We tend to think of burnout as an individual problem, solvable by “learning to say no,” more yoga, better breathing techniques, practicing resilience — the self-help list goes on. But evidence is mounting that applying personal, band-aid solutions to an epic and rapidly evolving workplace phenomenon may be harming, not helping, the battle. With “burnout” now officially recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO), the responsibility for managing it has shifted away from the individual and towards the organization. Leaders take note: It’s now on you to build a burnout strategy.
The Non-Classification Classification
The term “burnout” originated in the 1970s, and for the past 50 years, the medical community has argued about how to define it. As the debate grows increasingly contentious, the most recent WHO announcement may have caused more confusion than clarity. In May, the WHO included burnout in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) and immediately the public assumed that burnout would now be considered a medical condition. The WHO then put out an urgent clarification stating, “Burn-out is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon, not a medical condition… reasons for which people contact health services but that are not classed as illnesses or health conditions.”
Although the WHO is now working on guidelines to help organizations with prevention strategies, most still have no idea what to do about burnout. Since it was explicitly not classified as a medical condition, the case is less about liability for employers and more about the impact on employee well-being and the massive associated costs.