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How burn-on can be another form of burnout

Burn-on describes the process by which an employee continues to work themselves to the bone, even when they're already emotionally and physically exhausted

Published: Jun 23, 2023 01:14:17 PM IST
Updated: Jun 23, 2023 01:17:43 PM IST

How burn-on can be another form of burnoutImage: Shutterstock

Burnout is now a well-known phenomenon among HR managers and executives. "Burn-on," on the other hand, is much less publicized and can often go unnoticed, even if its consequences for employee well-being can be just as serious and damaging.

Burn-on describes the process by which an employee continues to work themselves to the bone, even when they're already emotionally and physically exhausted. They ace all the tasks assigned to them, attend meeting after meeting, respond to all their emails and messages, work through their (rare) vacations and stay in the office late... even though they're on the verge of implosion. Indeed, people in burn-on mode can shine through their productivity and professional commitment, which often gives the impression that they're thriving.  

But the reality is quite different. From extreme fatigue and sleep disorders to the fear of disappointing colleagues and superiors or the inability to separate work and private lives, the symptoms of burn-on are many and varied, making them difficult to detect. They are, however, similar to those of depression, according to Dr Bert te Wildt, who wrote the book "Burn-on: Always on the Brink of Burnout" with the psychiatrist Timo Schiele. "[Burn-on] can also be described as masked depression. 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," explains the psychotherapist, speaking to the South Morning China Post.

Taking a step back

Burn-on can lead to burnout, as sufferers underestimate their condition. They downplay their fatigue and emotional fragility, or attribute this to factors other than work. But burn-on does not systematically evolve into burnout: some people suffer from it for years without it preventing them from going to the office every day. This explains why the phenomenon is still poorly understood by public authorities and companies alike.

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While the effects of burn-on are more pernicious than those of burnout, prevention is essential in both cases. The people in an individual's closest inner circle are generally the first to notice a deterioration in physical and mental health. It's important to take the time to listen to someone who may be suffering from burn-on and, if necessary, make an appointment with a doctor to see if psychological support is needed. Taking time out for yourself is essential to guard against burn-on, while taking stock and re-evaluating the place a career can occupy in your life.

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But that's not easy: work is a defining part of our identity, which is why we automatically talk about our job when a stranger asks us about ourselves. Many people remain deeply attached to their jobs, even if they no longer find fulfillment in them. But working doesn't mean working yourself to the point of exhaustion. That's why it's important to rethink priorities and learn to say "no." As Bert te Wildt explains to the South Morning China Post, "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."