Burn-on: How Can Tech Leaders Prevent It?

While burnout is the term widely used to describe the state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion that occurs as a result of sustained periods of stress at work, the lesser known and under researched ‘burn-on’ has become an increasingly recognised phrase in the modern-day workplace.

What is the definition of burn-on?

So, what exactly is burn-on, and how is it any different from burnout? The term ‘burn-on’ is a phrase used to describe the preliminary stage of depression leading to the feeling of burnout. Burn-on can lead to feelings of constant stress, fatigue and depression due to workload. However, where those suffering from burnout have exhausted themselves to the point of having no energy left, those with burn-on keep overworking themselves, pushing through the struggle to keep up and meet their own expectations. Unlike burnout, burn-on is seen as a long-term mental and physical strain, as a result of being overwhelmed with working long hours, sacrificing sleep and social life and giving everything to their career. Instead of taking time off as someone with burnout would, burn-on sufferers continue to overwork and stress levels remain high. 

The phrase ‘burn-on’ was coined by Professor Bert te Wildt, a medical doctor, scientist and author. As professor for psychiatry, psychosomatic medicine and psychotherapy he is affiliated with the Ruhr-University Bochum and the technical university in Munich, Germany. He explains the concept of burn-on further in his recent TEDx talk that you can watch here.

How does burn-on affect the tech industry?

There are a number of ways in which burn-on could affect the overall progress and success of your tech company. If your employees are overworking themselves, be it coding late into the night or spending hours of their weekend fixing bugs, this could lead to a reduction in overall productivity. By working too hard, stress levels rise which can have serious physical consequences, such as high blood pressure or even heart attacks. Burn-on, if not addressed, will inevitably lead to burnout, and serious exhaustion-related depression. Burn-on is not sustainable, and therefore needs to be prevented at all costs to ensure your tech team is working to the best of its ability, in a healthy and enjoyable work life balance.

Signs of burn-on in your tech team

Spotting burn-on before it develops into burnout can be difficult, as employees are more likely to push through their fatigue and stress, without opening up about how they are really feeling. However, eventually they will reach a state of burnout that becomes impossible to ignore. It is important to try to spot burn-on before that happens, so if you are able to identify any signs of burn-on before things get too overwhelming, you may be able to review your employee’s issues and discuss with them to decide on an improved or alternative way of working which suits them.

1. Reduced productivity or team participation 

If an employee seems to be showing signs of reduced productivity, be it missing deadlines, submitting work which is not up to their usual standard, or not contributing as much to team meetings, this could be a sign that they are feeling overwhelmed with their workload, or perhaps their stress levels have increased over recent weeks. They may well be experiencing burn-on, so this would be a good time to check in with them to make sure their workload is manageable, and that their deadlines and goals are realistic. 

2. Lacking concentration or creative input 

Perhaps you notice an employee might not be paying as much attention to their tech tasks and assignments. Maybe someone who is usually quite vocal, full of imaginative ideas and good at taking the initiative suddenly seems like the quietest person in the room. This could be another tell-tale sign of burn-on.

3. Low workplace enthusiasm and morale

If you see that an employee has stopped turning up to after-hours work social events, or that they are not as chatty with their colleagues on a daily basis, perhaps this lack of excitement in their social life could be a result of burn-on. 

Instead of waiting until it’s too late, read our five tips below on how tech leaders and business owners can prevent their employees from burn-on. 

How to avoid the pre-burnout phase altogether?

1. Setting Boundaries

Establish clear boundaries between work and personal life by defining specific work hours for your employees and making sure they stick to them, ensuring they avoid checking emails or working during off-hours if not specified. This allows for them to fill their free time with activities that contribute positively to mental health, for example, regular exercise and having time to make healthy meals. Equally, ensuring they have enough down time to socialise with their friends, and to spend quality time with family. This, in turn, will contribute to the improvement of energy level and resilience to stress. We suggest encouraging a full lunch break, leaving space for employees to go for a small walk to reduce stress and to clear the mind.  

2. Good Communication 

Ensuring your tech team has an established method of communication is a great way to prevent employee burn-on. If everyone in the team knows what tasks should be prioritised, and when things should be completed by, this in itself will reduce overall stress or the possibility of overworking. There are many ways this can be done, be it weekly check-ins, or shared to-do lists and calendars, or platforms especially made to help you and your team manage tasks, such as Monday or Asana (and here’s a list with more), so that everyone knows where they are. As many tech teams have remote workers spread across countries, this could be slightly more challenging. If your tech business is built from a team of remote workers, then read our article about asynchronous work and how you as a tech leader can put it into practice. 

3. Take a Break 

The importance of taking a break from work does not need to be explained (but we did it in this article!). The countless benefits have been proven time and time again. Be it breaking up the work day with short, regular breaks, switching off after work by distancing from work-related devices to give yourself time to recharge and engage in non-work activities, and of course taking those well deserved holidays for travelling and completely disconnecting, all of these are essential for long-term sustainability and a successful tech team and business.

4. Offer Support 

It is important that your tech employees are aware that they can speak openly about how they are feeling. Whether they talk to their manager, other colleagues, or if you are a larger company you have a HR department they can contact. An issue in fast-paced industries such as tech is the fact that burn-out is seen as a badge of honour, showing an employee’s dedication to their job. In many work environments, it’s even seen as positive to be constantly on the edge of burning out. Working from home, or remote working, is very usual for tech companies since the pandemic, but it has blurred the established boundaries we had around work before the pandemic. The unclear distinction between working hours and free time in the tech industry could also play a part in the risk of employee burn-on. So, it is vital that your workers, remote or not, know who to go to when they are concerned about workload or feeling run down. Just having the awareness that there is always someone to speak to in a professional context can make a significant impact in people expressing how they might feel. 

5. Be Flexible and Understanding

While as a manager or founder of a tech company, especially if it is a start-up, it is easy to get carried away with the success of your business, at the expense of your employees free time and work satisfaction. But, it is essential that you allow for flexibility and make an effort to be understanding. At the end of the day, we are all human, and sometimes life can get in the way. Perhaps there has been a family emergency, or an employee could secretly be battling with a long-term illness. Being patient with employees and showing them that you are listening to them will prevent overworking and burn-on. We suggest leading by example, making sure you take time away from the office and get enough down time. If your employees see that you are prioritising a healthy work life balance, then they will be more likely to follow in your footsteps. Keeping a positive work environment will contribute to boosting motivation and reducing stress, ultimately leading to a more productive team.

Burn-on: how tech teams can avoid this new phenomenon – Final thoughts

Burn-on creeps up slowly in the weeks and months before reaching a state of burnout. So, if you think an employee may be pushing their career to the limits, remind them to take a step back and bring balance into their work life – because no one can burn on forever. 

If you are currently looking to expand your tech team and outsource new tech talent, KWAN is here to help you out. Not only we’re very experienced in matching the best tech professionals to the needs of your project, but we are a people first company, meaning that we work to make sure that our consultants are motivated, fulfilled, and prioritising their mental health.