Common symptoms of job burnout as WHO declares it a medical condition

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Stressed out people have thrown around the term “burnout” for years, but it’s only now become an actual medical diagnosis. That’s thanks to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the World Health Organization’s handbook for diagnosing diseases.

Burnout was recently added to the ICD-11 and is in the handbook’s section on problems that are related to work or unemployment. The ICD-11 lists out specific criteria for diagnosing burnout, as well as what medical providers need to do before they can diagnose the condition. Specifically, doctors need to rule out adjustment disorder, anxiety, stress, and mood disorders before giving someone a burnout diagnosis. Here’s how to spot the signs of burnout—and what you can do about it.

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How is job burnout defined, exactly?

Burnout is a syndrome that comes from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed, the ICD-11 says. It’s hard to say how common burnout is, largely due to the fact that it hasn’t had set criteria until now, says Maria Oquendo, MD, PhD, chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

“While some data suggest prevalence in the 60 percent range, a recent, rigorous analysis showed that the range was from 0-80 percent,” Dr. Oquendo says. “This variation is likely due to the many different ways in which burnout is defined. One estimate is that there are 142 different definitions of burnout in the medical literature.”

What are the signs and symptoms of burnout?

The handbook says that there are three major burnout symptoms:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from your job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to your job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

The handbook also says that a burnout diagnosis can only apply to a work situation, and not other areas of your life.

It can be a tricky diagnosis, simply because there are a lot of other conditions that can mimic the symptoms of burnout, says clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance In Life.

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How is burnout treated?

The key to treating burnout is to try to remove the patient from the source of stress, and patients can do this temporarily or permanently, Mayer says.

That’s obviously tricky since the source of the stress is also your source of income, but it’s often a good idea to take a short break from work or at least have defined periods where you’re not immersed in work or in contact with work, says Gail Saltz, MD, a psychiatrist and author of The Power of Different. “If despite this it persists, talking with management about ways to inject interest, motivation, stress reduction at work, or to consider a job move if possible” can be helpful, she says.

Mindfulness-based interventions and relaxation techniques may help, Dr. Oquendo says, but “whether these interventions work is still the subject of study.”

Overall, mental health experts approve making burnout a medical diagnosis but admit that it can be a tough one to detect. Dr. Oquendo says she “applauds” the move, but also has concerns. “The biggest risk for the medicalization of burnout is that treatable, potentially lethal psychiatric conditions might be missed,” she says.

Still, it’s a step in the right direction. “Making it a medical diagnosis may allow a more formal means of addressing problems that have long been there as well as de-stigmatizing real feelings employees deal with often enough,” Dr. Saltz says.

Bottom line: If you suspect that you’re dealing with burnout and trying to step away from work isn’t helping, don’t hesitate to talk to a mental health professional, who should be able to help you work through it.

 

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