Burnout – A New Definition for a Global Issue

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The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced an update to the definition of burnout in its International Classification of Diseases (ICD). While burnout had previously been referred to as a state of vital exhaustion, ICD 11 defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.[1] [2] According to the WHO, symptoms of burnout include “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.”[3]

While the WHO’s definition of burnout may be new, awareness of burnout began decades ago.[4] Psychologists have commonly described it as a chronic state of stress often accompanied by poor sleep, high blood pressure, digestion issues and irritability.[5] Research shows burnout can be dangerous, potentially leading to chronic depression, prolonged fatigue and cardiovascular disease.[6]

“This recent announcement from the WHO speaks to the growing impact of burnout on organizations around the world,” shares Alan King, President and Chief Operating Officer at Workplace Options, a provider of employee wellbeing solutions. “Burnout can be costly, affecting productivity, absenteeism and turnover, not to mention healthcare expenses. Proactive companies are implementing employee wellbeing strategies designed to help minimize their risk.”

A growing workplace problem

A Gallup survey found that 23 percent of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes.[7] The survey also found that burned-out employees are 63 percent more likely to take a sick day and 23 percent more likely to visit the emergency room.

Similar findings are being reported from around the world:

  • 2018 figures from the U.K.’s Health and Safety Executive revealed work-related stress, anxiety and depression accounted for more than half of all working days lost due to ill health in Great Britain.
  • A survey of Dutch women showed that the number of women reporting they were currently struggling with, or have struggled with, burnout rose from 9.4 percent to 15 percent in just two years.[8]
  • In a U.S. survey, 95 percent of Human Resource leaders reported they felt employee burnout was sabotaging workforce retention efforts.[9]
  • The World Economic Forum reports that burnout costs the global economy an estimated £255 billion.[10]

Recognizing the danger of burnout and its potential economic impact, government leaders in some countries have enacted laws designed to protect citizens. For example, in Belgium employers must conduct an annual risk assessment for burnout and are held responsible for recognizing and preventing burnout in the workplace.[11] Countries in the EU are required to have an average maximum workweek of 48 hours, including overtime.[12] In Japan, although not legally required, companies are encouraged to allow their employees to have Monday mornings off.[13]

Identifying the causes of burnout

There is no shortage of opinions on why burnout is on the rise globally. Many point to a work-centric culture where employees manage epic workloads often resulting in long hours at work. The International Labour Office reports that one in five workers around the world are working more than 48 hours a week.[14] In Japan, a government white paper revealed that 22.7 percent of companies surveyed had employees who clocked in more than 80 hours of overtime each month.[15]

The modern workplace’s “always-on” mentality could be another reason workers are experiencing burnout in increasing numbers. Advances in modern technology mean workers can work anytime, anywhere and even while on vacation. This reality has created expectations within some companies that employees are on call 24/7.

Caregiver responsibilities may also contribute to the issue, especially in countries where elderly populations are hitting record highs. A 2018 study by Rehalto, a Workplace Options company located in France and Belgium, found that 50 percent of the employees surveyed who were on sick leave due to burnout, were caregivers.

“While the WHO’s definition of burnout is limited to work experiences, it’s worth noting that experiences outside of work can certainly enhance an employee’s susceptibility to burnout,” shares Christian Mainguy, president of Rehalto. “With this in mind, employers interested in reducing the impact of burnout on their organization should consider ways to help employees find the right work-life balance.”

Combatting employee burnout

Mainguy believes burnout needs to be addressed at the organizational, collective and individual levels. At the organizational level, companies need policies in place that can help promote a positive quality of life. This includes establishing a supportive work culture, reasonable workload standards and employee access to wellbeing resources.

On the collective level, managers should be responsible for monitoring the wellbeing of team members and offering solutions to potential overload.

At the individual level, workers need to be able to recognize the symptoms of burnout and take advantage of support made available by their employer.

Workplace Options partners with employers to give their employees a wide range of wellbeing support. This includes access to counselors for emotional support, coaches for physical health support and consultants for work-life assistance.

Aware, for example, is a mindfulness program developed by Workplace Options to help employees counteract stress. Over a period of six sessions, participants work with an Aware specialist to practice mindfulness strategies. Program results have been positive, with participants who completed the program reporting, on average, a 57 percent improvement in their ability to manage stress.

“It’s encouraging to see the long-term success of programs like Aware,” shares Mainguy. “It’s a reminder that when employees are given the right support and tools, they can flourish.”


[1] World Health Organization ICD-10 Version:2016

[2] World Health Organization (May 2019) Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases

[3] Ibid

[4] National Public Radio (Dec. 8, 2016) When A Psychologist Succumbed To Stress, He Coined The Term Burnout

[5] The Sun (Oct. 10, 2018) Telltale Signs: Are You on the Brink of Burnout at Work

[6] Channel News Asia (May 31, 2019) What’s Behind Burnout

[7] Gallup (July 12, 2018) Employee Burnout, Part 1: The 5 Main Causes

[8] NL Times (Nov. 16, 2017) Startling Rise in Employees Showing Burn-out Symptoms; Up Nearly 50 Pct

[9] Kronos Incorporated (Jan. 9, 2017)

[10] World Economic Forum (Oct. 31, 2018)

[11] The Bulletin (Feb. 19, 2014) Burnout Legally Recognized in Belgium

[12] SHRM (May 24, 2018) EU Countries Apply Working Hour Directive Similarly

[13] Insurance Journal (December 19, 2018) More Global Companies Offer 4-Day Work Week as Stress Burnout Levels Rise

[14] International Labour Office (2007) Working Time Around the World

[15] Channel News Asia (May 2019) What’s Behind Burnout?