‘Burn-out’ recognised as chronic condition by World Health Organisation

One symptom is 'increased mental distance from one’s job'

Olivia Petter
Tuesday 28 May 2019 19:36
Burn out recognised as chronic condition by world health organisation

Burn-out is a phrase you might’ve heard banded around over the years to describe feeling physically and emotionally run down.

While some could’ve been tempted to dismiss burn-out as millennial jargon, it has now been added to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) International Classification of Diseases, meaning that it will become a globally-recognised medical condition as of 2020.

The WHO defines burn-out as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

It characterises the condition with the following symptoms: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

The WHO only refers to such feelings within work environments and clarifies that burn-out should not be applied to describe symptoms caused by other life situations.

A spokesperson for the WHO told Agence Presse France on Monday that it’s the “first time” burnout has been classified as a medical condition by any official health body.

The phrase “burn-out syndrome” is credited to German-born psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, who used the term in a 1974 study of the condition.

Freudenberger analysed the phenomenon after he observed it in some of his colleagues, who described themselves as being “burnt out” and later also experienced it himself.

The psychologist described the state of being burnt out as “becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources”.

In January 2019, a Buzzfeed article titled How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation went viral. Writer Anne Helen Peterson was praised for accurately describing how and why the condition is impacting people aged 18 to 34 and in some cases rendering them emotionally and physically paralysed.

However, unlike the WHO, Peterson recognises burn-out in areas outside of the workplace, writing: “Burnout and the behaviours and weight that accompany it aren’t, in fact, something we can cure by going on vacation.

“It’s not limited to workers in acutely high-stress environments. And it’s not a temporary affliction: It’s the millennial condition. It’s our base temperature. It’s our background music. It’s the way things are. It’s our lives.”

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