In my world, and maybe yours too, burn-out is a hot topic of conversation. What does burnout look like and how does one avoid it? If it does come, what is the way through? Can burnout ever be viewed as a gift?
At its most basic, my vocation is about being a care-giver. I have spent twenty plus years (I keep wondering how that is possible!) being present to people who have lived experience of poverty, substance addiction and mental health challenges. I know there are many who wonder how I can keep it up. There is no denying this work is difficult: I see, hear, touch and taste the effects of this fallen world on a daily basis. The truth is though, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
My faith and a deep sense of call propels me forward. I’m certain that on days when I would rather hide in a cave, I am given strength not my own to be present. At the same time, it would be unfair to claim I have never dangled dangerously close to the burn-out edge.
As I understand it, there are a wide range of symptoms associated with burnout, including: exhaustion, an inability to cope, cynicism toward work, apathy, and loss of creativity. As a demonstrably emotional person, I know to flag feeling numb as a precursor to burnout. I often say to my closest friends, “If you see me not reacting to a death in The Dale community, be worried. Please come and talk to me.”
I don’t know what it looks like for everyone, but for me avoiding/returning from burnout has involved knowing that I am no one’s saviour; recognizing the importance of receiving help from my community; saying no; establishing healthy boundaries; re-evaluating priorities, and committing to a day of rest. It is a gift to work in a context where my own wounds are allowed to rise to the surface and are then met with a great deal of grace and mercy.
I think that no matter what you do (paid or unpaid), having a community around you is a way to protect against burnout. So often we are instructed to start looking out exclusively for ourselves, as though that is the way to recover. It might seem counterintuitive to become MORE dependent on others, but as Henri Nouwen once wrote: “When we become aware that our stuttering, failing, vulnerable selves are loved even when we hardly progress, we can let go of our compulsion to prove ourselves and be free to live with others in a fellowship of the weak.”
If there is a gift to be found in burnout, maybe it is that we can simultaneously lose AND find ourselves while experiencing it. We are invited to be aware that God is present in the valley and on the mountaintop. In a strange way, burnout can help reorient us, directing us toward community, a place where we can learn to love, have empathy and compassion for one another, and discover the healing and hope of the one who created us.