Burnout has been officially recognised as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ in the latest revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), published by the World Health Organization (WHO).
While the body has stopped short of granting burnout the status of a medical condition, it has nonetheless included the problem in the ICD’s chapter entitled ‘Factors influencing health status or contact with health services’, covering non-illness related reasons why individuals would seek professional help and support.
In its definition of burnout,  unveiled on 28 May, the WHO says: “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions: i) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; ii) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job, and iii) reduced professional efficacy.”
The WHO adds that, following its recognition of burnout, it is preparing to embark on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental wellbeing in the workplace.
Burnout received particularly high media attention at the beginning of this year, following the viral popularity of a Buzzfeed article entitled ‘How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation’.  In the piece, reporter Anne Helen Petersen wrote: “For the past two years, I’ve refused cautions – from editors, from family, from peers – that I might be edging into burnout. To my mind, burnout was something aid workers, or high-powered lawyers, or investigative journalists dealt with.”
However, in the light of a personal crisis, Petersen realised: “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.”
With the advent of the ICD definition, what should leaders learn from the WHO’s acknowledgement of burnout’s mental and physical effects?
Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “It’s a positive development that the WHO has officially recognised burnout – although when you look at the definition, those symptoms have clearly been with us for a long time, and will be familiar to many organisations. But anything that puts firmly on the radar mental health issues, and the damaging impacts that some employees suffer from their jobs, is to be welcomed. The WHO’s definition also resonates with Petersen’s article, in the sense that it doesn’t restrict the symptoms to senior figures: burnout could happen to anyone.
“With that in mind, the message to organisations and leaders is clear. We all know people who derive a huge sense of affirmation or identity from their occupations – particularly people who are determined to excel because they are doing something they believe in. But those individuals could well begin to exhibit signs of burnout, purely because the job matters so much to them. So it is for their colleagues and line managers to look for unusual behaviour in those workers. Are they becoming irritable? Are they beginning to work longer and longer hours? Are they showing lapses in their competence?”
Cooper notes: “Naturally, there will be a sensitivity around those point for the individual concerned: no one likes to be approached with the news that their work is not quite as good as it has been, or should be. So managers must be tactful in how they broach this subject. But there will be other signals, too – in terms of depleted energy and enthusiasm – that could provide managers with inroads for raising concerns and opening the conversation.”
She adds: “We will only really spot that someone is having a hard time if we know what their baseline level is. As such, it is important for line managers to really get to know the members of their team, so they will be able to pick up on any unusual or worrying patterns of behaviour as and when they emerge.
“Managers must also be unafraid to approach the conversation that it will be necessary to have with the suffering member of staff, even though it will be a difficult one. But a calm, non-judgmental manner will go a long way, and will help the employee to recognise that they need to start addressing the problems they’re facing.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on the healthy workplace