Many of us are familiar with workplace burnout — the feeling of extreme physical and emotional exhaustion that often affects doctors, business executives, and first responders.

Until now, burnout has been called a stress syndrome. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently updated its definition.

It now refers to burnout as “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” in the organization’s International Classification of Diseases diagnostic manual.

The three symptoms included in the list are:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings negative towards one’s career
  • reduced professional productivity

As a psychologist who works with medical students, graduate students, and business executives, I’ve seen how burnout can impact people’s mental health. This change in definition may help bring about an increased awareness and allow folks to access better treatment.

A change in definition may help remove the stigma that surrounds burnout

One of the largest problems when it comes to burnout is that many people feel ashamed for needing help, often because their work environments don’t support slowing down.

Frequently, people equate it to having a cold. They believe that one day of rest should make everything better.

People with symptoms of burnout may fear that taking time away from work or investing in self-care makes them “weak,” and that burnout is best overcome by working harder.

Neither of these is true.

Left untreated, burnout can cause folks to become depressed, anxious, and distracted, which can impact not only their work relationships, but their personal interactions, too.

When stress reaches an all-time high, it’s harder to regulate emotions like sadness, anger, and guilt, which may result in panic attacks, anger outbursts, and substance use.

However, changing the definition of burnout can help dismantle the misbelief that it’s “nothing serious.” It can help remove the incorrect assumption that those who have it don’t need occupational support.

This change may help to remove the stigma that surrounds burnout and also help to draw attention to how common burnout is.

According to Elaine Cheung, PhD, a burnout researcher and assistant professor of social sciences at Northwestern University, the latest burnout definition clarifies this medical diagnosis, which can help draw attention to its prevalence.

“The measurement and definition of burnout in the literature has been problematic and lacked clarity, which made it challenging to evaluate and classify it,” Cheung says. She hopes the latest definition will make it easier to study burnout and the impact it has on others, which may uncover ways to prevent and address this medical condition.

Knowing how to diagnose a medical concern can lead to better treatment

When we know how to diagnosis a medical concern, we can home in on treatment. I’ve been talking to my patients about burnout for years, and now with an update of its definition, we have a new way to educate patients about their work-related struggles.

Cheung explains that understanding burnout means being able to distinguish it from other mental health concerns. Psychological conditions like depression, anxiety, and panic disorders can affect one’s ability to function at work, but burnout is a condition that stems from working too much.

“Burnout is a condition that is caused by an individual’s work, and their relationship to their work may lead to this condition,” she says. Having this information is vital because burnout interventions should focus on improving the relationship between an individual and their work, she adds.

With the WHO changing the definition of burnout, considerable attention can be brought to a public health epidemic that’s sweeping the nation. Hopefully, this change will validate people’s symptoms and suffering.

Redefining this condition also sets the stage for organizations like hospitals, schools, and businesses to make workplace modifications that can prevent burnout in the first place.


Juli Fraga is a licensed psychologist based in San Francisco. She graduated with a PsyD from University of Northern Colorado and attended a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley. Passionate about women’s health, she approaches all her sessions with warmth, honesty, and compassion. See what she’s up to on Twitter.