Burnout is now an official medical diagnosis, says the World Health Organization

Your brain fog at work now may warrant medical treatment. Here's how to tell.

Amanda Capritto
4 min read
Can I get a moment to breathe?

Most professionals, regardless of industry, have felt it: Fatigue, lack of focus, trouble completing minor tasks and chronic stress.

In today's workplace culture that values "hustle" over all else, burnout has become commonplace -- so much so that the World Health Organization (WHO) deemed it an official medical diagnosis. Here's why that matters and what it means if you're suffering from burnout.

Read more: 7 signs you have burnout -- and how to fix it

What is burnout?

Feeling completely overwhelmed at work? It's like burnout. This condition is now classified as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed," in the WHO's International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) under "Problems associated with employment or unemployment."

This classification marks a big step in treating workplace-related stress and other health complications.

Even though researchers have called it "one of the most widely discussed mental health problems in modern societies" and noted the prevalence rate of up to 69% in some groups, such as medical professionals, burnout lacked a true diagnosis until May 2019.

Now, people who experience burnout can get medical assistance and counseling to help manage their symptoms.

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How will doctors diagnose burnout?

According to the WHO, the official diagnosis for burnout includes:

  1. "Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  2. Increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  3. Reduced professional efficacy"

The WHO clarifies that before diagnosing burnout, doctors must first rule out other conditions, including:

Additionally, physicians, psychologists and other diagnosing professionals must limit a burnout diagnosis to work environments, and shouldn't apply it to other situations, such as relationships or family life.

If you feel chronically exhausted or frustrated with your work, keep making small mistakes or feel stuck in a cycle of unproductiveness, you may want to take a trip to your doctor. Even if it isn't burnout, it's worth getting checked out.

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Why does burnout happen?

Burnout occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally and mentally depleted and unable to keep up with constant demands at work. As stress continues to mount, you may feel hopeless, disinterested and resentful when it comes to your work life.

According to the American Institute of Stress, Americans now work longer and harder than before: In one generation, the number of hours worked increased by 8% to an average of 47 hours per week.

Some other startling statistics from the Institute of Stress:

  • 25% of workers have felt like screaming or shouting because of job stress
  • Nearly 50% of workers say they need help learning how to manage stress
  • More than a third of workers (35%) say they feel their jobs harm their physical or emotional health

And from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health:

  • 40% of workers report their job as being very or extremely stressful
  • 75% of employees believe on-the-job stress is much higher than it was a generation ago
  • Workers associate job stress with health issues more than they associate financial or family problems with health issues

Modern workplace cultures keep people constantly connected -- between email, messaging platforms like Slack, project management tools like Asana and more, it's no surprise people feel like they can never shut out their work lives.

Many professionals, particularly millennials, have internalized the idea that more work is always better, or that they need to work all the time in order to be successful. That internalization leads to chronic over-output and can cause lethargy and a lack of motivation.

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How to treat burnout

The WHO hasn't yet stated what the appropriate medical treatment is for burnout, but there are some things you can do in the meantime.

A good first step is to disconnect, especially from workplace-related information. Try turning off notifications for apps like Slack, Asana and even email if you can.

Limit your time spent on work communication platforms as much as possible. For example, check your email once in the morning, once midday and once in the afternoon rather than keeping it open all day -- doing so will give you more time and energy to focus on your current tasks at hand. 

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Limit your time on social media, especially when you're taking breaks from work. Instead, chat with a coworker, go for a short walk or do anything that doesn't require you to look at a screen and consume more information.

Set boundaries for your time and desires, too. For instance, don't feel obligated to go to events that aren't mandatory, even if they're work-related. If you can't answer with a resounding yes, you should probably say no.

Practicing meditation, getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet and ensuring you get enough quality time with friends and family can also help to offset the effects of burnout.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.