May 28, 2019 by Dr. Daniel L. Kirsch, President, The American Institute of Stress

“Burnout syndrome” has been recognized for the first time as an official medical diagnosis.

WHO’s International Classification of Diseases 11th edition (ICD), which categorizes diseases for diagnosis by health care professionals and determines coverage by health insurers, was published on Saturday ending more than four decades of debate among experts over how to define this stress disorder.

The new diagnosis is defined as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized 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.”

Exclusion to this diagnosis include adjustment disorder, disorders specifically associated with stress such as PTSD, fear-related disorders and mood disorders (anxiety and depression).

A woman bites a pencil in stress

Burnout can make you feel exhausted, distant, and inefficient.

Burnout is sometimes referred to as compassion fatigue, especially among health care providers, service members and first responders who often see horrible things on the job. There is such a thing as caring too much. We recommend that such professionals be compassionate, not empathetic because no one has the capacity to feel everyone’s pain. It can also be caused by more typical work stressors, such as low pay, long hours, too heavy a workload, not having enough control over job-related decisions, conflicting demands or unclear performance expectations, unrealistic deadlines, lack of autonomy, lack of social support, few opportunities for promotion and just plain boredom.

The American Institute of Stress recommends identifying and confronting the stressors whenever possible. Start by talking to your supervisor. Employee health has been linked to productivity at work, so your employer has an incentive to create a work environment that promotes employee well-being. Practicing proactive stress management such as taking frequent short breaks to unwind and recharge, and doing helpful exercises such as deep breathing can help. It is also useful to develop resilience to stressors using techniques such as meditation, and mindfulness (a state in which you actively observe present experiences and thoughts without judging them), yoga, Tai Chi, or simply taking walks. One major cause of burnout that must be addressed is the 24 hour nonstop social media cycle. Employees should establish work-life boundaries when they are not available and learn how to avoid checking their phones or email after hours. If all these strategies fail seek professional help or realize it’s time to update your resume and move on.

More information about the science of stress and stress management techniques can be found here.