Given how it’s often spoken about as if it is one, it may be surprising to many to learn that burnout is not actually regarded as a medical illness or clinical condition. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies burnout as an occupational phenomenon.
Burnout is included in the International Classification of Diseases – Volume 11 (ICD-11), the official text produced by the WHO that lists all official health problems known to medicine.
However, burnout is listed in ‘Factors influencing health status or contact with health services’, which focuses on things that can lead to serious health problems, but which aren’t medical problems in themselves. Burnout technically has more in common with car accidents and sports injuries than viruses and mental disorders.
This isn’t to say that burnout isn’t a serious problem. After all, nobody would deny that someone involved in a car crash warrants medical attention. But equally, few would argue that ‘car crashes’ are a medical condition. Rather, they’re an unfortunate health-endangering consequence of how the modern world works. And the same can be said for burnout.
What does burnout do to us?
The World Health Organization (WHO) characterises burnout as having three distinct dimensions:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion (hence many who experience burnout complain about being severely lacking in motivation and energy).
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job (those experiencing burnout invariably find that they care less about their jobs and the outcomes of their work, or even start to resent it).
- Reduced professional efficacy (experiencing burnout means you’re less able to do your job well).
There’s only one recognised form of burnout, but the causes and manifestations vary considerably. The WHO defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. More simply, burnout happens when your job becomes too stressful over too long a period.
But because stress is so subjective, and every job has the potential to create prolonged and unresolvable stress for employees, burnout can occur in any workforce, for many reasons. And that’s why it can seem so variable.
Remember, burnout is specifically described as an occupational phenomenon. Officially, burnout is only ever a consequence of workplace stress. It’s entirely possible for your health to suffer from stresses that occur outside of work, but this wouldn’t be classed as burnout.
- This article first appeared in issue 372 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
Dean is a neuroscientist, author, blogger, occasional comedian and all-round ‘science guy’. He is the author of the the popular Guardian Science blog ‘Brain Flapping’ (now ‘Brain Yapping’ on the Cosmic Shambles Network with accompanying podcast), the bestselling books The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain, and his first book aimed at teens, Why Your Parents Are Driving You Up the Wall and What To Do About It.