“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” the WHO said. “Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
The WHO defines burn-out as being characterised by three dimensions: 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.
In South Africa, burn-out is more prevalent than would be expected. A recent study, based on a survey of 5 837 professionals across every major job category in the country, found that almost a quarter of business people in South Africa felt that they were overworked as a result of working long hours and staff shortages. Doctors were some of the worst affected, with 50% saying that they are depressed due to a combination of being overworked, working long hours, and burnout.
The updated ICD list, dubbed ICD-11, was drafted following recommendations from health experts around the world. It includes a few other new additions, including classification of “compulsive sexual behaviour” as a mental disorder, as well as recognising video gaming as an addiction, listing it alongside gambling and drugs like cocaine. ICD-11removes transgenderism from its list of mental disorders, listing it instead under the chapter on “conditions related to sexual health”.
The inclusion of burn-out in the ICD-11 partly owes its thanks to years of misunderstanding about chronic fatigue syndrome, sometimes referred to as “yuppie flu”. While burn-out has similar symptoms, the two are distinct syndromes, which is why the WHO focuses on the fact that burn-out relates specifically to issues around work.
Controversy has raged for nearly 30 years as to whether chronic fatigue syndrome is real. A study conducted a few years ago proved that the condition, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis or ME, does trigger a distinctive immune response in the body.
It was called yuppie flu because the first identified sufferers tended to be aged between 20 and 40 and the illness was most frequently seen among professional people. Symptoms include extreme physical and mental fatigue and painful limbs. The condition can also affect memory, concentration and digestion, with some sufferers left so weak that they lose their job or become bed or wheelchair-bound.
Burn-out is nowhere near as debilitating, but medical professionals have long believed that it can lead to other health problems such as depression. However, its inclusion in the ICD-11 may cause complications in the workplace as it is very difficult to diagnose accurately.