The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared burnout an “occupational phenomenon” and it is now categorised as an official medical condition.
Prospect reps and the legal team deal with a high caseload of stress-related issues. Stress and depression may qualify as “disabilities” within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010 and invite remedy at employment tribunal.
These are difficult cases to win, however, and employers will often try to resist conceding that stress and depression are sufficiently serious to amount to a disability, which should give an indication of the level of significance attached by many employers to workplace stress.
In a milestone decision welcomed by the European Trade Union body (ETUI), health experts from around the world have recommended that burnout be classified as a medical condition.
For the first time, the WHO reached the decision at this year’s world health assembly in Geneva to include burnout on its International Classification of Diseases (ICD) list.
For decades, experts have debated the definition of burnout and whether it should be considered a disease, prompting the WHO to describe burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from workplace chronic stress that has not been successfully managed”.
Characterised by feelings of exhaustion, depleted energy, increased “mental distance” from, or negative feelings about work, and reduced “personal efficacy”, burnout is something that unions claim is on the increase in modern workplaces.
It is important to note, however, that as a medical diagnosis, burnout refers specifically to the occupational context and should not be applied to other areas of life. It is also important to remember that in a legal claim, it will be necessary to provide medical evidence.
Reducing and avoiding workplace stress
Some commentators have claimed that by 2020, depression will rank second only to heart disease as the leading cause of disability world-wide, which prompts us to consider early intervention methods of stress reduction as well as a renewed focus on dealing with mental health issues.
Despite a myriad of initiatives designed to increase awareness of mental health, employers are still less comfortable dealing with employees with mental health problems than those with a physical disability.
This creates a stumbling block when trying to deal effectively with workplace stress. It is important that employers create a genuinely supportive culture – as opposed to merely applying policies (or applying policies inconsistently) – and addressing the early warning signs of stress as opposed to the consequences.
All too often, members come to us with mental health issues that need not have been escalated had it been for more supportive workplace practices, better informed management and a wider acknowledgement of the seriousness of workplace stress.