“You’re working too hard. You have pushed your body to the point of exhaustion. You need to take some time out. You need to rest up, or else your body is going to revolt.” I will always remember these words spoken to me last summer by my doctor as I sat on the examination table anxiously awaiting results from some tests. 2014-2015 was a crazy year for me. I was working three part-time jobs, volunteering with adults who have learning disabilities, doing some freelance writing and leading a children’s group that met during school breaks. On top of all this, I had an hour and a half commute, was taking 5 master’s level courses, and was trying to maintain a rigorous social life. I hated the idea of missing out on gatherings and I wanted to continue being part of so many activities, but unfortunately my body had other ideas.
At first, the effects were barely noticeable. I found myself getting tired more easily, but I attributed it to long hours of homework. I found myself getting anxious and irritated, but I blamed it on the terrible Toronto traffic. My friends started noticing that I was becoming more distant and started saying I wasn’t so much fun to hang around. A few of them were seriously worried about how I was going to cope with all the pressures I was facing, but I felt they were just being over-cautious and over-protective. After all, I had taken a course on Self-Care in Ministry and I was sure that I now had the arsenal to fend off any form of burn-out. It ends up I was wrong.
In the summer of 2015, just months before heading off on my oversea’s adventure, I noticed things in my life were just not right. I was doing a full time pastoral internship at a wonderful and loving church. I was also taking a full course load to complete my master’s degree. In other words, I was working over 40 hours a week, still volunteering at least 5 hours a week, and also in class another 12 hours of the week (not including all the homework and assignments). I started feeling dizzy. My legs felt faint and my head felt funny. I had no energy and even a simple task like lifting a light box caused all my muscles to ache. I went for a number of blood tests. The doctor thought something must be medically wrong and cautioned that I should get everything checked out before I headed abroad. Everything came back negative. Medically there was nothing to worry about, but emotionally there was. My doctor recognized that what I was experiencing was sheer burn-out. She told me I was doing too much and that if I didn’t stop, the symptoms I was experiencing would only get worse. She told me there was nothing I could do to reverse these symptoms except listen to what my body was telling me and to try to make some healthy lifestyle changes.
We all have a story. We all have moments when we feel we are giving our all, but there is nothing left to give. We all have days when we go into work and our hearts and minds are in a different location altogether. That’s normal. But when you start thinking these thoughts all the time, when others around you start noticing your attitudes are shifting, and when you yourself can pinpoint a change not only in your emotions, but in your physical state as well – that’s when it’s more than likely that you have moved from the Monday blues into an utter state of burn-out.
You see, we often think that burn-out is for other people. Our culture prides itself on being busy. It has almost become a badge mark of courage to list all the things you have going on in your life as if it’s a competition: who can be involved in the most activities, who can be involved in serving on the most committees, and who can be the first to tackle that new business project. So the idea of having to slow down in order to really listen to our bodies seems almost foreign to us. Other people can’t cope with stress as well as we can. Other people may turn to addictions, affairs, and apathy, but not us. We are perfect and we will continue thriving in this fast-paced life. But allow me to let you in on a little secret:
It can happen to you.
That’s right – you. Jim, Joe, or Janet Brown. Burn-out is no respecter of persons. It can happen to anyone at any age or life stage. It happens to professionals and parents. It happens to students and teachers. It happens to pastors and parishioners. Sometimes it sneaks up on you steadily, other times, it sneakily grabs you by the collar. But once it’s there: it forces you to take notice. It forces you to realize that something is seriously wrong.
But why? You may ask. I absolutely love my job. I am doing great in my organization and get along with everyone in the office. Listen:
You can still get burnt out even if everything seems to be going well.
We live in a culture that always tries to be happy. People don’t like hearing complaints and they don’t really want to know how you are doing or what you are thinking or feeling. That’s why when you lean into a friend and say “hey, I’m starting to feel burnt-out” or “hey, I’m feeling a bit depressed” they may automatically think you are complaining about your job or your life. In reality, that’s not the case. Many people who have faced burn-out do love their career. They feel it’s where they should be, they feel like they are contributing in positive ways, and they feel like it is their calling. But you need to understand this:
Oftentimes it’s exactly for those reasons that people feel burnt-out. A lot of times, people feel burnt-out exactly because they are passionate. They like to give their all. They want to make sacrifices for their ministry or for their company. They truly care about the cause and they are willing to see projects through to completion. In my experience, burn-out is far more prevalent amongst the persistent rather than the pessimistic, the genuine rather than the pretenders.
Burn-out is definitely a challenging position to be in. It makes you feel like all the energy is completely sucked out of your body. It makes you feel like you are a different person – as if you are going through the daily motions but outside of your own body. It may feel like this never ending cycle of frustration and agitation will never end, but you need to know:
There is hope. Burn-out is not forever. It will end, but first you need to learn how to prevent it from coming back.
Everyone experiences burn-out a little differently. Some people seem to get over it rather quickly once a new project they are passionate about comes along, other people may need to take a sabbatical in order to properly recuperate. If you have a history of mental illness, it is so important that you seek help so that your burn-out does not escalate into a deep, dark depression. This does not always mean you need to go see a professional, but you definitely do need to be surrounded by close family and friends during this time. You may find it helpful to reach out to others who are in different work settings than you are and who can give you a whole new perspective on your profession. You may need to revisit your life dreams and goals or simply to start saying no to a few things at work. It can be difficult at first, especially if you are the type of person who never likes to let anyone down, but you need to understand that you are a priority. You cannot serve from an empty vessel – your team and work environment will benefit far more when you are “alive, alert, awake, and enthusiastic” (to quote a favourite camp song).
So where do we go from here?
Although each person is different, everyone can benefit from recognizing their own unique signs and symptoms of burn-out and stress. If you are feeling burnt-out, recognize that it is completely normal. There is nothing wrong with you or your job. Don’t be afraid to say “I’m burnt-out” but then don’t stay there. Figure out whatever you need to do in order to get out of that rut – spend time with friends, learn a new skill, take up a hobby. Realize that life is so much more than just your career and strive to become a more well-balanced person. Once you do that, you will soon discover that your mood is happier, people enjoy spending time with you more, and the burn-out is gone.