Burnout is now a real medical condition

Burnout isn't just an hazard of modern life, it's now a medical diagnosis, with the World Health Organization adding the condition to its official diagnostic manual. The update affects the ICD-11, the eleventh revision of the International Classification of Disease that the WHO uses to document diseases and more.

"QD85" is a new section on burn-out that has been added in the latest edition of the ICD-11. A subcategory of "problems associates with employment or unemployment," it focuses specifically on work-based stress.

Diagnosing burnout

"Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed," the WHO writes. According to the ICD-11, there are three primary characteristics. They're the factors that healthcare professionals should be using to make their diagnosis.

First, there are "feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion." Second, there's "increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job." Finally, "reduced professional efficacy" is the third characterization.

Not all feelings of being overwhelmed count as burn-out, however. In the ICD-11, the diagnosis is solely around "phenomena in the occupational context" the WHO points out, "and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life." If you're stressed at home by your family or kids, for example, then your problem might fall under a different category.

Slotting a new syndrome into the Classification always requires some shuffling with existing conditions, of course. In this particular case, a burn-out diagnosis could be excluded if the subject has an adjustment disorder, a specific stress disorder – which could be more overarching than just occupational stress – or anxiety, fear-related, or mood disorders. As ever, it comes down to the individual healthcare practitioner to make the final call.

Is it burnout or something else?

Part of the reason for burnout to take so long to arrive as an official classification has been the uncertainty around differentiating it from other conditions. Certainly, there's no question that anxiety and stress around employment can manifest itself. However researchers have disagreed on aspects such as whether burnout was a cause or a symptom of depression and other factors.

That uncertainty trickled down into workplaces, and has left both employers and employees unclear on how to deal with burnout. Differences in reacting to work challenges, too – and the variations in how people handle the stress that can come with that – also makes a blanket diagnosis of burnout problematic.

It can be easy to mistake for another problem, too, with the physical symptoms of burnout potentially blurring a diagnosis. Anything from headaches and migraines, through to gastrointestinal disorders, hypertension, and sleep disturbance can be side-effects of burnout. It can also lead to greater susceptibility to other illnesses, such as infections like the flu.

Similarly, the best ways to treat burnout can be controversial. According to the American Psychological Association, self-care is the most effective way to address the condition. That includes being mindful of potential stress triggers, and then putting into place new workflows – which could be as straightforward as scheduling a five to ten minute break after a meeting or appointment that is likely to cause anxiety – to help defuse some of the symptoms.