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Workplace Burnout Now a Syndrome, According to WHO

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Zephyr_p/Shutterstock
  • Proponents of the classification change say the move will bring awareness to burnout and work-related stress.
  • The WHO's new definition labels burnout as an "occupational phenomenon," not a medical condition.
  • Stress-management techniques can assist with burnout prevention.

A longtime problem in workplaces around the world received international attention earlier this week, as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced it would be updating its definition of "burnout" to align with other syndromes.

Revealed as part of the latest version of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the WHO defined burnout as an "occupational phenomenon" tied to "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." Employee burnout has long been considered a major issue for employers and employees alike, but it hadn't been recognized by the WHO until the release of ICD-10, which wasn't used by the international community until 1994.

In its announcement yesterday, the WHO said burnout can be determined through 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; and reduced professional efficacy." The organization specifies that burnout strictly deals with workplace stress, does not apply to other aspects of a person's life and is not a medical diagnosis.

According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout is "emotional exhaustion" that can come from a variety of factors, including a lack of control at work, unclear expectations, dysfunctional work environments, lack of social support and a poor work-life balance. It reports that you will be more susceptible to burnout if you "identify so strongly with work that you lack balance between your work life and your personal life; have a high workload, including overtime work; try to be everything to everyone; work in a helping profession, such as health care; feel you have little or no control over your work; or think your job is monotonous."

One of the biggest challenges when dealing with burnout is that there are no evidence-based guidelines for how to treat it. While everyone deals with stress differently, burnout can lead to more serious conditions if left unchecked, including physical exhaustion, insomnia, substance abuse and heart disease.

While the WHO says workplace burnout is not an actual medical condition, the Mayo Clinic offers multiple techniques to help you manage stress at work:

  • Consider your options. If your responsibilities at work are causing extreme stress, it may be time to discuss the problem with your supervisor. Once your supervisor is aware of the problem,¬†they may be able to offer a solution or help you better prioritize your tasks.
  • Find help. Reaching out for help from family members, co-workers or other people in your life can be tough, but it can help you cope with your stress.
  • Participate in relaxing activities. Sometimes, the best way to deal with stress is to just take a breather. Activities like yoga or meditation can calm your nerves and help you refocus on what's important to you, both professionally and personally. The key is to find something that calms you down and do it.
  • Be more active. Physical exertion can also be a great way to distract your mind from your workplace challenges. Whether it's a sport you enjoy, a trail you like to walk or a hobby that gets you moving, exercise can release some much-needed endorphins.
  • Get some rest. Getting a full night's sleep is important, whether you're experiencing burnout or not. Sleep is your body's way of replenishing itself, so getting enough of it can help you hit the reset button.
  • Be mindful. When stress gets the best of you, it's easy to lose your cool. When that happens, the Mayo Clinic suggests focusing on your breathing and "being intensely aware of what you're sensing and feeling at every moment, without interpretation or judgment."

Other coping strategies you can use to manage stress and combat burnout include setting goals for yourself and disconnecting from devices and social media.

Andrew Martins

Andrew Martins is an award-winning journalist with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Ramapo College of New Jersey. Before joining Business.com and Business News Daily, he wrote for a regional publication and served as the managing editor for six weekly papers that spanned four counties. Currently, he is responsible for reviewing tax software and online fax services. He is a New Jersey native and a first-generation Portuguese American, and he has a penchant for the nerdy.

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