No, burnout isn't a 'medical condition.' (But it's still a big problem.)

Topics: Care Delivery, Workforce Supply, Public Health, Providers, Diseases & Conditions

Analysis from our publisher

By Jackie Kimmell and Kate Vonderhaar

In recent weeks, dozens of media outlets warned about the latest affliction of modern life: "burnout," which—according to the media—had been promoted to a full-fledged medical condition in the ICD-11.

"Burnout is officially a medical condition, according to the World Health Organization," reported USA Today. Forbes declared: "Burnout Is Now An Officially Diagnosable Condition: Here's What You Need To Know About It." The Seattle Times took it one step further: "Burned out at work? Now you can get a doctor's note for it."

The truth was a little less headline-worthy. WHO's newest classification had simply defined burnout as an "occupational phenomenon" or a syndrome "resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."

As WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier clarified to Medscape, "'Burnout' has not in fact been recognized by WHO as a medical condition." Lindmeier added, "Having said that, the importance of well-being in the workplace is well understood by WHO."

So what's the 'official' definition of burnout?

Under WHO's new guidance, burnout is classified by three factors:

  • "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."

Health care workers have long recorded these symptoms of burnout in their roles. What seems new, however, is WHO's acknowledgment that workers in any profession can experience burnout—and that it's not just a personal problem facing individuals.

Whereas the ICD-10 seemed to blame burnout on the victim, classifying it under "Problems related to life-management difficulty," the ICD-11 classifies it under "Problems associated with employment or unemployment."

The impact of burnout in health care

We've long known that burnout among physicians has real consequences. It directly costs health care organizations somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million per doctor, costs the U.S. health system $4.6 billion annually, and leads physicians to be around twice as likely to commit a self-reported medical error.

But it's not just physicians who are burned out. Nurses report rising burnout and growing disengagement at work, while 95% of HR leaders in one survey said burnout was sabotaging workforce retention in all sectors of the U.S. workforce.

It's normal (and even healthy) to feel stress occasionally at work. But if that stress turns chronic, we will eventually burn out.

And it doesn't just impact us. Stress can often be contagious, so it's important that all workers, especially managers, work to moderate their own work stress to avoid negatively impacting their team.

How health care workers (and others) can manage burnout

So what can you do to mitigate burnout? Advisory Board Research has found five important steps in controlling stress:

1. Clarify your priorities. Research shows that many of us spend as much as 40% of our work time on tasks that are either low-value or that others could do, leaving us feeling rushed—and stressed—when finishing the remaining 60%.

So how can you identify and weed out these unnecessary tasks? You have to be smart about what to prioritize. Your priorities should include work that directly supports a strategic initiative or business need, is top-of-license for your level and skillset, and can be meaningfully advanced in the next month. Aim to focus on three priorities each month.

2. Delegate all other tasks. Once you've identified your top three priorities for the month, double-check that your manager agrees with them—and explicitly discuss what you won't focus on. Other work still has to get done, of course—but your goal will be to delegate as many of these other tasks as possible or defer them (rescheduling to a later date on your calendar), so you can focus on these top three priorities.

3. Learn to say 'no.' Most of us fall somewhere along a "no" spectrum. At one extreme, some people say no to every "extra" request that comes their way. Eventually, colleagues stop asking for their help, and they miss out on opportunities to contribute their expertise and experience.
But far more health care leaders fall toward the other extreme: saying "yes" to every request, at the expense of your most important priorities. A better approach is to strike a balance between these two extremes. If you achieve this, people will be willing to ask for your help—but they'll also understand that you might not be able to offer it, depending on your other priorities.

4. Consciously seek out sources of support. At the start of a project, make a point of thinking about who can advise and support you along the way. Ask yourself:

  • Who has done this before and can provide expertise?
  • Whose buy-in and support will I need?
  • Who should I outsource some of the work to?

Make sure you're thinking outside of the box and expanding the definition of who you typically consider to be on your "team." For example, did you consider your predecessor in the role? People in similar roles in other departments? People in other facilities? Research has found that up to 50% of necessary support is provided by people in our secondary, versus primary, network.

5. Build a personal 'board of directors.' Beyond just finding help for specific projects, aim to create an informal "personal board of directors" who can both advise you in your current role and as you move through your career. Target a diverse group of five to ten individuals who can provide a range of perspectives, and with whom you actively invest in cultivating a relationship. And make sure to include people who can help meet emotional needs—by listening, offering perspective, or giving you a pep talk—to help you feel better in the day-to-day.

*Editor's note: Jackie Kimmell is a senior analyst at American Health Line and Kate Vonderhaar is a practice manager at Advisory Board Research, a division of Optum, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group. Advisory Board Research publishes American Health Line.