The burn-on syndrome

Burnout? Not me, think many who are active around the clock. However, even those who are unable to say “stop” to work are putting themselves at risk. Burn-on is what we call it when we find ourselves in a state of permanent stress. We tell you what consequences this newly defined syndrome can have and how we can prevent it.

Just quickly… A sentence that best summed up the life of Sabrina (36) for years.

“Just quickly checking my e-mails”, when the children call out because they finally want to go to the playground with their mother. “Just making a quick copy of something” before going to the next online meeting. “Just quickly transferring the new data into the Excel spreadsheet” – and then finally put the laptop away to call it a day. “I was never mentally in the here and now back then,” she recalls. “And so of course I couldn’t do anyone justice.” Sabrina F. works as an executive, until recently 30 hours per week part-time. As the hours didn’t feel like they did justice to her pressure to perform, Sabrina checked and answered her emails outside of working hours: in the morning before finishing her lunch box, in the queue at the ice cream parlour and in bed at night. 

In between, she experienced the usual chaotic family madness that comes with managing two small children, a partnership and a household. “In a way, I was proud that I managed it all, career and family,” she says, “but I was so mentally and physically at the limit. I don’t know how many times I thought: “soon you’ll have a burnout.”

Burn-on: constantly working to the limit

Permanently stressed and exhausted – but constantly routing: Timo Schiele and Bert te Wildt have found a word for it that defines what people like Sabrina feel: It’s called burn-on. “We came up with it because many people who came to us at the clinic complaining of burnout didn’t quite fit into this complaint pattern,” says Timo Schiele, the head psychologist at the Psychosomatic Clinic in the Diessen Monastery on Lake Ammersee. “Burn-on syndrome describes this state of always being on the verge of burnout.” While burnout patients feel burnt out, unable to do the smallest things and downright rejecting their work, people with burn-on syndrome literally keep burning, says Schiele: “They still identify strongly with their work and apparently master their everyday life. However, inwardly they have long been in the red zone. Even if they don’t like to admit it.” 

Kids, career, cool flat: everything, quickly, here you go!

Burn-on is a phenomenon of our time, writes te Wildt and Schiele in their book. Even if there are no studies on burn-on yet, the generation in their mid-thirties to forties is probably the most affected. This is where the stress level is highest – especially for women in employment. Somehow it’s no wonder: women often no longer have children in their early twenties, but precisely in the phase of life when they (and their partners) are also pursuing a career. If, on top of that, they build a house or buy a flat, which puts financial pressure on them or they rely on their parents to help, there is a lot going on. That’s why this phase of life is aptly called the “rush hour of life”.

Work-life balance – how is that supposed to work?

“More or less everyone in my circle of friends feels the same way,” says Sabrina. “So I thought, what is there to complain about?” Because success, recognition and achievement are extremely important socially, no one questions the capacity limits – everyone collectively carries on. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate oneself from work: Home office, internet and smartphones now make constant availability possible. “It’s typical then to cut out the points in life that balance us out again,” says the psychologist. You have less and less time for friends, sport and family. “My children of course noticed that, I wasn’t fully there for them – but I wanted to prove that I was doing my job well,” Sabrina also says. 

And why am I so unhappy now?

It is precisely this balancing act of giving 100 per cent at work, but also having to perform otherwise, that makes it easier to slip into a burn-out state. What happens then? A feeling of inner despair sets in, you ask yourself why you are no longer satisfied, you are depressed, internally exhausted – and yet you go on and on… That is why psychologists define burn-on syndrome as chronic depression and fatigue, whereas burnout syndrome is acute. Permanent stress naturally also causes physical complaints. The permanent state of tension entails massive tension in the form of back and neck pain, headaches, sleep problems, tinnitus, cardiac complaints can all occur. “Sometimes I would lie on the couch to relax. Then my heart would start racing, my pulse would thump and the ringing in my ears would become unmistakable,” says Sabrina. “That scared me. When I heard about burn-on syndrome, I thought, bingo, that’s what I have. So then I started doing something about it.” 

Downshifting instead of continuing to burn

It certainly doesn’t have to be the eight-week silent retreat to tackle burn-on. Retreat, meditation, less external digital stimuli and more mindfulness in everyday life can be a start. Sabrina reduced her hours – for now. The consequences were immediately noticeable: “I feel so much more alive because I have more time to recharge,” she reports. “We have less money now, but we manage. And my children love it that I don’t have ‘just something quickly’ things to do anymore…”

Awina setzt sich aktiv für eine bessere Vereinbarkeit von Beruf und Familie ein. Wir unterstützen junge Eltern wie dich während der Phase, in der alles gleichzeitig zu passieren scheint. Wir sind in eurer «Rush Hour of Life», wo ihr Familie, Partnerschaft, Karriere und noch so viel mehr unter einen Hut bringen möchtet, an eurer Seite – weil wir wissen, dass ihr genau in diesem Lebensabschnitt besonders viel Support brauchen könnt.