Wellbeing | Burnout officially recognised as an illness

Burnout officially recognised as an illness

Today, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed that it will recognise the growing issue of corporate burnout as a medical condition, meaning that as of 2020, it will officially be identified in the International Classification of Diseases.

Burnout, which the WHO identifies specifically as a ‘workplace issue’, is officially described as "a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed", in the WHO’s official definition of the new condition.

It goes on to state: “It is characterised by three dimensions: 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. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

What does the new classification mean?

Whilst burnout has been touted as a key issue for progressive HR professionals for decades, the new WHO classification means that workers experiencing the issue will be able to receive a medical diagnosis. Along with mental illness, workers have historically felt discouraged from discussing such issues within the workplace.

Now, due to the classification, workers may well feel emboldened to open up about the issue, therefore preventing a culture of taboo.

A history of burnout 

The condition was first researched and published in a psychology journal in 1974 by Doctor Herbert Freudenberger and was based on observing volunteer staff at a free clinic for drug addicts. He coined the term after identifying a set of symptoms including exhaustion resulting from work’s excessive demands, as well as headaches, sleeplessness, short temper, brain fog and what he called ‘closed thinking’.

The characteristics of burnout were visualised for many in popular culture literature such as Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Travis Bickle in the 1976 film Taxi Driver.

Key symptoms of burnout 

1. Feeling tired all the time

Whilst a healthy diet and a relaxing sleeping environment may contribute to your day-to-day alertness, there is simply no substitute for going to bed at a reasonable hour. Whilst you may be tempted to finish that final report, you may well be sending yourself on a path to burnout.

2. Increased anxiety

Often, work is a stressful environment to be in, but this is made far worse by the cognitive catastrophe that is burnout. Whilst outside factors may well be at play, reducing your work stress, refusing to take on tasks that you can’t handle and taking your allocated break time to relax will have a marked effect on your anxiety levels.

3. Lack of motivation

When feeling like work has taken over your life, it’s natural to see a slump in your motivation levels. This will result in a decreased output and potentially negative consequences from your management. Remember, motivation is like a muscle; it must be utilised and exercised to be successful.

4. Positive habits cease

The classic image of a burnt-out worker usually features unkept hair, blotchy skin and stained clothes. When your workload is affecting your daily routine to such radical levels, it’s time to accept that you're suffering from burnout; maintaining yourself and your positive habits is essential for a business leader.

5. Severe health issues 

When burnout isn’t dealt with, the consequences can be potentially life-threatening. Whilst symptoms may start with back pain, migraines and eye-strain, feeling like you're drowning in your workload, have led to strokes and even heart attacks for some business leaders who refused to seek help. Research conducted by CEO Magazine found 70% of polled CEOs were in a severely unhealthy fitness condition, whilst 100% claimed to be suffering from some sort of stress ailment including headaches, asthma, ulcers and backaches.

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