Occupational Burnout Will Be an Official Syndrome

September 17, 2019
Occupational burnout is about to become an occupational disease. The WHO is all too aware of the toll it can take on people nowadays. Read on to learn more!

Occupational burnout syndrome (or just burnout syndrome) was begging for more attention. Now, the WHO is giving it the official classification it deserves. It’s going to go from being a medical condition to an occupational disease. That’ll really help workers, giving them more rights in terms of leave and disability.

But not everyone is happy about the news. Some critics view it much differently. Considering “burnout” a mental illness caused by a bad job, a toxic work environment, or an exploitative boss is a reminder of another critical aspect to this.

We won’t solve widespread worker burnout simply by medicating people or giving them time off. The problem will only go away if we get to the root cause: working conditions or all the problems we listed above.

But it’s totally understandable that the WHO would want to take this step and reclassify such a widespread mental health issue, as it’s a good thing. It just needs to be a first step, not a last one. We need it to be a step towards greater awareness.

Yes, it’s important to have better support systems and medical resources for workers, but the root of the problem isn’t with the worker. It’s the nature of the job market.

Despite the controversy and the skeptics, we still think it’s good news. At the end of the day, it’s a first step towards change, and a recognition of an irrefutable fact. That fact is that far too many jobs are causing extreme exhaustion and stress and destroying people’s well-being.

According to WHO, mental exhaustion occurs when the demands of a job far outweigh the rewards, recognition, and downtime.

A lit match burning out.

Occupational burnout or emotional exhaustion syndrome

Occupational burnout syndrome is going to be in the next International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) published by the World Health Organization (WHO). That’ll be in 2022 and it’ll have a section for “associated problems” related to employment and unemployment. It’ll go by the code QD85.

That means the new classification will take effect in a few years. But it’s a start towards recognizing a reality that didn’t officially exist before or was at least vague and imprecise.

  • Until now, syndromes related to chronic work-related stress were part of a much hazier classification.
  • That definition was in serious need of a stronger link to the working world. That would be the only way for it to help workers get leave and disability time and put the spotlight on an undeniable social reality.

In fact, the statistics seem to suggest that occupational burnout syndrome is already an epidemicChristina Maslach, professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the world’s leading experts in occupational exhaustion.

She began to study this topic in the 1970s. But the problem has only worsened since then. The other issue is that occupational burnout can be an absolutely devastating syndrome. It chokes away ambitions, optimism, and people’s sense of self-worth.

The high cost of occupational burnout syndrome

Dr. Armita Golkar at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden conducted a study in 2014. Her findings were very telling. She discovered that the emotional exhaustion and negativity caused by work-related stress can actually change a person’s brain. 

  • The impact of this is similar to childhood trauma. Parts of the brain such as the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex put people into a constant state of alarm, anxiety, and, in some cases, post-traumatic stress.
  • But that’s not all. Occupational burnout can even lead to heart disease. Many people also report experiencing musculoskeletal pain, prolonged fatigue, headaches, digestive problems, insomnia, depression, and a wide range of other conditions.
  • There’s another factor you have to keep in mind as well. Work-related exhaustion and stress can be caused by any type of job. This syndrome can happen to doctors, factory workers, prison guards, cashiers, nurses, and teachers. No one is safe from it.
An exhausted doctor with occupational burnout syndrome holding her head in her hand.

What will this new classification do?

The new classification in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) in 2022 will say that three symptoms need to be present mi orden to diagnose this occupational disease: 

  • Feelings of extreme exhaustion.
  • Constant negativity and anxiety.
  • Decrease in performance.

Based on that, what the WHO is trying to do with the new classification is:

  • Shed more light on occupational burnout syndrome and try to get some real figures for a condition that has been severely underdiagnosed until now.
  • Shine a spotlight on work-related psychosocial aspects.
  • Establish better working conditions and protect workers from stress caused by being overworked, given impossible schedules, and the decreasing stability of the job market.

This is why we consider this classification a positive step. But we shouldn’t just use it like a bandaid. Like we mentioned at the beginning of this article, there’s no real point to giving workers leave and making therapy available to them if they have to go right back to the same working conditions and practices afterward.

  • Angerer, J. M. (2003). Job burnout. Journal of Employment Counseling. American Counseling Association. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-1920.2003.tb00860.x