Exhausted? Don't Like Your Job? Now There's an 'Official' Work-Related Medical Condition for That

It's called "burn-out," hyphens included, and it's now an official medical condition according to the WHO. Also, 7 other things worth a click.

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Sometimes, even the most satisfied people have tough days at work.

It happens. We have stretches where we feel burned out, and we wonder if there isn't something else we should be doing with our lives.

For most of us, I hope, those thoughts are fleeting—or else if they're not, I hope you're able to summon the courage, make a plan, and make a big change.

But if the feelings persist, according to some World Health Organization guidelines, at least you can put a name on it.

New medical condition: 'Burn-out'

In its latest International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), presented a few months ago, the WHO added a new syndrome: "burn-out" (they include the hyphen).

It’s described as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed," and is "characterized by three dimensions," including:

  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; and 

  3. reduced professional efficacy. 

Also, they're quick to point out that “burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

In other words, the symptoms sound like they could also have to do with other conditions, especially depression, which caused a lot of the controversy and kept it from being recognized for more than four decades.

The WHO itself suggests doctors should attempt to exclude other disorders, like like adjustment disorder, various stress disorders, anxiety or fear-related disorders, or mood disorders, before labeling a patient's troubles, "burn-out." 

Big in 1980

The controversy over this idea has gone on for over 45 years, since it was first described in a 1974 academic paper by Herbert Freudenberger, a New York City psychologist.

Freudenberger also wrote a popular book on the subject in 1980, Burn Out: The High Cost of High Achievement. (It's long out of print, but reviews are pretty amazing. I've ordered a copy and will likely follow up on this story once I've had a chance to read it.)

Since then, according to a 2017 review of the academic literature, burnout was not universally accepted "as a mental disorder in its own right in the academic field, especially in clinical psychology and psychiatry, and scientists have repeatedly asked whether burnout is a useful diagnosis or just 'psychobabble.'"

(Credit to Ryan Prior of CNN for finding that survey.)

Um, what about the ADA?

Personally, I’m not sure it deserves a name, but the last time I had really significant “burn-out” at work was probably close to 20 years ago, after I'd gone to law school and spent a few years working as a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice.

As regular readers will know, it wasn't a good fit, and ultimately I made some big changes. (This is the job where some fellow lawyers got into a fistfight over the 2000 election recount.)

Still, I do sometimes automatically “think like a lawyer,” as the saying goes, so when I first read about this new medical condition, I wondered what it might mean for employers.

Specifically, could an employee come to work for you, find it's a horrible fit, wind up getting "burn-out" which is now an officially recognized medical condition—and then be entitled to legal remedies under the Americans With Disabilities Act?

Honestly, for a few minutes, I was almost salivating over this. Maybe I should dust off the ol’ law degree, get a bunch of clients, and make millions off this cynical, cyclical idea.

But, it turns out that under the ADA, an employee has to establish that they can't work because of job-related stress—not simply that they can't work at the specific job that's causing the stress.

So I don’t think that get rich quick scheme would work.

Oh well. Writing email newsletters is good, too.

7 other things worth a click

  1. President Trump gave his State of the Union address last night. Rush Limbaugh got the Medal of Freedom, a deployed soldier was united with his family in the middle, some Democrats walked out, and Nancy Pelosi ripped up her copy of his speech. Welcome to 2020. (Remember: Big Bird.) (The Washington Post)

  2. Beyonce released a clothing line, and people realized the color scheme was pretty darn close to the uniforms at Popeyes. So now Popeyes is selling their uniforms to the public. (The Diamondback)

  3. Amazon is officially a trillion-dollar company, after months of breaking the barrier but falling below before the end of a trading day. (Yahoo Finance)

  4. Iowa Democrats should have known better than to use a brand-new, untested app. (FiveThirtyEight)

  5. The U.S. continues to evacuate citizens from China as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. (CNN)

  6. A new report says the number of school children who are homeless spiked in 2017-2018 (latest numbers available). (The New York Times)

  7. Google “accidentally” sent some users’ private videos to strangers. (CNBC)

Bonus: Monday’s newsletter had the lowest open rate of any email I’ve ever sent—but then, things rebounded nicely Tuesday.

Now, I’ve realized the problem. The subject line for Monday was just a bunch of dollar signs (“$$$$$$$$$$$”).

I guess I thought I was being clever, but I also triggered a lot of spam filters. Anyway, if you missed Monday’s email (about what the $13.2 billion Jeff Bezos made in 15 minutes really looks like), here’s a link.

Ideas and feedback actively solicited. Photo by Danylo Suprun on Unsplash. I wrote about this study for Inc. last year. If you haven’t subscribed, please do so! (You can also just send an email to signup@understandably.com.)

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