If you have led for any amount of time, trying to make a real difference in an organization, business, community, church, ministry, or even a family, you have probably approached, or perhaps gone over the edge, of burnout at least once! This is a devastating and debilitating condition that challenges most of us at one time or another. Below is the first of two installments dealing with this difficult subject. Burnout - identify it, fix it.
Ever wonder if you’re burning out? I know a lot of leaders and people who wonder that. There’s a fine line between being tired and actually burning out. The challenge is, once you cross the line, it’s so difficult to get back.
Eleven years ago, I entered into the darkest period of my life. People had always warned me I would burn out. I thought I could prove them wrong. And usually I did. I would get tired – out of balance – but when I saw the edge, I could always pull myself back. That approach worked just fine until the summer of 2006, when it didn’t.
In that fateful summer eleven years ago, I found the edge, and as I was falling, I knew this time I realized I couldn’t pull myself back. Although I’m not a person who suffers from depression, I’m sure I would have gone to the doctor and received a diagnosis of clinical depression that summer when I fell off the edge.
Perhaps it wasn’t a stereotypical depression. I could get out of bed every day, and I did. As a Christian, I kept praying and reading my bible. I never lost my faith (I just couldn’t feel it). People who weren’t that close to me didn’t realize it was happening. But I knew something inside me had broken, and I didn’t know how to fix it.
My speed decreased to a snail’s pace. Hope felt like it had died. My motivation and passion dropped to zero. Like most people who experience burnout, it felt like a strange land. I had been tired before, but I had never truly been burned out. It was so disorienting I didn’t know what to do.
What terrified me is that I knew many in ministry and life had gone down this road before me and some of them never made it back. For them, ministry was done. And sometimes, tragically, they were done – hope never fully returned and they didn’t ever become the person they were before. That was the last thing I wanted to happen to me.
Looking back, the diagnosis is still a little elusive and mysterious. Who really knows what corrodes the soul to the point where it deflates? But I’d say the most likely candidate for what derailed me is what I’d call emotional burnout. In caring for others I had not adequately cared for my heart or soul, or let others who wanted to care for it do so. I spiraled down for about 3 months before I hit bottom.
Then with the love and assistance of a great wife, support team, leadership team, close friends, a counselor, and a very gracious God, I slowly began to recover. It took, honestly, a few years to really feel full stride again, but I recovered to 80-90% of full strength in the first year. The last 10% took two or three more years.
The good news is, there is life after burnout (my next post will be on ways to recover from burnout). I’m writing this because burnout seems to be an epidemic among leaders and, increasingly, among people in general. Maybe you’re right on the edge of the cliff right now. Or maybe you’re in free fall. So how do you know if you’re more than just tired? How do you know if you’re burning out?
Here are 11 things I personally experienced as I burned out.
1. Your passion fades
Everybody struggles with passion from time to time, but burnout moves you into a place of sustained motivation loss. Think about it, for those of you in leadership or ministry, you used to have a passion for what you did. Passion got you into leadership, and it’s one of the factors that makes both life and leadership wonderful over a long period of time.
But when I burned out, my passion set like the sun. I knew what I was doing was important (leading a local church), but I couldn’t feel it anymore. I realized that a passionless leader will never lead a passionate ministry. But I just couldn’t find my passion anymore.
2. Your main emotion is ‘numbness’ – you no longer feel the highs or the lows
If you’re healthy, you feel things. You experience highs and lows. When I burned out, I couldn’t feel either properly anymore. If someone was celebrating the birth of a new child, I couldn’t feel happy. I just felt numb. If someone was sick or fell into trouble, I couldn’t feel for them either. I just felt numb. Burnout numbs your heart, and this was actually one of the earliest signs for me that the edge was near.
3. Little things make you disproportionately angry
It’s not that burned out people feel zero emotion, but I know when I burned out, the emotions I felt were often just wrong. One early sign I was heading for burnout was that little things started to set me off. Something (like a missed deadline) might be a 3 out of 10 on the problem scale, but I would react like it was an 11. That’s never good. Treating small things like they are big things is a sign something deeper is wrong.
4. Everybody drains you
People are a mixed bag for sure. Some energize you. Some don’t. I get that. On this side of heaven, that’s life. But when I burned out, I realize nobody energized me anymore. Not even my family, my friends or my leadership team. In my head I knew they were good people, but my heart couldn’t feel it. When nobody energizes you, they’re not the problem. You are.
5. You’re becoming cynical
Oh, cynicism. It’s hard not to become cynical as you age. But cynicism never finds a home in a healthy heart. If you find your cynicism is advancing at a rapid rate, it may be a sign you’re burning out.
6. Nothing satisfies you
One of the hardest aspects of burnout for me was that nothing seemed to satisfy me. Sleep didn’t. Prayer didn’t. Good people didn’t. Recreation didn’t. Vacation didn’t. Work didn’t. Food didn’t. That’s a sign of depression, and it’s also a sign you’re burnt out.
7. You Can’t Think Straight
When you’re burning out, your heart messes with your head; you lose the ability to think straight. I remember having read enough and listened to enough about mid-life crises and burnout to know that people make stupid decisions when they’re burnt out. My emotions made me think I would always be this bad; that I was a failure, that there was no hope, that I should just quit.
So I had this daily conversation with myself that boiled down to five words: Just don’t do anything stupid. For me, that meant not doing three things. I told myself, don’t 1) Quit your job, 2) Have an affair, 3) Buy a sports car! By the grace of God, I did none of the three. The first two are still part of my long term plan, but one day I think it would be fun to have a sports car. Some days, simply avoiding stupid is a win.
8. Your productivity is dropping
One sign I knew I was in burnout was incredibly low productivity. I’m usually a fairly productive leader and person (some would say highly productive). But when I fell into burnout, even writing a simple email might take an hour. I couldn’t think straight. My pace slowed right down, and I felt like there was a cloud between me and everything I was trying to do. If you’re working long hours but producing little of value, you might be burning out.
9. You’re self-medicating
In the early stages of burnout, many people turn to self-medicating to numb the pain. Whether that’s overeating, overworking, sexual addictions, drinking, impulsive spending or even drugs, you’ve chosen a path of self-medication over self-care. I avoided drinking, drugs or sex. My poison was, ironically, more work, which just spirals things downward. People who are burning out almost always choose self-medication over self-care.
10. You don’t laugh anymore
This is such a small thing that’s actually such a big thing. If you’re burning out, you don’t laugh a lot. I remember in my recovery laughing out loud one day after listening to something on the radio. It was then that it hit me: it had been months since I had laughed out loud. When you’re burning out, nothing seems fun or funny, and, at its worst, you begin to resent people who enjoy life.
11. Sleep and time off no longer refuel you
If you’re just tired, a good night’s sleep or a week or two off will help most healthy people bounce back with fresh energy. If you’re burning out, sleep and time off no longer refuel you. You could have a month off when you’re burnt out and not feel any difference. I took three weeks off during my summer of burn out, and I felt worse at the end than when I started. Not being refueled when you take time off is a major warning sign that you’re burning out.
So Are You More Than Just Tired?
So how do you know if you’re burning out?
Identifying with just a few of these signs might just be a sign that you’re tired.
If you identify with half, you might be close to the edge.
If you identify with most or all, well, you might be in the same place I found myself—burnout.
If you are burnt out, I would encourage you to seek immediate professional help – a medical doctor and a trained Christian counselor. I would also encourage you to talk to a close circle of friends.