The Blessings of Burnout?

I’m sick of reading “Good news” stories of burnout, the ones that describe past burnout that is now completely sorted out. Usually these stories are accompanied by some miracle cure or formula that “fixed” the storyteller’s burnout. Good for them.

But what about the rest of us? Some of us are burned out today and don’t know where we will wind up. Take me, for instance. I’m burned out with respect to ministry. I don’t know what to do about it. I have no tricks or fix-its on hand. It might take some time to muddle through.

If you’ve ever been burned out, you know that it can sneak up on you, that it is caused by the stress of prolonged overwork (or sometimes underwork) along with unrealistic expectations and poor communication. Burnout starts with cynicism and avoidance, ending with a loss of sense of self. It can be devastating.

Burnout is a term most often associated with one’s place of paid work, however, burnout can affect people in voluntary roles, in ministry, in caring for a loved one and in parenting. In some people it can indicate poor boundaries or self-care, but it is important to note that good self-care does not guarantee immunity against burnout. It can happen to anyone.

Those of us familiar with burnout will know about the negative impacts: fatigue, compounding disinterest, sarcasm, tardiness, withdrawal, feelings of being trapped, persistent fantasies of escape and despair. But why stop there? I think there are also potential benefits of burnout, opportunities afforded by burnout that we otherwise would not have had. Here are just a few examples of hidden burnout blessings:

  • Holidays. I’m about to go on extended leave and I feel not a single shred of guilt about it. Normally I would feel a twinge of “I’m letting everyone else down” on the cusp of a holiday, but not this time. I need time off and I know it. I don’t have to justify it to myself. This holiday is happening and that’s that.
  • Re-connection. Burnout tends to shut me off from those parts of myself that I enjoy most, hence my self-care takes a hit once I start to burn out. This means I need to focus on self-care. For me, that looks like immersing myself in music, writing, reading, beauty and taking the space and time to breathe. These things remind me of who I really am, something I normally take for granted but now desperately need.
  • Solidarity. It never ceases to amaze me how powerful honesty and vulnerability can be. When I tell people I am burned out, they suddenly want to tell me about their burnout. Sharing our stories of burnout can break down isolation and reassure us that we do not have to muddle through alone.
  • Childlike trust. When I don’t know where I am going, it forces me to admit to God (and myself) that I can’t do this alone. It rekindles my childlike trust in God, not because I know what He’s going to do but for precisely the opposite reason. He is trustworthy and I trust Him – simple as that.

So take care, my friends. I’m off for a couple of months to enjoy the blessings of burnout.

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