ICD, and is now included in the ICD’s section on conditions related specifically to employment and unemployment.


World Health Organization (WHO) Press Release. World Health Assembly Update, 25 May 2019. who.int/news-room.


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