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Burnout. You've probably heard about it, but what exactly is it? 

The World Health Organization (WHO) is here to clear up any confusion you might have. According to the organization, burnout — typically considered reduced interest and productivity in your work due to being overworked — is now classified as an "occupational phenomenon" in its International Classification of Diseases Handbook.

Feeling "burnt out" has been part of our collective cultural conversation for a while. It's certainly more common in places where overworking is very much a symptom of that never-stop-hustling mentality. With WHO officially recognizing burnout as a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed, it will be interesting to see how discussions about burnout continue to change and evolve.

The World Health Organization delivered some big news earlier this week.

It announced: "Burnout is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition." 

News outlets had previously been reporting that WHO had officially recognized burnout as a diagnosable medical condition. But now, WHO is clarifying that burnout is actually a syndrome. And yes, there's a difference between those two definitions.

There are some factors to look out for if you think you're suffering from burnout.

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According to WHO, burnout is described in the chapter of the handbook titled "Factors influencing health status or contact with health services." This chapter includes reasons for which people contact health services but are not classified as illnesses or health conditions. 

Raise your hand if you definitely did not understand this important distinction between the two! The more you know, right?

Concerned you may be suffering from burnout?

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There are some signs to keep an eye out for. Per WHO, three elements can help you figure out whether you're battling burnout. 

"Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy."

And all of this just applies to work environments. 

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WHO continues: "Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

In other words, we're only talking about a phenomenon that stems from your work, and not other areas or aspects of your life that could be causing you to experience feelings similar to burnout.

This isn't the first time WHO has shared its thoughts about burnout.

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According to the organization's press release, "Burnout was also included in ICD-10, in the same category as in ICD-11, but the definition is now more detailed." 

That means burnout is not a new phenomenon within the health and medical communities. It's just that now, a highly visible and powerful organization is giving it more recognition, which is a good thing that can help minimize the stigma behind burnout.

The agency shared another significant update. 

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"The World Health Organization is about to embark on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace," it said in the press release. There's been no more information yet on what those guidelines will look like, but it certainly seems like a positive step in the right direction to get people the help they need.

You may be wondering by now: Who is WHO, anyway?

WHO's primary role is to direct and coordinate international health within the United Nations system. The organization came into existence on April 7, 1948 — a date that's now celebrated as World Health Day. WHO currently has more than 7,000 people from more than 150 countries working in 150 country offices, in 6 regional offices, and at its headquarters in Geneva.

And when did burnout become a thing?

As a psychological term, burnout was first described in the mid-1970s, according to BuzzFeed. It all dates back to when psychologist Herbert Freudenberger used it to describe cases of "physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress." And at that time, he only applied the condition to those in "helping" professions, e.g., nurses and doctors.

But that's not the case these days.

Practically anyone can suffer from burnout, says the National Institutes of Health. And there are numbers to back that up: Last year, a Gallup survey found that nearly one in four employees feels burned out always or often. On top of that reality, another 44% said that they feel burned out "sometimes." So it's definitely a common phenomenon. 

Hopefully as a society we can begin to recognize the lasting effects of burnout.

Continuing to rethink our definition of burnout matters, especially when we consider how many people are likely impacted by the syndrome every single day. 

"There needs to be greater critical discussion on how we can more precisely measure and define this condition," Elaine Cheung, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told NPR. "I think a lot of people have a lay definition of what burnout may be. But I think by highlighting the specific facets of burnout... my hope is that it might create greater awareness."