Monday, October 22, 2012


The term burnout evokes the image of a rocket that having consumed all of its fuel before breaking free of the earth’s gravitational pull slowly loses forward momentum, eventually stalls, and then begins a destructive, irreversible plummet into the earth’s card crust.

That image – of a helplessly falling empty rocket – seems apropos to people who suffer from burnout: driven to achieve, working continuously, and then reaching the point of exhaustion, unable to do more. In a previous post, I addressed the issue of Clergy Burnout. Burnout, however, can happen to anyone who fails to exercise proper self-care.

Burnout differs from workaholism, a term pioneering pastoral counselor Wayne Oates coined in the 1960s to describe a person who used work as an excuse to avoid relationships, i.e., work as a form of unhealthy addiction.

Verne Harnish, an executive educator, has identified five important ways to avoid burnout (“Burning Out?” Fortune, October 8, 2012, p. 44):

1.    Get away and review: intentionally schedule time to assess your life and work

2.    Schedule regular small breaks, e.g., a weekly meeting with friends for coffee or a weekly sports night

3.    Hang out with family: spend time doing family stuff such as taking care of the children or grandchildren while turning off your smart phone

4.    Take an annual vacation

5.    Do something outrageous, e.g., go mountain climbing or attend a seminar on nature preservation held in the wild

Reflecting on the nature of burnout and Harnish’s prescriptions underscored, for me, that burnout is fundamentally a spiritual problem. A necessary condition for burnout to occur is presuming that one is indispensable, a presumption of ultimate hubris. If one were to die suddenly, no matter who one is, or what one does or may achieve, the world would not end. The world would be different, but that is true whenever anyone dies. Furthermore, behaviors that lead to burnout are ultimately self-defeating.

Similarly, Harnish’s prescriptions for self-care are spiritual propositions cloaked in secular terms:

1.    Get away and review is simply an alternative way of speaking about a retreat. This principle also reminds us of the importance of finding work that affords the opportunity for genuine satisfaction. A job or career that diminishes or deadens one’s life may be difficult to change, but making the change is essential for moving in the direction of the abundant life

2.    Schedule regular small breaks resembles Sabbath keeping, i.e., setting aside a day per week for renewal. Henry Ford discovered that when he shortened the workweek from six to five days for his assembly line employees that they were more productive and turnover fell substantially.

3.    Hang out with family rephrases Jesus’ teaching about adhering to the right set of values (your treasure is where your heart is, he said).

4.    Take an annual vacation acknowledges the importance of the jubilee principle of fallow ground (fallow spaces) in our lives for renewing creativity and productivity.

5.    Do something outrageous is another way of encouraging people to live boldly into the unknown future that God intends for us.

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