The World Health Organization is bringing attention to the problem of work-related stress. The group announced this week that it is updating its definition of burnout in the new version of its handbook of diseases, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), which will go into effect in January 2022

The new definition calls it a "syndrome" and specifically ties burnout to "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."

Despite earlier reports to the contrary, the WHO does not classify the problem as a medical condition. It calls burnout an "occupational phenomenon" and includes it in a chapter on "factors influencing health status or contact with health services."

According to WHO, burnout is characterized by: "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."

Burnout was also included in the previous version of the WHO's disease handbook the ICD-10, in the same category as it now appears. But it was defined simply as a "state of vital exhaustion," Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesperson for the WHO, wrote in an email.

The earlier definition "was kind of this weird in-between 'you're not really sick, but you're not fully capable of doing your work,'" says Torsten Voigt, a sociologist at RWTH Achen University in Germany, whopublished a review of existing studies on burnout in 2017.

The new definition is now more detailed, he says, and while it's not a major change, it gives people who suffer burnout more legitimacy.

"People who feel burnout are finally fully recognized as having a severe issue," he says. He says it may be a step toward making it easier for people to get help, at least in some European countries, where health professionals rely on the ICD.

Bringing more clarity to the definition of burnout is important, according to Elaine Cheung, a professor of medical social sciences Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "There needs to be greater critical discussion on how we can more precisely measure and define this condition," she said in a statement.

The new criteria also require that in order to diagnose burnout, mental health professionals have to rule out anxiety, mood disorders and other stress-related disorders.

Cheung says that it's "important to underscore the distinction between burnout and other mental health conditions, such as depression," because that could lead to more targeted research into how to prevent and treat the problem.

The WHO also announced it plans to embark on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace.

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