Burnout is an occupational hazard in the helping professions, so school chaplains and youth workers need to be vigilant.
There’s a few things about burnout that unless you’ve gone through it, you might not know. It’s a sneaky thing, creeping up on you when you’re probably at your most effective and doing your best work. It’s also difficult to spot when you’re in the thick of it, but others around you will be seeing the signs very clearly. Burnout is one of those things that people can treat a badge of honour, one that you get for surviving in the game long term.
In reality, burnout just chews you up and spits you out. It robs you of your sense of control, sometimes relationships and definitely changes your life. Burnout often results in limiting your capacity in future work roles or imposing tight controls on how much stress you can cope with from now on.
For all these reasons, it’s an important topic for me to write about, given a major aspect of my work is supporting youth workers and school chaplains, who are some of the biggest candidates for burnout.
The signs of burnout
Everyone’s experience of burnout will be different, and it can be hard to spot when you’re coping with stress in a couple of spheres of your life, like at both work and home. But here’s some signs that I would take seriously:
- You are having trouble sleeping. You either can’t sleep, or go to bed exhausted but wake up thinking in the middle of the night and find it difficult to switch off. There’s a constant sense of weariness.
- You are losing your love for your work. There can just be this constant frustration with your coworkers or everyday processes that you just don’t seem to be able to let go of.
- You feel like you’re all alone. No one else seems to be experiencing life the way you are and no one seems to think what you’re feeling is all that big a deal. I think this one’s actually a bit of faulty thinking because I suspect people showing signs of burnout have friends, family and coworkers trying to step in but are pushed away out of sense of trying to soldier on and not show weakness.
- You find yourself dreading going to work. Often it’s worst on Mondays or after a few days off, when you should be rested but just feel exhausted at the prospect of heading off in the morning.
- You’re seeking out a lot of alone time but it’s not recharging you. There’s something about burnout that the more you try to deal with it on your own, the more you feel the symptoms.
- You worry about lots of little things you know you shouldn’t be worrying about. This is called anxiety, and it too creeps into your life.
- You are noticing big changes in your weight or your appetite. Up or down, big changes are a sign that your body is reacting to stress and you need to look at what’s causing that.
- You don’t feel all that happy anymore. There’s not a lot of things in life that you can say give you joy and most things feel like a drudge.
- Your mind just seems a great big puddle of muddle. Any sense of organisation and the ability to develop plans and stick to them seems to get sucked up by burnout and turned into mush. You end up living day to day with a rather confused mind that makes you feel worthless.
If you’re spotting one or two of these signs, it’s time to make some changes and make sure you can back out of your current sense of overwhelm and avoid burnout all together.
If you’re spotting a lot of these signs, then you need to probably stop and take a day or two off. Have some sleep and then do a stocktake of why your life is feeling like this. Talk to your boss, line up some professional supervision and start to put your mental health first.
What you can do to beat burnout
If you can see a few of those signs in your life, then you probably know you’re going to have to make some lifestyle changes to deal with it. One word of caution I would give you is don’t do this alone.
Burnout seems to convince you that getting help will be a bad thing, and the fear that you might lose your job or appearing inadequate can often push people to just muddle their way out of the darkness. But burnout will take a lot longer to recover from alone, and will leave much more permanent scars if you don’t do this in community.
So here’s my thoughts on how to beat burnout:
- Open up to those around you. Gone are the days of shame when it comes to mental health issues and being overwhelmed by stress. So pluck up some courage to talk to your boss, they’ve probably already seen the signs, sit your partner down and talk to them about how you’re really feeling and then talk to a couple of trusted coworkers too. Be accountable for getting help.
- Build a support structure around you. If you’re ended up really isolated in all this, it’s time to turn that around. If you’re not getting regular professional supervision, then find a supervisor or counsellor and book in for one session a month for the next little while. You can’t wait 12 weeks between sessions if you want to survive this. I’ve got lots of resources on what to look for in a professional supervisor, as well as information about the supervision service I provide.
- Take another look at your work timetable. Avoiding burnout involves getting the balance between work, rest and play right again. So sit down and list all the things you do in a typical week, day by day. Are you doing too much? We can only fit so many things into a day, and if your work is flowing into your play or rest time, it’s going to be draining your energy and ability to cope with stress. Use this tool to reflect on your work, and then have a chat with your boss if you think you need to cut back on things. I’m going to be doing a series of articles as we head towards 2017 on what a reasonable workload is for a school chaplain and how to work smarter not harder, including a webinar on the 3rd of November 2016.
- Slow life down a little. Most people aren’t just workers. They have a family, can be involved in a church or community groups, have friends and maybe even neighbours they help out too. When burnout has you in it’s grip, it’s time to review all your commitments and maybe take a break from some of them for a season or two. Pare back life to just the essentials while you give your brain and body time to recover.
- Make time for exercise. Just as I wrote in my article on depression, exercise is a powerful treatment for negative thoughts and anxiety. Somewhere in your day, make time for a decent hit out to help your body recover.
- Find your source of hope. We all have something that provides us with hope that this life is not all an accident, so find a new way to reconnect to your inner values and beliefs. I know when I’ve been dealing with burnout that going to church can feel like too big an ask, but it’s exactly what I need because it refreshes my faith and gives me a good dose of encouragement from people who share my beliefs.
- Plan a holiday soon. Not a big, busy holiday, but a week off with something to do each day. Spend some time thinking about how you want to feel at the end of the holiday and what experiences could help you develop those feelings. Write these things down and have a very conscious, “caring about yourself” break.
- Catch up with a friend. Not to vent or dump your burdens on them, but just to reconnect and fight that feeling of weariness and loneliness. Send a message and line up a coffee, then before it’s over book in another one next month.
- Unplug from the digital world. You don’t need to read every email the minute it comes in, or know what your best friend from Year 2 had for breakfast today. Make sure that you put your phone down and give yourself a break from technology at the end of each day, but if it’s contributing to your sense of overwhelm, look at having a holiday from that as well and turning it off for a week or two.
- Ignore the negative thoughts and build a growth mindset. There’s a lot of guilt associated with burnout, around letting others down, being weak, not being good enough to do your job… You have to let that go, which is why professional supervision or counselling is so important. But I’d go one step further and start looking at the concept of a growth mindset that Carol Dweck developed. You can read more about it in my article on disappointment, but I’d also recommend checking out her website or looking for one of her books.
You can recover from burnout without having to leave your job, and you can build a better life because of it, but you have to catch it early enough and be consistent in dealing with it. Once you’ve had it once, I think you have a greater vulnerability to burnout striking again, so the practices you develop need to be for life. If you’ve spotted some signs that you might be on thin ice, then don’t just nod your head, but do something about it today. You won’t regret it!
What do you think? Do you have some other ideas on how to beat burnout? I’d love you to share them below.