Understanding the WHO Burnout Definition

published on 01 May 2023

As a professional, have you ever felt mentally, emotionally, and physically drained after a long day at work? Even worse, have you felt this way for an extended period of time? If so, you might have experienced burnout. In this article, we will delve deep into the World Health Organization's (WHO) burnout definition, its history, dimensions, causes, signs, and symptoms. We will also discuss the WHO's role in addressing burnout globally and the recent updates to their definition.

Introduction to WHO Burnout Definition

The concept of burnout has been around for many years, but it was only recently that the World Health Organization (WHO) provided an official definition. According to the WHO, burnout is a "syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." In other words, burnout occurs when an individual is chronically exposed to excessive stress at work.

This definition is crucial because it helps professionals and organizations recognize burnout as a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed. With the WHO's backing, the conversation around burnout has become more mainstream, leading to increased awareness and efforts to prevent and treat this debilitating condition.

The History of Burnout and WHO's Involvement

The term "burnout" was first coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s. He used it to describe the mental and emotional exhaustion experienced by volunteers working in a free clinic. Since then, the concept of burnout has expanded to include various professions and industries, with research showing that it is a widespread issue affecting millions of workers worldwide.

In 2019, the WHO officially recognized burnout as an "occupational phenomenon" and included it in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). The ICD-11 is a critical resource used by healthcare providers worldwide to diagnose and treat various medical conditions. By incorporating burnout into the ICD-11, the WHO has elevated its importance and signaled to the global community that it is a serious concern that warrants attention and resources.

The Three Dimensions of Burnout

According to the WHO burnout definition, there are three dimensions to this syndrome:

  1. Emotional Exhaustion: This is the feeling of being completely drained, both mentally and emotionally. Emotional exhaustion can manifest as a lack of motivation, irritability, or even depression.
  2. Depersonalization: Depersonalization refers to a sense of detachment from one's work or colleagues. This can result in a lack of empathy or understanding toward others, which can negatively impact workplace relationships and collaboration.
  3. Reduced Personal Accomplishment: This dimension involves feeling a decreased sense of achievement or satisfaction with one's work. It can lead to feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, or failure.

It is essential to recognize that not all individuals experiencing burnout will exhibit all three dimensions. However, any combination of these dimensions can be detrimental to one's mental health and overall well-being.

Causes of Burnout in the Workplace

Burnout can result from various factors in the workplace. Some common causes include:

  1. Excessive Workload: A consistently heavy workload with little opportunity for breaks or downtime can lead to burnout. This can be especially true for individuals who have unrealistic expectations placed upon them by managers or supervisors.
  2. Insufficient Support: A lack of support from colleagues, supervisors, or the organization as a whole can contribute to burnout. This might involve inadequate training, resources, or mentorship to perform one's job effectively.
  3. Poor Work-Life Balance: When work takes up too much time and energy, it can be challenging to maintain a healthy work-life balance. This can lead to increased stress and a decreased ability to cope with workplace demands.
  4. Lack of Autonomy: A lack of control over one's work can contribute to feelings of helplessness and burnout. This might involve micromanagement, a lack of input on decision-making, or an inability to make changes that would improve one's work environment.
  5. Organizational Culture: A toxic or unsupportive workplace culture can exacerbate burnout. This might involve a lack of recognition or reward for hard work, a highly competitive environment, or a general disregard for employee well-being.

Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

Burnout can manifest in various ways, but some common signs and symptoms include:

  1. Physical Symptoms: Fatigue, insomnia, frequent headaches, or gastrointestinal issues can all be indicative of burnout.
  2. Emotional Symptoms: Feelings of hopelessness, irritability, anxiety, or depression can signal burnout.
  3. Behavioral Symptoms: Changes in behavior, such as increased absenteeism, poor performance, or increased use of alcohol or drugs to cope with stress, can be signs of burnout.
  4. Cognitive Symptoms: Difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, or indecisiveness can be indicative of burnout.
  5. Interpersonal Symptoms: Withdrawal from colleagues or social activities, increased conflict with coworkers, or a decreased ability to empathize with others can all be signs of burnout.

WHO's Role in Addressing Burnout Globally

The WHO plays a vital role in addressing burnout on a global scale. By recognizing burnout as an occupational phenomenon and including it in the ICD-11, the WHO has brought increased awareness and legitimacy to the issue. This recognition has also spurred further research and development of resources to help individuals and organizations prevent and manage burnout.

Additionally, the WHO has developed the Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020, which aims to promote mental well-being, prevent mental disorders, provide care and support, and reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues, including burnout. This action plan serves as a blueprint for countries to develop their policies and strategies to improve mental health and well-being among their populations.

Recent Updates and Revisions to the WHO Burnout Definition

In 2021, the WHO released an updated version of the ICD-11, which included some changes to the burnout definition. While the overall concept of burnout remains consistent with the 2019 definition, the updated version provides more clarity and specificity regarding the three dimensions of burnout.

For example, the updated definition emphasizes that burnout is a syndrome that results from "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed" and that it should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life. This clarification helps to differentiate burnout from other mental health conditions or experiences of stress outside of the workplace.

Conclusion: The Importance of the WHO's Definition

The WHO burnout definition has played a crucial role in raising awareness about this pervasive issue and fostering a global conversation about its prevention and management. By providing a clear understanding of burnout and its dimensions, the WHO has empowered individuals and organizations to recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout and take action to address it.

As we move forward, it is essential to continue promoting mental health and well-being in the workplace and supporting those who may be experiencing burnout. By doing so, we can create healthier and more productive work environments for all.

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