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Burnout redefined by the World Health Organization

Burnout, whether your own or your staff's, drains productivity. It reduces efficiency and increases absenteeism and presenteeism (working while sick). One of the problems with burnout is that many of us only have a vague sense of what it is, if we recognize it at all.   

The World Health Organization periodically releases updates to the International Classification of Diseases. The ICD codifies human conditions, including injuries, diseases and anything that causes death. It also records factors influencing health or external causes of mortality and morbidity. These efforts provide a basis for determining what health services to offer, where to allocate spending and where to invest in research and development. 

In the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases, submitted to the May 2019 World Health Assembly, burnout is now recognized as an occupational phenomenon. 

The ICD 10 did include burnout, but it vaguely defined it as "state of vital exhaustion" under the category of "problems related to life-management difficulty." This vague definition likely reflected the lack of understanding and recognition of the condition at that time. The ICD 11 provides a clearer definition of burnout as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." 

It is characterized by: 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. 

The ICD 11 stresses that this definition applies only to the occupational context and not in other areas of life.  

The WHO will undertake to develop evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace. With more awareness and guidance about burnout, hopefully, there will be less stigma about it and a validation for those suffering from it. It will increase the priority of mental health in the workplace and highlight the importance of improving workplace culture.  

Burnout is a very real danger for lawyers and their staff, especially for those in sole and small firms. It is important to be aware of burnout — not only in ourselves but in our staff as well. The clearer characterization provided in ICD 11 will help people and treatment providers better identify the condition and take steps to mitigate the symptoms.  

From the law firm's perspective, we should not wait for the WHO's guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace to implement our own ideas on improving this. We all want a happy, healthy, high-functioning team to help us run our practice. The updated characterization of burnout helps us recognize it, and it gives us a direction to proactively create an environment that addresses the symptoms and causes identified in ICD 11. This will go a long way toward creating a workplace that fuels us rather than using us as fuel.