In what could be a game-changer for the workplace, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently designated burnout as a medical disorder.
Burnout, as defined by the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) — WHO’s handbook to guide medical providers in diagnosing diseases — is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” A diagnosis may be made if someone shows one of 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
For many stressed-out workers, this will be met with sighs of relief and nods of “yeah, we knew that.” Others will invariably see this as yet another sign of a “soft” generation that turns everything into a disease to be treated with medication. Somewhere between the assurance that the medical community gets it and the dismissive “here we go again,” there are real challenges created by moving burnout out of the category of an occupational hazard into the realm of a diagnosable syndrome.
Some of the obvious questions that are sure to arise include:
- Who is most likely to get it?
- Is it contagious?
- Is there an antidote?
- Does it count as a disability?
The mental health field routinely describes burnout as one end of a continuum of responses to work overload. Trainings, books, manuals, etc., preach both prevention and treatment. Like many other mental health concerns, burnout has been a moving target — often self-diagnosed and then confirmed by a therapist after listening to an exhausted worker describe the job from hell. The prescription will usually be a combination of quality time away from the office, supporting the development of appropriate boundaries and developing the resiliency muscle.
Acknowledging burnout as a disease opens a Pandora’s Box that most weary workers would just as soon keep the lid on — what do I do if my job is killing me? Previous generations of workers saw no distinction between stress and hard labor. The Protestant work ethic guaranteed heavenly rewards to those who toiled and abhorred idleness. When the work culture shifted toward the self-fulfillment model, workers began to calculate the cost of one’s career by more earthly measures of satisfaction, monetary gains and access to free time.
One of the fallouts of the new work paradigm has been a grail-like quest for the stress-free job that ends not with a medical condition but the contentment of a hammock swinging in the breeze — retirement. Certainly one of the contributing factors to “increased mental distance from one’s job” is the habitual retreat to one’s “happy place” when the new job turns out to have old problems.
One has to wonder if, in response to the disease of burnout, all workplaces will have to post a Surgeon General’s warning: “Quitting your job now greatly reduces serious risks to your health.” Perhaps there will even come a day when an enterprising pharmaceutical company creates a patch that helps wean one off the need to work for a living. Until that time, many struggling workers will simply add burnout to the ever growing list of personal ailments that come with aging, along with hair loss, weight gain and the desire to watch cable news.
The future treatment model for burnout remains unclear at the moment. What is certain is that going cold turkey from work, in the absence of hitting the lottery, is not an option for most workers. Perhaps the solution lies, as is so often the case, in the middle ground of treating stress symptoms as they arise, redefining career success, replenishing energy reserves through meaningful leisure activities and refusing to feed the spiral of cynicism.
As an employee-assistance professional who daily hears from stressed-out workers from all walks of life, I applaud WHO for drawing attention to what I often see and hear on a regular basis. Undoubtedly, this will assist those who have long searched for a way to frame their work experience. Whether or not this leads to organizations shifting their focus from their product to their people remains to be seen. Encouragingly, the current trend toward worker-engagement surveys suggests that the age-old adage of “a happy worker is a productive worker” is alive and well. And it just got a big shot in the arm from health professionals.