“Burn-On”: Dangerously close to “Burn-Out”

- November 1, 2022

Everyone has heard of “burn-out”. Bert te Wildt and Timo Schiele, a doctor and a psychotherapist from Germany have published a book with the title “Burn On: Immer kurz vorm Burn Out” which roughly translates to “Burn On: Always on the brink of Burn Out”. They define “Burn-On” as always being on the verge of “burn-out” but somehow still having just enough energy to keep going for a little bit longer.

There are no official numbers yet on how many people suffer from it nor do any studies exist. When people hear the term “burn-on” and Te Wildt’s and Schiele’s explanation of this modern-day phenomenon, a lot of them relate strongly to it. It makes total sense to them.

Tamas, when you read the article it resonated with you as well. Can you explain in your own words the difference between “burn-out” and “burn-on”, please?

When you have reached the state of “burn-out” you are so exhausted that it’s physically, emotionally and/or mentally painful for you to get out of bed, to get to work or to get just about anything done. Essentially, when you burn out you are not able to function in your everyday life anymore. People who have reached this point usually say, “Okay, I’m done here.” Their bodies and minds just shut down.

I think, “burn-on” happens to many people without them even being fully aware of it. Especially in Western society, we have built or adopted a lot of different well-being and health tools and practises that aim to keep us going at full throttle.

There’s an underlying belief system that we need to keep the system up, that we need to be productive and we need to get that next salary. Without even realising it, we optimise our lives and ourselves to get stuck in a “burn-on” state. An interesting question is: How long can one keep going in “burn-on” mode? How long can one sustain that and at what cost?

Are you ready to change your “burn-on” mindset?

It always depends on the individual and where they’re at on their journey, if they are ready to change their mindset.

What we do observe with some “burn-on” candidates that book a stay is that they just come to New Life for a week or two with the intention to rest and recharge their batteries rather than shift underlying beliefs and patterns.

It’s not enough to make a long-lasting difference but just enough to go back with that little extra energy they got out of their stay to keep going the way they were for a little while longer. Coming here only helped them to extend their “burn-on” state without quite reaching the “burn-out”.

Tamas Hovanyecz - Wellness Coordinator

“Burn-On” Warning Signs to look out for – a few examples

That is actually a classical pattern of “burn-on” patients according to Te Wildt and Schiele: they use relaxation techniques to gain enough strength and energy to keep up the pace they’ve been going at in their work and private lives

Some of them don’t want to hear that they have to change something for a very long time. If they look around themselves they see that friends and colleagues are often operating at the limit as well – so it starts to seem almost normal. We do live in a very fast-paced world and there are a lot of social pressures as well that we are going to talk about a bit more in-depth later on.

From your personal experience with clients, how can one discern between “I have been extremely busy and feeling stressed and need a break but that’s just life sometimes, isn’t it?” or “I need to make some serious changes or I will be running into a problem soon?” Can you give some concrete examples of “burn-on” warning signs that one should look out for?

There are quite a few signs one can look out for. One would be the lack of a clear distinction between work time and free time. I think it’s becoming rather messy these days to do that with information coming onto our smartphones 24/7. However, when we find ourselves in the habit of checking work emails in the morning or in the evening or on public transport, 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 unhealthier patterns that lead to my work life becoming a rat race.

Another sign is when I notice that I don’t have the right amount of energy to do what I love outside of work. I’d say, something is not right, something is out of balance if, at the end of the day, I leave my workplace and don’t have enough energy to do sports or meet up with friends or read a book. Instead, I go home and all I can do is fall on my couch and start watching Netflix.

How much are minor things affecting me and can I take a step back?

Let’s go with two workplace examples: If I get asked to do something by a colleague or a manager it might trigger me, meaning I start noticing my mind running wild with stories along the lines of “Not me again! I don’t want to do that. I don’t have the energy to do that.”

Or if I get into a minor conflict with a co-worker and instantly blame the other person. When I am in a good frame of mind and have the right amount of energy, I’d usually be able to let these things go quite fast without them affecting me too much. When I don’t have the right amount of energy to deal with such everyday occurrences because I’m already running on “burn-on” mode, I’m probably clinging a lot more to what’s coming up within me and the stories my mind starts telling me about this.

The underlying patterns of the occurring problems can be deeper than that. However, when I can neither take that step back to see what is going on from a more objective perspective nor can I find a solution to the problem at hand because I don’t have the energy to think clearly, then that’s definitely another sign.

“Burn-on”: What happened when I didn’t listen to my body

People who are in “burn-on” mode tend to live by the motto “work hard, play hard” and also cram their private lives full of activities and commitments. They keep taking on more and more things even though their bodies might already give them warning signs.

Te Wildt and Schiele define “burn-on” as “chronic exhaustion depression”. They have observed that patients not only feel stressed and anxious but might suffer from high blood pressure, regular headaches or very tense muscles.

What is your take on the statement “The body always tells us the truth”?

Very interesting. It is actually something I can relate to. I got sick this week. Sometimes, as you say, I try and cram as much as possible into my week. I work 40 hours. I have a side project. I have a passion for doing adventure sports – I am into highlining. I also love to meet my friends. Whenever I can, I go home to Hungary to see my family and friends there. So, when I look at my calendar for the next couple of months, I already have an idea of what I’ve got going on on certain weekends. It’s all planned pretty tightly. And I do get a sense of not giving myself enough time to have quality rest. Because whenever I do have free time, I just go and do some adventure sports – beyond working a job that is both physically and mentally demanding.

So obviously, that kind of free time or holiday will not recharge me. While I’m in it I can keep that momentum, I can keep the energy going but at some point – and that happened this week – I had to realise that my body is telling me the opposite. And I still didn’t listen. Quite the contrary. Even when my body was telling me to not engage in anything over the weekend, I was making plans to travel and kept debating “Should I go to Madrid or Porto?” Then I woke up on Thursday morning and started to puke. It was a clear sign that I hadn’t been listening to my body at all which was telling me very clearly that what I needed was rest.

So, I’d say there are certainly people in the “burn-on” category or with “burn-on” tendencies – including myself – that keep optimising their lives and using products that are helping them to push themselves very hard to perform, to work hard and to also play hard.

How to get in touch with your body and learn how to listen to what it has to say

What can I do to become better at being in touch with and listening to my body before I go into the red zone?

We tend to not want to face pain. When you have an uncomfortable body sensation – let’s say you have some pain in your knee – you either start thinking about something else excessively or you start taking a painkiller. That can be a medicine or it can also be my iPhone or whatever distraction can move me away from that pain at that moment.

So, what I would recommend is that if someone starts feeling a bodily sensation that they would rather change than experience, instead of following that initial impulse they start to slow down their breath. Intentionally take very slow, deep breaths through the nose, and try to keep the focus on the knee or whatever else causes the painful sensation for as long as you can. You will realise at some point that you will drift away a little bit.

When you do, you gently bring your attention back to that sensation and just keep breathing deeply. I think this is one of the first steps towards body awareness. It’s nothing crazy. It’s just taking the time and creating the space to become truly aware of what’s going on within the body.

Are you at high risk for “burn-on”?

Who would you say is particularly at risk for “burn-on” and why?

Hot candidates for “burn-on” are goal-oriented people, overachievers and perfectionists, people who like to deliver and execute. The same goes for all those who identify themselves strongly with what they do, who are passionate about their work and who find meaning in it.

I’ve definitely seen this happening in both, the corporate but also the nonprofit world. In the former, you climb the ladder and get financial gains or financial security. Whereas in the latter, people usually go into “burn-on” mode because they believe in the cause and it can often be a very urgent one.

Personally, I watched a lot of social and environmental change-makers go into “burn-on” mode. People who engage in the start-up scene are high-risk candidates as well due to the work environment where you need to deliver to build something up. And I think, there’s generally a lot of pressure on younger people who are just out of university up to probably 45 years old.

From scepticism to gratitude

“Burn-On”: The challenge and questions that opened my eyes and changed my mind

You were able to instantly relate to the term “burn-on” when you heard about it. What is your personal experience with it and what made you realise that you can’t go on like this?

I was very, very lucky to have an eye-opening experience in 2016/2017 when I was working on setting up a social business back in Hungary after a long period of travel.

I had already done three years of corporate work and three years of entrepreneurial work at that point. I had been one part of the group of social and environmental change-makers that I mentioned earlier, so I was aware of the social problems happening around me and really wanted to make a difference in my home country.

When I started the process of co-creating this business I was running from meeting to meeting, doing a lot of networking, being part of round table discussions, trying to build a team, putting together different projects to keep things going and also participating in five different slack-lining channels.

Throughout this exploration phase, I was lucky enough to be invited to a project that was pushing the participants in a revolutionary direction: What happens when we slow down? What happens when you start giving yourself the space and the time to let things emerge? We were a group of high achievers – among them artists, corporate people, politicians and entrepreneurs – that were trying to solve an innovation challenge and were forced not to do.

What I mean by that is we were given the time and space and resources to just be rather than jump into action. We had to learn how to be and learn how to take care of ourselves. That really opened my eyes to how much I have always identified myself with my work, how much it gave me and how much it took away from me.

Why change is so challenging – but possible

So, what did you do to change?

I am not sure if I have changed completely yet as you might guess from what I told you about what happened this week. But I have made some changes – professional and personal ones.

Shortly after that experience, I dropped the whole entrepreneurial route and started to work for one of our previous clients as a full-time employee. And I was able to then bring this new mindset into that new role.

Most organisations still have that old mindset of “We need to do more. We need to achieve more.” It has at times been very challenging for me to go into an organisation and start re-educating my managers and my peers that there’s a different way of showing up.

It is very powerful if we start talking about our issues, our emotions and our mental health in a different way. Again, very lucky for me, I had receptive teams around me. The organisations I worked with were open to getting external consultants and coaches in to help the teams become healthier in what we did.

I think this is one of the biggest challenges for our guests who come here to New Life: They experience something different. When they go back to their jobs, though, they find that the organisations they work for, and the system around them, have not changed yet.

More often than not it happens that you go through a change like this and then you either fall back into your old patterns or you need to radically shift. For some people that might mean leaving their job.

Breaking unhealthy “burn-on” patterns: These key elements worked for me

Okay, so what has helped you most on a personal level to break these unhealthy patterns that you had in your life to the point where you’re at just now?

Creating structure in my life and the realisation that if I don’t have structure, my willpower is not strong enough to keep up the practices that I have picked up along the road have been game changers. There’s research, and several studies, outlining that our willpower is less strong than we think it is. When we are working on setting up new habits, especially around the theme of sustainable well-being – for example, meditation, movement or doing sports, sleeping, eating – creating structures is crucial to keep ourselves going in times of doubt.

When I wake up in the morning, I don’t have to think about what I do anymore. I know that I’m engaging in an hour-and-a-half long morning practice which includes some breathing exercises, some movement, some stretching and some meditation as soon as I get up.

I understand that this is the best I can do for myself: To create structures around these new habits that I want to be doing. And of course, the mind will always try and hijack or bypass these structures – that’s just what the mind does. But the more I manage to repeat these positive behaviours, the more it becomes a habit.

Once that’s happened, my willpower only needs to be used to convince myself to keep repeating my morning practice, which to me seems a little bit less strenuous than convincing myself to go for a five-kilometre run which is part of my morning practice anyway. But somehow that’s different for me.

Two powerful self-care habits for “burn-on” candidates

Another key element of my daily routine is what I call the “digital sunset”.

This means that as the sun goes down, the phone goes down, too. I put it down two hours before I go to bed. I do that because I truly understand that sleeping is one of my number one self-care habits. And if I use my phone and trigger my mind, then my sleep will be jeopardised. I influence how good my sleep will be through the habits I create. If anyone wants to know more about the importance of sleep, I can highly recommend the book “Why we sleep”.

Another habit I have created is called “Shutdown complete”. When I’m done with work, I shut down completely. I consciously merge over to free time. That means that I don’t open my computer. I don’t allow work to come onto my phone to the extent that when my colleagues are setting up a WhatsApp group to communicate about work I ask not to be added to the group.

“How you start today begins with how you finish your day”

Realising that how you wake up and how you start today begins with how you finish your day the night before was another very important perspective shift for me.

Understanding this helps me to keep my evening habits very well-guarded. I know that if I touch my phone after 8 pm, it will impact my sleep which in turn will then impact how I wake up and how I engage in my morning routine.

I have also learned to prioritise my well-being habits. So for example, if I understand that sleeping is more important for my well-being than moving, it means that if I don’t get to have an eight-hour-long sleep I won’t make myself feel guilty if I don’t go and do my morning workout. I know that sleeping is more important.

So I rather sleep for a bit longer and compromise on my morning movement session because I know that two more hours of sleep are more important for recovering my energy than waking up and doing my morning routine.

Internal boundaries and how to change the inner voice that keeps pushing us

What you shared is really powerful. Thank you. You have been explaining how you set boundaries between your work and private life. How do I learn that it’s ok to set these boundaries before I reach my limit?

In my opinion, it’s important to first set internal boundaries. The external world is secondary. The reasons that are underlying the choices that get people into this “burn-on” state are internal ones. Therefore, the shift needs to happen internally first and that means setting boundaries with oneself before starting to set boundaries with the outside world.

It’s a matter of optimising your life a little bit less and providing yourself with the time and space to recharge. We “burn-on” people – I am including myself – have to really master changing that internal narrative, that voice inside our head that keeps on pushing us to lead that kind of lifestyle. That’s why setting an internal boundary is the first step.

Let’s go back to that new habit of mine that I call “shut down complete” to explain that a bit better. I realised that I’m in a fast-paced environment and am aware that I identify myself a lot with my work, that it’s meaningful to me.

I have also realised that I’m not giving myself enough time to recharge. So, at least three times a week I finish work at 6 pm and practice “shut down complete”. First and foremost it’s an internal boundary. I feel that I want and need to give this to myself. Once I am truly comfortable with it, I also communicate it as an external boundary.

It has to come from a place, a source within me first, though, because if it doesn’t I might stop working at 6 pm externally but my mind stays with the work and keeps obsessing about work-related things regardless of me having walked away from the office.

Why we struggle to set and receive boundaries and how to get better at it

That’s a very interesting take on boundaries and where we need to start with them. I know many people – including myself – who feel awkward setting external boundaries and struggle to do so, particularly in a work environment but also in their private lives. Why do you think that is and how can we overcome this?

There are individual and structural issues that are preventing us from being comfortable with setting or receiving boundaries.

On the structural side, many workplaces foster our natural competitiveness as human beings instead of thinking about a holistic, collaborative approach. Especially in older hierarchical structures, it has been built into the system that people compete with each other. It is set up in such a way that it’s actually very hard to say “no.”

I can give you an example: I’m very strict with my boundaries around information not coming into my phone when I’m on holiday. And I have communicated that towards my managers so they know that they cannot reach me when I am away.Once it happened to me that I came back from a holiday on a Wednesday and they put me on a weekend shift. I had not been available to discuss this and when I found out I said I couldn’t do that weekend because I’d already made other plans. I pointed out that this wasn’t what we’d previously agreed on. I set two very clear boundaries there that could have been interpreted in a less favourable way like “He’s not committed enough. He is not appreciative enough of what he’s getting here.” Whereas all I was doing was setting boundaries and sticking to them.

Start small, be patient with yourself and don’t take it personal

On an individual level, I’d say that people who are prone to “burn-on” will likely have a people-pleasing personality or are operating from a space of fear. That’s why they struggle to say “no.”

When you begin to set boundaries, start small. Set boundaries for and with yourself and then once you’ve gained some practice in doing that you can start setting boundaries within your team, with your manager, within the organisational structure or with your own family. Start with the awareness that this is something new that takes courage. Give yourself credit for that. The people who are willing to experiment with setting boundaries or who are already able to set those boundaries should know that they are innovators and blazing a path towards more holistically oriented and more sustainable work environments.

It’s important to keep in mind that when we set or when we receive a boundary, that’s all it is – a boundary. Someone set a boundary with me around herself yesterday. And I tried to just notice what was happening within me when I received it. One of the voices that chimed up as I was reading her message, was “Oh, she is not paying attention to my problem. She’s not taking care of me.” Whereas the truth is that she was just taking care of herself and protecting her own boundaries.

When it comes to setting and receiving boundaries mindfulness practices like the ones we practise here at New Life can be crucial in helping us to detach ourselves from our thoughts, from the stories we tell ourselves around what is actually happening.

If we are able to do that then an experience like the one I have just described will be processed along the lines of “Oh, this is just her boundary and has nothing to do with me.” We won’t make it personal.

Guilt, shame and the power of fear

What role do you think shame and guilt play when someone is in “burn-on” mode?

I think it has something to do with what I just mentioned. When we’re trying to set boundaries it’s very human and very easy to start shaming or guilt-tripping each another. A lot of these patterns, like constantly working overtime, feeling this pressure of having to produce, of having to deliver, are either coming directly from being shamed and guilt-tripped or – which in my experience is more likely – from a place of fear of being shamed or guilt-tripped.

It often goes back to dysfunctional dynamics that I see a lot in organisations. Especially hierarchical organisations where the boss or the management assumes the role of a parent and then the subordinates or the team members assume the role of the children are a breeding ground for these dysfunctional behavioural patterns.

I think, in a lot of organisations, especially in the corporate world, we recreate and we mirror the different patterns we have been raised with. In many cultures, this parent-child relationship holds a lot of shame and guilt-tripping. It is a very, very powerful tool to motivate people to get things done. It’s also a very powerful driver for people to stay producing. Which eventually might lead some of them into a “burn-on” phase.

Two exercises that can help you live in alignment with you values

The doctor and the psychotherapist who wrote the book on the “burn-on” phenomenon stress the importance of creating a life in alignment with our values.

What is the best way to figure out what areas of life are truly important to me outside of what society tries to tell me? And how do I make sure to invest the right amount of energy into each of them accordingly?

Two different approaches come to mind:

One of them is called “energy, love and work”. Every single morning – but also on a larger scale, generally in life – I ask myself, “What gives me energy? What’s my work? What or who gives me love? And how do I show up in these three different fields of life?” I try to make sure that each of these areas is somewhat balanced. Ideally, I can tick a box in all three of these categories. This actually goes back to Freud who said that love and work are the two most important things for human beings.

The other approach is a very simple test that’s available online. It’s a questionnaire that should be done on a regular basis. It shows you what your top five values are at the moment. For me, it’s love, kindness, perspective, humour and curiosity. When I think about these different values I ask myself: “How can I – when I plan my days or my weeks – show up in life practising these five values? How do I bring these five values into my “energy, work and love” system? What is one behaviour that I can practice to express this value?” It’s about awareness and becoming intentional with how I practise my values.

Whenever I sense that my values are changing due to changing life circumstances I re-do the test.

mindfulness based stress reduction

“Burn-On”: Getting the support and tools you need to make sustainable changes

How can New Life Portugal help people who struggle with “burn-on”?

Through what we offer at New Life Portugal we are able to help people discover why they got stuck in “burn-on” mode. From a therapeutical or coaching perspective, we’d be encouraging them to really become aware of their thought processes and the emotional patterns that are keeping them in that state.

It’s crucial to note that we’re not providing solutions. Instead, we are providing a space where these patterns can be discovered and explored. Therefore, a big chunk of the work is inquiring within oneself and digging down internally to find out “How did I get to this point? Why have I been doing what I have been doing?”

Tools and practices that support your well-being

We are also offering very tangible tools like breathing exercises, mindfulness practices, yoga, meditation, and various other modalities that can be extremely helpful on this journey of understanding why we got stuck in “burn-on” mode and supporting personal growth towards sustainable well-being. Once the clients have gained some insights and realised that it’s within their power to get out of the “burn-on” phase, we might be able to provide the right tools that help them change their habits and behaviours – like setting healthy boundaries. They can practise how to communicate these boundaries and learn how to build more authentic relationships with family members and co-workers.

Get in touch with the intelligence of your body and your emotions

A lot of people come to New Life during a period of transition in their life. Maybe they’re in-between jobs. Maybe they quit their job and are looking for a new career. They intend to use their two to four weeks here to plan their next moves. What often happens is that when the people who come here are given the structure that allows them to slow down and begin dipping their toes into all the things we provide, they realise that how they wanted to plunge back into their next move has largely been coming from a space of anxiety or fear or stress. They become aware of these underlying beliefs like “I need to be useful. I need to contribute my part to society. I need to deliver and therefore I need to plunge back.”

This comes with the realisation that it’s maybe not what their body wants or what their intuition is telling them. For many of them, it’s the first time that they come into contact with the tools and acquire skills that allow them to get out of their minds and the stories they’re telling themselves and into this different type of intelligence that comes from the body and our emotions. When they start doing this kind of work it sometimes leads to deeper realisations like “Maybe I want to explore something radically different. Oh, there’s something else that might be waiting for me.”

We offer programs that can prevent a “burn-out”

I truly believe that both things are important – the self-exploration as well as the practical implementation of tools. If someone comes here without having done any previous work on themselves, they have the chance to try both here – depending on the length of their stay. And someone who has already been doing some sort of therapeutic work might be able to tap more into the practical stuff that New Life has to offer. Through acquiring these tools and learning how to put them into practice they may be able to change how they relate to what led them into “burn-on” mode.

It all depends on the person and their individual journey, though. Of course, there are also the people who don’t go down that road and who are just going to be plunging back into the work or the system that they came from. For these clients, we hope that they take away some mindfulness practices and different tools that allow them to plunge back in a slightly healthier way. If someone is suffering from “burn-on” and ready to make changes in their life I can say that we offer programs that can prevent a “burn-out”.

Trust yourself and trust the process

Can a two-week stay at New Life really lead to a fundamental shift when it comes to “burn-on” which Te Wildt and Schiele describe as “chronic exhaustion depression”? Or would someone who expects that be expecting too much?

Typically, what we see with people come here who have been running their lives at full throttle for let’s say the past five years is that it’s physically strange for them to slow down. It’s physically strange for them to be given all this space and time and structure so that they don’t have to care about anything and can just be. All they need to do is slow down.

I often see new clients rushing around when they first arrive. On day three or four, they start to adjust to the pace of this place. If you have been intrigued to come here, made the decision and booked your stay then you have already done the hard work.

The recommendation and the invitation would be to trust yourself that you have made the right decision and to trust the process here and the team that creates and holds the space. If you manage to trust in this way, I think, we can almost guarantee that you will have a meaningful experience.

The power of the breath and shifting from time to energy management

You are the wellness coordinator at New Life Portugal. When you work with someone one-on-one and you recognise that they might be a “burn-on” client what would you do to help them?

I would teach them how to breathe. Most of us have dysfunctional breathing patterns. When we are in a “burn-on” state we often feel stressed or anxious or activated. One way of breaking that cycle is to break the breathing pattern – from shallow chest breathing to long, deep and slow breaths. Learning how to breathe that way really helps people to regulate their nervous system which in return allows them to get get back into balance.

From there, they can start seeing some of the challenges they’re facing with much more clarity. A lot of the time, I also touch upon what we started to call “energy management” instead of “time management”. In mainstream society, we often think about time management. I firmly believe that we need to start thinking more about how we manage our energy in such a way that it’s sustainable.

People who are struggling with “burn-on” really try hard to manage that but for one reason or another, they can’t make it sustainable.

Tamas brings extensive experience as a coach and facilitator in leadership, personal development, team building, and resilience to his role as Wellness Coordinator at New Life Portugal.

Thanks very much for the interview, Tamas!

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