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Burnout, A Professional Pitfall For Classic Overachievers

Working hard doesn't always work. Mental health experts say "burnout" is a real - and potentially dangerous - possibility for today's highly driven professionals.

Martine Laronche

Christine, 41, has just recovered from burnout, a syndrome caused by physical and psychological exhaustion from work. After four and a half months of sick leave, the director of a business school in Asia (she wishes to remain anonymous) resigned from her post.

Now back in France, close to her friends and family, Christine is recovered, but continues to take antidepressants and see a psychiatrist once a week. "I am doing artificially better," she says. "It took me a week to write my resignation letter. I had the impression that I was indispensable."

Energetic and enthusiastic, this single woman is a classic overachiever. "They told me this would happen one day, but I didn't take them seriously. Today, I have to rethink my life. I understand that some people commit suicide because of work."

In the recently published book Burnout, authors and psychology professors Christina Maslach, from the University of California, Berkeley, and Michael P. Leiter from Canada's Acadia University confirm that burning out is becoming "a very real epidemic in many countries."

"We're not the problem," they argue. "It's the world and the nature of work that has fundamentally changed."

Jean-Paul Delevoye, the French government's ombudsman, in a March 21 report, writes about the problem of burnout in French society: "The French are in the process of imploding under too much pressure, a damaging lifestyle found in everyday life and work."

For Christine, everything started in 2006, when she became the director for an Asian branch of a prestigious western business school. At the time, the school was launching an MBA program for professionals. "Everything had to be done, and I was all by myself." She supervised the construction of buildings and set-up the administrative side of the operation. After work, between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., she welcomed prospective students. After that she would give herself an hour break before responding to e-mails from colleagues.

When the school opened she cranked it up even higher, working weekends too. "I was passionate about the students, and I was coaching them," she says. The hard work earned her top marks during annual evaluations. "People got used to it," she recalls of her non-stop commitment. "In the beginning, people praise you. Later on, they find it normal."

She kept the pace up for two years - until she thought she had a heart attack. With tachycardia and heart palpitations that awoke her at night, a doctor advised her to slow down.

Slowly, Christine began to lose interest in her job, the first symptom of burnout. It was then that the Asian university asked her to set up another branch, this time of a French school.

That's when Christine fell apart -- both physically and psychologically. "I didn't sleep anymore. I was always crying for no reason. I couldn't think. I had only one desire: to go hide in a corner. It was as if I were dead. I didn't understand what had happened to me. I hadn't seen it coming."

Can burnout happen to anyone? The American psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger (1927-1999), the first to explain the condition of burning out, concluded in 1974 that certain people are more susceptible than others. Burnout cases "are usually people in leadership positions who don't admit to having limits, and they burn themselves out by demanding too much of themselves," he wrote. "All of them had high hopes and never wanted to make compromises along the way."

Laurent Chneiwess, a French psychiatrist, treats patients suffering from depression who are burnout cases. "They are patients who are heavily invested in their work, which comes before everything else: family, friends, and hobbies," she says. "They're not afraid of overcoming obstacles, winning over the esteem of those above them, and working well beyond what is asked of them. Work is the key element in their identity, and they are very idealistic."

When they don't achieve their goals, they feel frustrated and disappointed and become cynical. Physically and psychologically devastated, burned out from the inside, they finally collapse. Then, they feel they have been fooled and are angry with those above them in the hierarchy, their clients, and themselves.

Anne-Françoise Chaperon, a clinical psychologist and consultant for the firm Stimulus, says those at risk of burnout are perfectionists who don't know how to say no. "These patients normally have problems with assertiveness and are in constant need of approval," she explained. "And the fear of not being on top pushes them to always do more."

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Now They're Diagnosing Burnout's Never-Quit Cousin: Burn-On

Feeling overworked but not yet burned out? Often the problem is “burn-on,” an under-researched phenomenon whose sufferers desperately struggle to keep up and meet their own expectations — with dangerous consequences for their health.

Now They're Diagnosing Burnout's Never-Quit Cousin: Burn-On

Burn-out is the result of sustained periods of stress at work

Beate Strobel

At first glance, Mr L seems to be a successful man with a well-rounded life: middle management, happily married, father of two. If you ask him how he is, he responds with a smile and a “Fine thanks”. But everything is not fine. When he was admitted to the psychosomatic clinic Kloster Diessen, Mr L described his emotional life as hollow and empty.

Although outwardly he is still putting on a good face, he has been privately struggling for some time. Everything that used to bring him joy and fun has become simply another chore. He can hardly remember what it feels like to enjoy his life.

For psychotherapist Professor Bert te Wildt, who heads the psychosomatic clinic in Ammersee in Bavaria, Germany, the symptoms of Patient L. make him a prime example of a new and so far under-researched syndrome, that he calls “burn-on”. Working with psychologist Timo Schiele, he has published his findings about the phenomenon in a book, Burn-On.

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