WHO classifies burnout as ‘occupational phenomenon’ related solely to work

WATCH: Here are the three warning signs of burnout

The World Health Organization is now including burnout as an official medical diagnosis.

The syndrome was officially added to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) during the World Health Assembly in Geneva.

Doctors have been increasingly using the term to refer to people who suffer from chronic stress, doctors told Global News previously.


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Having burnout classified as an “occupational phenomenon” internationally can help doctors diagnose it.

The WHO characterizes the symptoms with three main dimensions, including:

  • 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

Dr. Shimi Kang is a Vancouver-based psychiatrist and frequent speaker on the subject of workplace and mental health. She said the classification will help destigmatize the condition, and “really helps people validate what they’re feeling.”

“We can fix a bone, we can do surgery, we can get antibiotics. But our biggest battle in health care is getting people to live a healthy balanced lifestyle,” she said.

A classification of burnout from the WHO will go a long way to help people prioritize mental health.

“The more that we can live a human life… We actually see better bottom lines at the workplace,” she said. “We see better workplace culture, less absenteeism, less presenteeism. So I hope the workplace does take this seriously.”

(Presenteeism is the practice of working while sick.)

WATCH: How to recognize the signs of burnout at work

A 2018 Gallup poll found that nearly a quarter of Americans reported feeling burned out at work either “very often” or “always.”

“Burned-out employees are 63 per cent more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job,” the poll states.

“Even scarier, burned-out employees are 23 per cent more likely to visit the emergency room.”

Doctors have said specific symptoms of burnout include chronic fatigue, weight gain or loss of appetite, emotional exhaustion including anxiety and depression and a drop in productivity.

A Harvard study conducted in connection with the Massachusetts Medical Society found that burnout was widespread in doctors, saying nearly half of all physicians experience burnout and that it appears to be getting worse.

Canadian data showed a similar issue.

WATCH: New study shows Canadian physicians experiencing burnout, depression

A study from the Canadian Medical Association released in last 2018 showed that a growing number of physicians are feeling symptoms of the condition. Twenty-six per cent of respondents said they experienced burnout and 34 per cent reported symptoms of depression.


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But the WHO also says the syndrome is related “specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Kang said she was a bit concerned about linking burnout to work, because people who don’t traditionally have a workplace can also experience burnout.

“Stay at home parents who are juggling a lot, students are definitely burned out. I’ve seen all of that in my practice,” she said.

In previous versions of the ICD, burnout had been classified as a lifestyle problem rather than a work-related problem.

The new list, ICD-11, is to take effect in January 2022.

Along with burnout, the ICD-11 also added video game addiction as a condition.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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