Burnout is Officially Classified as ICD-11 Syndrome
The WHO is expanding the definition of "burnout," which could aid treatment.
Posted May 28, 2019
Guess what? That feeling of overwhelm and dread of having to face another long or tortuous day on the job that we commonly call “burnout” is now recognized as a syndrome in an expanded definition in the ICD-11, which is shorthand for the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases. This news provides credibility to the belief that a person can be worked so hard on the job—physically, emotionally, intellectually, maybe even spiritually/ethically—that the person can become so overwhelmed that they feel unable to continue.
Whether your job places you on the front lines fighting for the good of the nation or you’re in the back office, responding to complaining customers or keying data or responding to your boss’s information requests or users’ needs, you may be as likely as anyone else to experience burnout.
According to a literature review (Heinemann & Heinemann, 2017) related to the construct of burnout, it’s been a topic of concern since the mid-1970s. However, until now, pinpointing and labeling “burnout” as an affliction was too ambiguous a task as there was no simple label or disorder which would capture all the symptoms. This is changed, now, and the symptoms that your physician would need to assess prior to identifying burnout include these three:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from your job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to your job
- Reduced professional efficacy—or, in laymen’s terms, doing a poor job on-the-job
While the symptoms may seem similar to other mood disorders, such as depression or anxiety, the key to the “burnout” label is that the symptoms are specifically related to your job. However, our overall mood is often greatly affected by how we feel about or experience our job, so the demarcation may be a little blurry at first glance. Whether your work week begins or ends on Monday or Friday, chances are you experience a bit of dread when your weekend is ending and your work week getting ready to begin again.
Sunday Syndrome, Anyone?
When my children were in middle and high school, they developed a name for the “disease” that schoolchildren and adults might experience on Sunday afternoons here in the US. They named the temporally experienced a sense of dread, gloom, and anxiety about the end of the weekend and start of another school week as “Sunday Syndrome.” While some people end the weekend on a high—either looking super forward to the return to the workweek grind of Monday morning or eking out those last few hours of weekend lull—others of us miss out on some of the joy that we might be having on Sunday afternoon and evening free from constraints of school or work due to a moodiness and dread of the coming Monday. While Sunday Syndrome isn’t likely to receive an official ICD-11 entry, it can be a symptom of current or impending onset of burnout.
Is it Burnout or Acedia, AKA the “Noonday Demon”?
Ages and ages ago, the original list of Deadly Sins, or “Bad Thoughts,” included an eighth entry, in addition to the well-known seven, that was called acedia. The term was first used to describe the state of monks who reached a point where they felt simply unable to continue their daily routines. Laziness and sloth are words that capture the "appearance" of acedic behavior, but not the full emotional experience of these individuals. Sufferers of acedia, even today, present symptoms not too dissimilar from those of burnout. Theologically, the symptoms include the loss of the capacity to experience joy, lukewarmness of comfort—which translates as a lack of appreciation/acknowledgment of the “Capital I” Issues in life, and an indifference towards the world.
When you “Can’t Even,” it might be Acedia
In contemporary times, acedia is marked by an overwhelming apathy about your job, the routine tasks that adulthood demands, or, for that matter, any activity that requires more effort than surfing the net, instructing Alexa, or hitting the buttons on your remote. It’s often assumed to be depression by sufferers, although it may not bring the sadness of depression, only the lack of interest in engaging in your normal daily routine. Apathy brings along unbearable boredom with doing all of the mundane tasks that daily life demands. Acedia has been termed a “work engendered” form of depression (Bartlett, 1990). Even relationships can be casualties of acedia or burnout when the effort to be authentically present with a partner is more than you believe you can manage. Acedia can make a person want to run away from their “real life” and hunker down in a space where noting is expected of them.
In creative people, it may function as some type of “writer’s block.” It can feel like you just don’t have it in you to create one more brush stroke, one more line of poetry, or one more mark on this world that you were here. In business settings, it can feel as if even a fat paycheck is no longer worth the effort of running the numbers, schmoozing the buyers, or meeting one more manufacturing target. It is hour upon hour of want to scream, “I can’t even!”
Burnout or Acedia: What is the Cure?
For individuals suffering from burnout, the Mayo Clinic suggests they reach out for support such as friends, family members, or professional helpers such as counselors. Adding in regular mindfulness practices, including yoga, meditation, and tai chi, can help bring back a sense of balance to your life. Regular exercise is also essential to overall healthy physical and emotional functioning. Ensuring that your body gets enough rest—including sound sleep—will help you to regroup and build your resources. When your commitment to the job outweighs your commitment to your own well-being, you are likely going to be sacrificing both to a greater extent that you ever imagined.
It turns out that acedia’s cure is pretty much what you’d expect it to be—bringing in balance to your life as well as keeping on doing the tasks that life (or your job) expects of you. Similar to battling depression, the cure is to do the things that require you to show up and engage. Whether it’s hammering out words on a page, just keep writing. If it’s weeding gardens or spreading straw, just keep weeding and spreading the straw. Add a daily walk or engage in a regular time for tai chi or yoga or exercise. These activities will engage your physical self which can help re-invigorate your mental self.
Burnout and acedia are both increasingly common in cultures that value our job-related output more than our intrinsic worth.
Altschule, M. D. (1965). Acedia: Its evolution from deadline sin to psychiatric syndrome. British Journal of Psychiatry, 111, 117-119.
Bartlett, S. J. (1990). Acedia: The etiology of work-engendered depression. New Ideas in Psychology, 8, 389-396.
Heinemann, L. V., & Heinemann, T. (2017). Burnout research: Emergence and scientific investigation of a contested diagnosis. SAGE Open. https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244017697154
Norris, K. (2008). Acedia and me. New York: Riverhead Books
Sledge, B. (2018). You might not actually be struggling with depression. https://blog.heartsupport.com/you-might-not-actually-be-struggling-with…