Burn-on is when you're always on the brink of burning out


Keeping calm and carrying on when you're on the edge of burning out is not good for your health. — dpa

It was time to knock off long ago, but you’re still at your desk in the office on Friday evening.

On Saturday, you’ve got emails to write, and on Sunday, you’ll do advance work for Monday.

If you regularly take on a workload like this, you may be on fire for your job.

You may also be suffering from “burn-on”.

What is burn-on?

The term was coined by psychological psychotherapist Timo Schiele and psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr Bert te Wildt.

The two co-authored a book whose German title translates as “Burn-on: Always on the Brink of Burn-out”.

According to them, burn-out is acute depressive exhaustion, while burn-on is chronic.

”We felt it would be constructive to describe [chronic depressive exhaustion] and couch it in a different term in order to categorise patients more accurately,” says Dr te Wildt.

It should be noted that the 11th – and latest – revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), published by the World Health Organization (WHO), includes burn-out as an occupational phenomenon, and not – in contrast to depression – as a medical condition, although their symptoms can be similar.

Burn-out is a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, in the words of the ICD-11.

”[Burn-on] can also be described as masked depression,” Dr te Wildt says.

“The patients are always on the brink of a breakdown, but they carry on and cultivate, behind a smile, a different kind of exhaustion and depressiveness.”

This is what distinguishes burn-on from burn-out, he explains.

While patients with burn-out break down and go on sick leave from work, those with burn-on keep on working.

Dr te Wildt doesn’t see burn-on as something positive, but as a condition “accompanied by significant suffering that tends, however, to be hidden”.

The person continues to perform their job, but their social and private life suffer considerably and no longer provide pleasure or enjoyment.

Many of those affected don’t see the connection between their symptoms and love of their job, Dr te Wildt says.

It can take years before they realize something’s wrong.

What leads to burn-on?

In many societies, performance and success are a measure of a person’s social status.

Burn-out and burn-on are especially prevalent in jobs where a heavy investment of time – usually exceeding normal working hours – is either rewarded or required.

”After a certain amount of work and self-alienation, no job is good any more,” Dr te Wildt remarks.

Signs of burn-on are also common in people with jobs that have no fixed working hours and/or are focused on other people, such as nursing, medicine, therapy and teaching.

“They’re often responsible for other people,” he says.

Dr Florian Becker, a professor of business psychology, points to what he sees as a weakness in burn-on sufferers: “In my view, it has a lot to do with setting boundaries, especially with others.”

People who define themselves chiefly through their achievements are also susceptible to burn-on.

“They’re insecure overachievers,” says Dr te Wildt.

What are the symptoms of burn-on?

While burn-out is characterised by exhaustion and a strong aversion to one’s job, people affected by burn-on are cognitively confined to their job.

This manifests itself, Dr te Wildt says, in a focus on effectiveness and performance, which also occurs in their private life.

On an emotional level, depressiveness dominates.

Although burn-on sufferers are performance-oriented and successful, they’re not proud of their achievements and regard themselves as inadequate.

They have feelings of shame and guilt, even though they’re always there for their job and other people.

”Despite their immense achievements, they suffer from a feeling of never doing enough,” Dr te Wildt says.

The result is an inner void, despair, joylessness and a feeling of meaninglessness.

“Many of them no longer have a sense of their limits, their passions, their interests,” ProfBecker says. “They can’t enjoy successes any more either.”

They feel tired and listless, but at the same time can’t relax.

Even when they’re on holiday, their job is on their mind.

Physical symptoms range from high blood pressure, back pain and headaches to tinnitus and insomnia.

Their body is in a constant state of stress.

Are there remedies for burn-on?

Many burn-on sufferers first need to recognise that they have a problem, then resolve to seek help.

It’s important, according to Dr te Wildt, that they find times and places that aren’t seen as functional, but which emotionally and physically resonate with them.

”I like to use the term ‘sanctuaries’ – that you create sanctuaries for your own humanity that are off limits to your work mode.”

It can help to ask yourself what really suits you, what you used to enjoy doing, what you have always wanted to do and what you feel passionately about.

Alternating between relaxation exercises and demanding sport activities that are naturally exhausting can help too.

And Prof Becker says there’s something else that’s important: “Clearly, saying ‘no’ is a very important ability that many people lack.”

Dr te Wildt has the following advice: “You’ve got to ask yourself what you’re prepared to give, to do, and what clearly exceeds your limitations, and then to draw the line.”

In many cases, out- or in-patient therapy – in which the therapist helps the patient work out strategies and ways to implement them – is necessary to provide support.

For lasting alleviation of burn-on symptoms, the patient’s history should be examined to determine the source of the feeling of inadequacy and pressure to perform. – By Charlotte Ruble/dpa

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Burnout , mental health , depression


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