World Health Organization Redefines Burnout, Classifies it as an “Occupational Phenomenon”... What’s Next?

Peter C. Atherton, P.E
Posted on: 06/24/19
Written by: Peter C. Atherton, P.E

Effective and sustainable employee engagement and growth is critical to success in the workplace, marketplace and recruiting space.  This is especially true for competitive and talent-starved industries, including the architecture/engineering/construction (A/E/C) industry.

The presence of professional burnout, and the disengagement that results, diminishes an organization’s attractiveness and brand to both talent and clients – a one-two punch to our long-term success.

The World Health Organization’s actions legitimize workplace burnout and give more definition for those who may be experiencing exhaustion, distance, and loss from work they once loved. 

The question for leaders is what, if anything, to do now?

Depending on our response, this redefinition and classification by the World Health Organization can provide organizations and leadership teams with opportunities to further differentiate, incentives to recalibrate, or possible exposure.

What the World Health Organization Did
“28 MAY 2019 - Burn-out is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. It is not classified as a medical condition.

It is described in the chapter: ‘Factors influencing health status or contact with health services’ – which includes reasons for which people contact health services but that are not classed as illnesses or health conditions.

Burn-out is defined in ICD-11 as follows:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized 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.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Burn-out was also included in ICD-10, in the same category as in ICD-11, but the definition is now more detailed.

The World Health Organization is about to embark on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace.” 

Link to release:

Growth-oriented organizations have already bought-into the benefits of effective employee engagement.  They design systems focused on performance and maximizing innovation and sustainability.  They also build-in flexibility and encourage new growth, especially as our employees evolve and transition from and into new work and life seasons.

The redefining and classification of burnout is just one more opportunity for the leaders of these organizations to engage their employees and internal peer groups with experts to discuss, help identify, and begin to implement the best prevention strategies. 

For organizations who seek to develop a more engaged, high-performing, and sustainable culture, the redefining and classification of burnout can be a catalyst to:

  • Begin conversations about employee engagement, excellence, and burnout prevention.

  • Establish common language, define goals, and identify opportunities and any obstacles.

  • Develop strategies to close gaps and realize better outcomes with more relevant and effective training and well-designed employee resource and stakeholder groups.

For leaders and organizations who don’t seek to understand and take new action to address chronic and unmanaged workplace stress, there could be exposure.  This could take the form of reduced commitment, loyalty, and performance both inside and outside of the organization (i.e., the manifestation of the definition of burnout described above) – and even the form of new claims.

In discussing this World Health Organization action with insurance industry and human resource experts, more exposure through Worker’s Compensation or Employment Practices claims could be possible. 

It is not the goal here to layout a specific case for either; just to point out stated possibilities, even if any claims would be initially challenged.  It could also take time for carriers to decide if claims would be uninsurable or if exclusions, limitations, or added premiums for occurrences would result moving forward.

The best approach is to be proactive.
Top talent today wants to win at both work and life… and our most dedicated employees, managers, and leaders already want to prevent and reverse burnout – a concept that is now no longer abstract.

“Our most dedicated employees, managers, and leaders already want to prevent and reverse burnout – a concept that is now no longer abstract.” –Peter C. Atherton 

Spending time as a leadership team to figure out where you are, where you want to be, and design a plan to get there with the necessary authenticity, capacity, and courage to trigger new action has the power to create immediate engagement, enhanced wellness, sustainable growth, and greater commitment, loyalty and profits.

Each team and organization has a different starting point and solution path.  Your solution has to be right for your context, situation, and goals.

I have a passion for helping leaders and organizations engage top talent and prevent burnout while continuing to grow and excel. 

Below is a link to a free quiz that will help you resolve overwhelm or reverse burnout, as well as a link to free sections of my book.  Both will better position you and your team to win in this new era of work and workplace transformation.

Quiz link: 

Book link: 

About the Author:  Peter C. Atherton, P.E. is an A/E/C industry insider having spent more than 24 years as a successful professional civil engineer, principal, major owner, and member of the board of directors for a high-achieving firm.  Pete is now the President and Founder of ActionsProve, LLC, author of Reversing Burnout. How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow! A Blueprint for Professionals and Business Owners, and the creator of the I.M.P.A.C.T. process.  Pete works with A/E/C firms to grow and advance their success through strategic planning implementation, executive coaching, performance-based employee engagement, and corporate impact design.  Connect with him at

Reversing Burnout. How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow!

Reversing Burnout. How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow!  A Blueprint for Professionals and Business  Owners uses a thorough and easy-to-follow approach, that only an engineer can provide. Peter Atherton presents the promise and the opportunities of the new professional and organizational landscape. As engineering is the practical application of science, Reversing Burnout is the practical application of the new era we’re in to reverse professional and executive burnout, improve employee engagement, and grow.

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