World Health Organization Recognizes 3 Major Symptoms of Workplace Burnout

Identifying these symptoms is the first step to getting help.

work stress

Burnout at work is real. It’s so real, in fact, that it’s now an officially recognized syndrome, according to the World Health Organization’s newest documentation. Soon, clinics and doctors officers all over the world can call it by its official name — QD85 — and diagnose it according to three characteristics.

Burnout has been around long before it made its way onto the World Health Organization’s radar. As early as 1974, scientists began to probe the relationship between extreme work stress and mental health, and scientific publications on workplace burnout have increased significantly over the past forty years. But on Monday, the WHO solidified workplace burnout in the eleventh edition of the International Classification of Diseases: a collection of diseases, disorders and syndromes monitored by the organization.

work stress employee
The ICD-11, a new classification of diseases, disorders and conditions includes a designation for work-related burnout 

Importantly, the ICD-11 doesn’t list workplace burnout as a mental health condition or a disease (it has since clarified its stance on this). Instead, it lists it as a syndrome — a group of symptoms that occur together — “conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” By doing this, the WHO lends its influence to the idea that work stress can truly affect health, which could lead to health professionals and researchers taking it more seriously.

WHO’s Three Signs of Burnout

This isn’t the first time burnout has been referred to the ICD, though earlier statements made by spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic suggested it was. But the WHO’s update is the first to uniquely characterize burnout as a workplace issue. Now, it’s listed under “problems relating to employment or unemployment.”

This definition makes it distinct from earlier mentions of burnout in the ICD. The ICD-10 version, defined burnout as “a state of vital exhaustion,” listed it under “life-management difficulty,” and didn’t outline symptoms in a robust way. The new ICD-11 definition includes three specific signs of workplace burnout:

  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.
  3. Reduced professional efficacy.

Any one of these three factors likely plague many people from time to time in one form or another. People who work service-based jobs may feel exhausted from being forced to smile, night-owls may struggle to conform to regular working hours, and some research indicates more severe consequences, like depressive symptoms borne from working “extra long” hours. But as Inverse previously reported, a real case of work burnout likely involves all three of these factors, which occur on an ongoing basis.

Why is it Important to List Workplace Burnout on the ICD-11?

The ICD-11’s purpose is to serve as the “foundation for the identification of health trends and statistics globally, and the international standard for reporting diseases and health conditions,” according to the WHO. It’s intended to help track health issues around the world.

It does this by assigning codes to certain conditions that transcend language barriers and helps standardize symptoms associated with specific conditions, which could differ depending on where you are in the world. There are some diseases that make obvious candidates for this kind of tracking, like type II diabetes, which has the designation 5A11. Now, workplace burnout will be tracked by the code QD85.

The World Health Organization breaks down how they use codes (like the one assigned to burnout) to track diseases, disorders, addictions, injuries, and more globally. 

Foremost, the ICD-11 offers physicians a guidebook for recognizing burnout, which could highlight cases that previously fell through the cracks. Now, with the new designation, WHO can track where cases are happening most, who reports higher amounts of burnout, and potentially what other conditions might happen alongside burnout. Since some health insurance reimbursements also depend on ICD coding, the WHO notes that they’re “critically tied up with health care finances.”

With that code, workplace burnout now has a place in the language that informs big, data-driven health decisions on a national, or even international scale.

As of now, it’s not clear whether the QD85 designation will affect policies like workplace health schemes or insurance policies —- a small comfort to stressed employees. Those four characters may not represent the intense emotional toll that burnout takes, but it may be the first step to determining how stressed the workers of the world are and how we might be able to design a solution.