by Earl Friesen


Burnout: What exactly is it?

Burnout is a term to help us understand a phenomenon that happens to people who work with people.  It is a state of being that results from giving more of ourselves emotionally than we receive back.  There are three antecedents to burnout.  First, in ministering to people, we are often exposed to those in the midst of problems that are highly emotional.  Exposure to highly emotional situations produces and emotional responsiveness in us.  It's this repeated kind of exposure that can be very draining and is what I would call an occupational hazard for us in the helping professions.

Second, there are personality characteristics in those of us who choose a helping profession.  We are usually idealistic, sensitive and empathetic people who desire to help those who suffer.  These characteristics are assets in our ministries, but they can also make us vulnerable to burnout.

Third, our professional presence is justified by our serving.  We are in a complementary relationship.  In a symmetrical relationship, the emotional support goes two ways, we receive as well as give.  In a complementary relationship, we have to be on top of the situation and give what is needed by the other person.  These three antecedents of burnout work together to make anybody vulnerable to burnout under certain conditions.

What are some of the symptoms of burnout:  Major symptoms include a general sense of mental ill-being, with a sense of of hopelessness and helplessness.  There are too many things that are out of control.  Physical, emotional and mental exhaustion are characteristic of burnout.  For more explicit signs of burnout and for a rough test to determine if you are experiencing burnout, complete the test section you can access at the end of this article.

Where is the source of burnout?  Where we perceive the source of burnout has tremendous consequences on how we handle it.  If we perceive the source as being in ourselves, we may experience self-condemnation and attempt to change ourselves.  If we were the source, this might work fine.  However, with burnout, we are not the source.  The sources is our situation.  The fact is, just about anyone will burn out under certain conditions.  It is for this reason that burnout is different than depression or mid-life crisis, which has its cause rooted more in our personal history.  Burnout is caused by environmental factors.  Burnout also differs from normal fatigue in that fatigue is a good kind of "tired" with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

What can be done about burnout?  If we go back to the first antecedent of burnout, being exposed to people in highly emotional states, we will find environmental states, we will find environmental factors that can be changed with little effort.  These changes can reduce our exposure to stress and give us time to recoup and regain our own emotional equilibrium.  Let's look at some of these potential changes.

When we spend time intimately involved in ministries to people, we need to balance it with times of distance.  Set aside blocks of time in our schedule in which we will not see anybody.  This time can be used for study, sermon preparation, working out some problems in the ministry we're facing or even just some down time to relax and recoup.  This time can also be used to keep ourselves on tract in the ministry by establishing and maintaining clear, achieveable and measureable goals.  Having a plan to reach these goals and then working your plan can give you a sense of accomplishment and significance.  Taking time to plan our day in the light of these goals will help us live out our priorities and achieve our goals.  Taking time to prioritize out daily activities increases our efficiency.

For the Conclusion