It’s official! ‘Burnout’ defined and recognized as a medical diagnosis

Woman sitting in dark office, looking at laptop

Are you feeling physically or emotionally exhausted? Unmotivated, increasingly cynical, or detached from coworkers? If so, you may be on the road to burnout.

Yes, burnout is real and is now a legitimate medical diagnosis according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) handbook, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), that guides medical providers in diagnosing diseases.

Dr. Frank Drummond, chief medical officer of behavioral health services at HCA Healthcare, explained that burnout has been since 2003 classified as a symptom – a problem related to life management – but was recently updated as a syndrome.

WHO has now re-labeled the designation from a “state” of exhaustion to a “syndrome” resulting from “chronic workplace stress.”

Appearing in the new version of the ICD-11, which will go into effect in January 2022, the official definition of burnout states:

“Burnout is 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.”

The Genesis of Burnout

In 1974, psychologist Herbert Freudenberger became the first to coin ‘burnout’ in a medical journal, after studying the lasting impact of excessive stress and workplace demands on individuals, resulting in symptoms like depression.

In other words, burnout isn’t a new phenomenon, nor does it appear overnight.  A recent Gallup poll found that “23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes.”

“The fact that burnout is an ‘official’ diagnosis will hopefully translate to greater education and awareness around quality of life for those in the workforce,” said Dr. Drummond. “And, for professionals working in behavioral health, and others in the medical community, we hope this new designation and conversation around burnout will encourage people to seek treatment and reach out for help.”

Dr. Drummond and Cordett McCall, a licensed mental health counselor and clinical manager of behavioral health at HCA Healthcare affiliate Largo Medical Center, tag team to help us dive deeper into this “occupational phenomenon” and provide tools to deal with burnout before hitting rock bottom.

Headshot of Cordett McCall
Cordett McCall serves as a licensed counselor and certified addiction specialist in the HCA Healthcare West Florida Division.

What is the difference between stress and burnout?  

Everyone deals with stress at some point in their lives. It’s a normal physical and psychological response to sudden dangers and long-lasting challenges, Dr. Drummond said in the HCA Healthcare Today article “Stress, the health epidemic of the 21st century.”

Burnout, on the other hand, is the result of unrelenting stress. People experiencing burnout often feel mentally exhausted, disconnected, unproductive – doesn’t care about one’s work – and inefficient at tasks, Dr. Drummond explained.

When does burnout occur?

Burnout happens when passion is replaced by repetition, quality with quantity, and empathy with hopelessness, says McCall. When that desire to do the thing a person most loves professionally becomes a daunting task and they no longer find it rewarding, that’s a sign of burnout.

How can a medical professional diagnose someone with burnout?

Symptoms that manifest clearly in employees who are burned out include:

  • emotional exhaustion
  • pessimism or negativity towards everything, particularly at work,
  • lack of empathy
  • detachment from co-workers
  • powerlessness or feeling as if nothing you do makes a difference; being “checked out”
  • a perception of being worse at your job than you were before

These are especially easy to detect when these behaviors are not characteristic of how the employees used to behave or present, says McCall.

Dr. Drummond also noted other symptoms that are physical in nature including, recurrent illnesses, such as colds or a lowered immune system, frequent headaches or muscle pains, and changes in appetite.

Man sitting at desk with crumpled-up papers littering the ground around him

What are the causes of burnout?

McCall explained that knowing limitations are important. Attempting to meet everyone’s demands all the time is unrealistic and can lead to burnout. Examples that could cause burnout include:

  • saying “yes” to everyone
  • sacrificing personal time, breaks or even taking a lunch
  • shifting personal priorities to meet work demands (work-life imbalance)
  • inability to have stress relief as part of everyday life

Excessive levels of stress can also lead to burnout, Dr. Drummond added, as well as undefined job descriptions and feelings of inadequacy or an ability to perform at a level that one is accustomed to.

According to this CNBC article, unfair treatment at work, unreasonable deadlines, unmanageable workload and lack of support from managers also cause burnout. The writer also added that the stress that comes with 24/7 access to work, through emails and texts, and expectations to respond at off-hours compounds burnout.

Consequences of job burnout?

Burnout can produce a myriad of consequences. Depression, anxiety, decreased immune system from stress which leads to more sick days, impaired judgment (burnout individuals just don’t care), which can cause critical errors at work, sleep disturbances, decreased efficacy…the list goes on.

Is burnout limited to professional work?

Anytime someone has a passion for something, coupled with a loss of control to express that passion independently, burnout is inevitable, says McCall. Other contributing burnout factors include expectations to produce repetitious results, receiving minimal recognition and a focus on quantity versus quality. Stay-at-home moms, religious leaders or volunteers can be susceptible to burnout if these variables are present.

Risk factors?

An individual might be more likely to experience burnout if they:

  • don’t work well under pressure
  • struggle with anxiety, depression
  • have a perfectionist viewpoint
A scale with a piece of paper that says "Work" on one side and one that says "Life" on the other side
Work life balance is important to managing burnout.

How to manage burnout?

There are so many things that can be done to manage burnout but first, the individual has to be aware that it can happen to them.

McCall suggests individuals start to cope by:

  • getting a hobby or exercising
  • talking to a therapist
  • developing a support network
  • setting up self-care and life goals
  • maintaining balance

People can also deal with the road to burnout, according to Dr. Drummond, by:

  • reevaluating their life or career choices and looking at the things that are causing burnout
  • improving the amount of interpersonal or personally gratifying activities they’re involved in to balance the amount of time spent at work
  • taking time off of work

“It can be difficult to differentiate everyday stress to a full point of burnout,” Dr. Drummond noted. “But if you’re feeling stressed and out of balance, don’t wait. It’s still useful to reach out for help either through a therapist or through your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

McCall hopes this new classification and conversation will allow people to identify burnout, help prevent it for others, and provide resources to recover from this emotionally draining experience called burnout.

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 183 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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