This week, CBS News, CNN, and other major outlets blared headlines and articles — most accompanied by photos of office workers collapsed face-down on their desks — claiming that burnout had officially been recognized as a disease. The news spread like wildfire but was almost completely unfounded.

The World Health Organization’s ICD-11 — the latest revision of its International Classification of Diseases — lists burnout in a section dedicated to “factors influencing health status or contact with health services,” which is distinct from its sections on diseases. Based on ICD, burnout is no more a disease than other factors in this section like “low income” or “dependent relative needing care at home.”

Only WHO’s Definition of Burnout has Changed

To stop this viral outbreak of misunderstanding, WHO issued a special statement:

Under any circumstances, note WHO’s caution:

A critical point in engaging with the ICD is that inclusion or exclusion is not a judgement on the validity of a condition…

What Is ICD?

The ICD is a tool for gathering data and monitoring health and disease. In some environments, especially in the US, it’s used to classify and validate healthcare financial transactions. (Learn more about ICD from the video, below.) Outside research and public health settings, a typical American primary care physician — from what I hear — is unlikely to use the ICD codes for “factors influencing health status.” Consequently, it remains to be seen whether QD85, the new ICD-11 code for burnout, is any more likely to be used than Z73.0, the old ICD-10 code for burnout. Very little has changed.

Let’s hope this week’s kerfuffle evokes meaningful discussions about burnout. In the interim, the lesson for many of us is to approach with skepticism media reports related to health science, to do our own due diligence, and to resist sacrificing our sensibility to whatever’s trending that day.