Classifying Burnout: WHO Cares!

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You’ve probably seen recent buzz about WHO including burnout in their International Classification of Diseases. Unfortunately, the reporting of this news had some initial inaccuracies. So today, we break down what WHO actually did, what it means, and why it matters.

WHO Said What?

WHO is the World Health Organization, an agency of the UN that’s entire purpose is to improve health around the world. This agency tracks health statistics, monitors trends, sets research agendas, sets health norms and standards, provides support, and serves as a catalyst of change. You’ve probably heard of their World Health Report or World Health Day. As a leader in this area, what WHO says can make an impact in health priorities around the world.

Recently, WHO published the 11th version of their International Classification of Diseases. You can learn more about it and its importance here. In this updated version, WHO also updated their definition of burnout. While burnout was included in previous versions, the new definition is much more specific and aligns with the research we always share.

WHO classified burnout as an occupational phenomena. Unlike early reporting, it was NOT classified as a medical condition. As an occupational phenomena, burnout is classified as a factor that influences people’s health and use of health services. Burnout is caused by chronic workplace stress that is made up of three dimensions:

  • feelings of exhaustion,
  • cynicism or feeling disconnected from the job, and
  • feeling less effective at work.

In other words, you know you are experiencing burnout if you feel tired all the time, are not connected at work, and can’t get anything done in the way you want. Importantly, WHO calls on medical professionals to first rule out any mental illness or conditions prior to addressing burnout.

WHO made it possible for everyone to easily look up what burnout means!

What Does This Mean For Burnout?


First, providing a detailed definition of burnout for medical professionals helps legitimize it. Now, employees that feel burnout can more easily point to its impact on their health than they did before. While burnout was included in previous version of the classification, this specific definition makes it easier to understand what it actually looks like. Your doctor can refer to this definition to try to understand what you are dealing with. You can also read this definition to try to understand if you are in the midst of burnout.

Consistent Definition

Second, WHO is creating cohesion among researchers on how to define burnout. While the field of Industrial/Organizational Psychology has been using this definition, other fields may have different ways to define it. If researchers are all consistently using the same definition, more productive work can be done. We can work to measure it more effectively. Researchers can build off of each other’s work knowing that they are talking about the same concept. We can gather better data across the globe to understand how prevalent burnout is. Being consistent is critical for good research to be even better!

WHO has the influence to create a definition that will not only be adopted by researchers but by the average person as well. This is HUGE. People talk about burnout all the time. It is a buzzy topic that lots of media outlets like to write or talk about. While talking about it is a good thing, in my opinion, talking about it in inconsistent terms can be problematic. You can read two different interviews of two different employees that say they are experiencing burnout yet they mean something completely different from each other. Without clear agreement on what it means, people can be ‘misdiagnosing’ themselves as having it when they don’t OR not having it when they do! Companies can pick the ‘strictest’ definition and pretend they do not have a burnout problem. It is important for all of us to be on the same page on what burnout is. This helps us have the right conversations to fix the problem. And WHO has helped get us closer to that.

Now that we see the definition of burnout more clearly, let’s do some research investigation!


Finally, WHO taking charge and leading the crusade against burnout and other mental health issues in the workplace is critical for governments and leadership to take it seriously. WHO announced they will be working to create evidence-based guidelines for mental wellness at work. Many countries, especially in Europe, take WHO’s recommendations and guidelines seriously. They often implement policies to help ensure their people are leading healthy lives. Political advocacy groups can leverage what WHO says to help fight for good policies to help employees. This may just be the beginning of major policy shifts to improve workers around the globe.

This push may be what we need to revolutionize wellness at work. It won’t happen overnight. But, we are hopeful that this clear definition will lead to consistent research, strong guidelines, and improved policy to help all of us fight the ‘outbreak’ of burnout in our societies.

Now, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Let us know what you think of this WHO announcement and what impact you think it will have!

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