“Burnout” isn’t just a term you use to describe how you were feeling before you went on holiday and “let it all go.” Nor is it just a word Buzzfeed uses to describe the millennial generation. Not any more. The World Health Organization just legitimised burnout as a medical syndrome, adding it to the ICD-11, a handbook to help medical providers diagnose patients. But it may be leaving out a large group of people — parents who work in the home.
In the ICD-11 description, they call it a “syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The handbook says doctors can diagnose their patients with burnout if they present with these symptoms:
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
3) Reduced professional efficacy, or ability to be effective at their jobs
The ICD-11 notes that doctors should only diagnose burnout in a professional context, and not apply it to other areas of a person’s life. For example you can be “burnt out” from your job in accounting or firefighting, but you can’t be “burnt out” because of your current relationship, according to WHO guidance.
This may sound exclusive, but Dr. Susan Biali Haas, a doctor who, in part, specifically helps patients prevent burnout, tells Refinery29 that by definition burnout is a work-related phenomenon. "Excess workloads, as well as various work-related conditions, are the fundamental circumstances which lead to burnout," Biali Haas says. "We use the term burnout quite loosely in our society." But she says it's not diagnostically accurate to say we're "burnt out" because of our romantic grievances.
She says there is a caveat though: "With respect to busy, overloaded moms and [parents] who work hard running households, I think the standard criteria for burnout could apply under those circumstances, given the legitimately high workloads involved," Biali Haas says.
There's no mention of parents who work in the home in the ICD-11 online guidance about burnout, but it does specifically say "chronic workplace stress." The World Health Organisation has not yet responded to an email asking for clarification.
But despite the people this WHO definition might leave out, Biali Haas says she's glad to see WHO validate the syndrome. “I'm thrilled to see burnout being recognised more concretely and specifically in the International Classification of Diseases system,” she says. “It’s so important that health care professionals gain a better understanding of burnout, in order to identify and help those who are affected. This decision by the WHO is a critical step in that process."
The ICD-11 says that before doctors officially diagnose burnout, they should rule out adjustment disorder, anxiety, and mood disorders. The authors of 2017 SAGE Open journal review of literature on burnout, Linda and Torsten Heinemann, say that differentiating between depression and burnout has been a major obstacle for researchers wanting to consider burnout a diagnosable disease, CNN reports
Psychotherapist Lissette LaRue adds that if more companies and organisations acknowledge burnout, it's more likely people will treat it. She says the effects of this could ultimately transcend the workplace, despite the fact that burnout can only be diagnosed due to work-related issues.
“The more we begin to acknowledge the impact that [this kind of] stress,” LaRue says, “the more productivity rates will rise because people will be happy, and relationships will improve.”