Workplace burnout has been designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an “occupational phenomenon.” Employers should begin to formulate and implement mechanisms for dealing with the issue.

The World Health Organization:

WHO is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, and is a part of the United Nations that focuses on global health issues. The WHO has been working since 1948 on such issues as immunizations, health education, and smallpox and polio eradication. The United States is one of the nearly 200 members of that worldwide organization.

The original Preamble of the WHO’s Constitution – which remains unchanged, over 70 years later – defines health as a state of “complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” To support that definition, the WHO maintains the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, often referred to as the ICD.

The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems:

The ICD was designed to: map all health conditions (both mental and physical); classify those disorders; and provide diagnostic assistance with respect to those conditions. It currently is the most widely used statistical classification for diseases and disorders in the world. The most recent version of the ICD – the 11th – was accepted by WHO’s governing body on May 25, 2019, and becomes effective as of January 1, 2022.

ICD-11 includes the term “burn-out” as an occupational phenomenon (but not as a medical condition). It defines burn-out as: “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Employers should note that in the ICD-11, burn-out is defined exclusively within the occupational context.

In addition, the three dimensions of burn-out as set forth in the ICD-11 provide a roadmap to employers who are sincerely concerned about employees’ mental health and well-being. Employees moving toward burn-out are experiencing:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism/cynicism related to the job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

What can employers do?

While WHO has stated that it is “about to embark on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace,” none have been proposed yet. For now, then, it is up to employers to become more knowledgeable about work-related stress and its effect on productivity and healthy workplaces. Here are five “best practice” tips for employers who want to assure a mentally healthy workforce, and a legally compliant workplace:

  • Become aware and be able to discuss the symptoms and consequences of stress-related burnout, and environmental factors that may exacerbate it;
  • Determine which federal employment laws apply to requests for accommodation and leave regarding mental health and stress-related issues;
  • Understand the applicability of the ADA’s mandatory “interactive process” for accommodation of stress-related conditions and the applicability of the FMLA’s “serious health condition” requirement;
  • Establish legally compliant methods for returning an affected employee to work after a stress-related leave; and
  • Implement written policies and procedures to identify and minimize stress-related burnout, and assure legal compliance with those efforts.


Artwork from Headspace, the mindfulness and meditation app, found at