The World Health Organization is finally taking burnout more seriously than ever. Now is the time for business leaders to follow suit.
Burnout was included in the previous edition of the WHO’s handbook of diseases, but was described in general terms as a state of exhaustion. The new edition upgrades burnout to a syndrome, a more serious set of symptoms, and is far more detailed.
The vagueness of the earlier definition made it tempting to dismiss the problem, according to one leading burnout researcher. The new definition brings greater clarity and urgency. “People who feel burnout are finally fully recognized as having a severe issue,” he says.
In a public statement, the WHO makes it clear that burnout is not a medical condition in and of itself—but rather an “occupational phenomenon” affecting health. The symptoms of burnout result “from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
In my work as an executive wellness coach, I have always framed burnout as a multi-layered problem requiring a multi-layered solution. The new WHO definition affirms that approach. That definition identifies three central issues: exhaustion, engagement, and efficacy.
Exhaustion is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to burnout. Unfortunately, too many ignore the early warning signs. I coach executives who thought their burnout state was sustainable until it was not—until they passed out in the middle of a meeting and had to be rushed to the ER due to adrenal fatigue.
My only quibble with the new WHO definition is the idea that chronic stress is something to be managed, a fact of life, a necessary evil. Daily acute stresses are inevitable. Chronic longterm stress is not. As I have written before, we can choose to reinvent our relationship with stress.
We must first be mindful of our own emotional and physical state so that we can detect the early warning signs. When we see those signs, we have to take steps to nip unhealthy stress in the bud before it becomes chronic. We also have to be willing to seek help and support. We are most vulnerable to chronic stress when we are isolated and disconnected from others. Avoid the temptation to grit your teeth and soldier on. Do not hesitate to reach out for help—from a colleague, a coach, a mentor—anymore than you would hesitate to seek medical assistance for a serious health issue. Burnout is just as debilitating.
We can also adopt a growth mindset. Framing a difficult challenge as an opportunity rather than a threat allows us to channel short-term stress as a source of positive energy. Finally, instead of reacting to stress when it arises, we can proactively build resilience—both individually and in our organization.
A lack of engagement is the second element of burnout identified by the WHO. The handbook describes “increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.”
That kind of disengagement is not a healthy state of affairs and is a symptom of a deeper problem. When we are energized by work that is meaningful and connected to a larger purpose, we may feel pressure—but we will not detach or mentally check out. A workplace culture built on community and shared purpose will exhibit resilience in the face of tough challenges.
Burnout may not be a medical condition per se, but it has serious health consequences, and the same goes for disengagement. I have long argued that the goal of employee engagement is not solely about performance, but also about individual and organizational health. As a Gallup report points out, burned-out and disengaged employees are more likely to take sick days and to visit the emergency room.
Engagement is the polar opposite of burnout. Promoting engagement with a holistic approach is the best defense against burnout and chronic stress.
The third dimension of burnout identified by the WHO is a reduced sense of professional efficacy. Confidence that we have both the capacity and the control to meet work-related challenges protects us from the ravages of stress and burnout, a great deal of research finds.
Business leaders should make promoting that confidence—in themselves, their colleagues, and their organizations—a major priority. People thrive at work when they know their employer and their peers believe in their ability to meet the demands of their job, and when they are given the tools and support to do so.
Conversely, we must be mindful of anything that threatens confidence and control. Unclear or unrealistic expectations leave employees feeling rudderless and overwhelmed. Micromanaging undermines a crucial sense of autonomy.
In the end, burnout is tied to our relationship with our work and with our workplace. As business leaders, we can do much to redefine that relationship. We can cultivate an organizational culture built on community and shared purpose. We can make sure employees have meaningful work and real autonomy and discretion.
Burnout is ultimately a sign of despair, and hope is its most potent antidote. Hope thrives amidst connection, purpose, and engagement. If you deliberately and intentionally foster these things in your workplace, you will have a head start in keeping burnout at bay.