Most people are familiar with the idea of burnout. The name is explanatory; it means burning yourself out like a candle to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. Probably, you are unable to engage in activities that you would otherwise enjoy. You experience a state of hopelessness, and you finally take leave from work.
On the other hand, in the case of burn-on, the lesser-known close cousin of burnout, you accomplish all your tasks well, despite being exhausted. It’s much harder to accept something is wrong; you’ll reply to all emails, attend all events, and stay in office till late.
You’ll work well. It’s just that you’re edging towards an implosion.
The difference between burnout and burn-on
The term ‘burn-on’ was coined by psychological psychotherapist Timo Schiele and psychiatrist and psychotherapist Dr Bert te Wildt. They co-authored a book whose German title translates as "Burn-on: Always on the Brink of Burn-out'.
Explaining it earlier this year to the news site South China Morning Post, they explained that burn-out is acute depressive exhaustion, while burn-on is chronic. In short, while burn-out is usually a result of workplace stress that has not been managed properly, burn-on is ‘masked depression’.
People who suffer from burn-on carry on working with a smile, hiding a different kind of exhaustion. Those who suffer from burn-out go on leave, but those insisting on burning on, continue to work. It’s far from positive, as Wildt explains that it is a condition that is accompanied by suffering that tends to be hidden. They perform well at their job, but their social and private lives suffer as it no longer provides pleasure and enjoyment, as they feel they’re never doing enough. They don’t know their own limits, and their success doesn’t mean much to them. Tired all the time, yet they’re unable to relax and their body is in a state of constant stress. It can take years for them to realise or even accept that something is wrong. They downplay their condition, till others in their circle notice the warning signs of deteriorating mental and physical health and urge them to get help.
“It’s a pre-cursor that could lead to depression, which is a medical condition,” explains Dubai-based holistic physician Priyanka Sainani. “Burn-out is a mature kind of state, where you are so exhausted that you are not able to manage your day-to-day tasks,” she says. Burn-on doesn’t automatically mean you’ll experience burnout, people can suffer for a long time and go to work, without accepting what’s wrong with them.
“It is an initial phase that takes you towards depression," she explains. "When the circumstances do not change, and a person begins to feel trapped in a vicious cycle, you reach a state of burn-out, that leads to depression," says Sainani.
In a state of burnout, a person is exhausted and doesn’t want to work. However, a person who is experiencing ‘burn-on’, cannot separate themselves from their work.
Sainani explains, “Generally, work is so central to our lives, especially in terms of exposure, dynamic relationships with colleagues, and dealing with unrealistic expectations at work. When you do not have a balanced work life, it affects your state of mind. People stop identifying the stressors consciously, and that’s when it begins to take a toll on them.” There could be several reasons for this, stemming from an innate need to look after other people. This is most common in professions such as medicine, nursing, or even teaching. They are unable to set boundaries owing to fear of being guilt-tripped, shamed, which quite often mirror experiences and dysfunctional behavioural patterns in childhood.
Another reason is that many people identify themselves with their achievements and pride themselves with being over-achievers, explains Wildt in his book. This fuels the growing insecurity and builds a desperate need to perform. Organisations are largely responsible for feeding this belief that one must work themselves to the bone to achieve success. There are offices that fuel competition among colleagues, rather than a healthy sense of collaboration.
The warning signs for burn-on
Tamas Hovanyecz , a Portuguese wellness expert is one of the few who addressed the idea of ‘burning-on’ on his wellness website, New Portugal after Wildt’s study. There are quite a few warning signs, including the blurred distinction between the professional and personal space, he explains. When we find ourselves in the habit of checking our work emails on public transport, on the way to work, that’s a red flag. “To me, that is a clear sign that there is a lack of discernment between having a healthy private life with clear boundaries and engaging in unhealthy patterns that lead to my work life becoming a rat race,” he says.
Another warning sign is when a person doesn’t have the energy to do what they want outside work. Something is “off balance” when a person leaves work and doesn’t have the energy to do anything else, including sports or meet up with friends. The exhaustion slowly eats into your psyche, and you find yourself getting triggered by relatively minor things. You get into random spats with your colleague, as your tired mind is now telling you different stories. The deeper problem is when you find that you’re unable to step back and look at the matter from an objective point of view. You don’t have the energy to think clearly, though you keep shaking it off.
Some people have a lower threshold and can experience burn-on and later and burnout as well. “If they don’t have a proper lifestyle balance, like eating or sleeping well, they don’t realise the body is already stressed,” says Sainani. They won’t seek help because they don’t think that a state of just uneasiness is enough to do that. She also points out how a state of building burn-on, can lead to a person having psychosomatic effects, which could result in sudden hives, headaches, or even allergies.
How to address burn-on
It’s a subjective call to action, explains Sainani. The person needs to realise that they are in a state of burn-on; it must be brought to their consciousness. This should usually come from a strong support system, like friends, family, or their spouses.
For starters, the person needs to accept what they’re doing to themselves is going to have a negative impact on them in the long run. When we function in a state of burn-on, we’re mostly in a state of ‘auto mode’ that could culminate in disastrous effects on physical and mental well-being.
Such a prolonged state of exhaustion could result in blood pressure, impaired cognitive functioning, insomnia, the inability to form relationships, and being unproductive. To address burn-on and burn-out, one needs to be mindful and understand even the slightest changes in behaviour, says Sainani. “They need to accept that they are stressed, and that the stress is coming from work.”
To address burn-on and burn-out, one needs to be mindful and understand even the slightest changes in behaviour. They need to accept that they are stressed, and that the stress is coming from work...
You might have heard this advice before, but it’s never too late: Set your boundaries, and not just at work, but with inter-personal relationships. Evaluate your priorities again and ask yourself how much you can do, what exceeds your limitations and then draw a line.
Once you have understood the problem yourself and the root cause, then you can opt for other practices such as hourly meditation, yoga and avoiding work emails after hours. If you believe your workplace fosters a toxic environment and is forcing you to work beyond your limits, escalate it, talk to the human resources department, or leave for other options.