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Turning Burn Out into Insight

By The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA - Executive Director

Amidst everything written about how the pandemic has or will change us, have you noticed recent ones about people who aren’t returning to work, who choose to remain unemployed, or who are changing careers? It’s become an issue in businesses such as restaurants, hotels, mini-markets, and any number of lower paying entities.

It’s not just them. Many, many people are reappraising the kind of work they do, where they work from, what their work/life balance should look like, and even whether they want to continue the career tracks they had been pursuing prior to the pandemic. Quite a number realized during and after the pandemic that they no longer wanted the careers they had because they were burned out. They became deeply aware that their life wasn’t what they wanted it to be, nor that they felt it should be.

What is burnout? It’s very difficult to define. According to University of California, Berkley researcher and author, Christina Maslach, there are three critical factors she identified as part of an inventory on burn out she developed called the Maslach Burnout Inventory. They are emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment.

Emotional exhaustion is the easiest to understand and has really been almost epidemic during the pandemic. It’s feeling pervasively overwhelmed in ways that no amount of sleep, breaks, diversions, entertainment, exercise, and/or activity can relieve. Depersonalization is more difficult to describe. It’s feeling detached from ourselves as though we are numbly watching our lives from a outside. It’s common among people who have experienced trauma, and for many people the pandemic has been a slow, persistent trauma. A diminished sense of personal accomplishment refers to a sense that nothing we’ve achieved, nothing we’ve done or are doing, really matters. It kills our sense of self-worth and causes us to feel empty and unimportant.

I know these feelings intimately. I experienced burnout in 1983 after working for two years as a therapist in a psychiatric hospital, followed by 16 months of being unemployed. These experiences led me to do a lot of self-assessing and eventually led me to go to seminary, while simultaneously getting a master’s in social work, so that I could, in part, help people experiencing what I had experienced. My burnout led me to realize that there’s another component to burn out that researchers often don’t pay enough attention to: a loss of meaning and purpose. Victor Strecher, in his book, Life on Purpose, says meaning is a sense that I am on earth for a reason. He says purpose is the sense that what I do matters. When we’re burned out we feel as if nothing we’ve done or are doing matters, and that we lack a greater reason for living.

Many people are emerging from the pandemic questioning why they are here. They woner if anything they are doing really matters. They deeply exhausted, depersonalized, and as though they’ve achieved little with their lives. Burn out is a serious problem that can lead to increased levels of addiction, self-destructiveness, lethargy, and isolation, all while eroding relationships and engagement in life.

What do we do about this kind of burn out? My burn out transformed me, but it was one of the most painful experiences of my life. It led me to make significant changes in my life and instilled within me a re-determination to pursue a life of compassion, healing, and spiritual openness. It took a lot of chats with friends, family, pastors, and others to get me there.

Burn out is an invitation to re-evaluate and reassess what our lives are about. What kind of changes to they invite us to make? They can include:

  • Slowing down: Many people slowed down during the pandemic and fear a return to a 24/7, 365 culture. Overcoming burn out means being intentional in taking and making time for nature, reading, reflecting, praying, thinking, and being appreciative and grateful throughout our lives.

  • Becoming more self-aware: Most therapists spend endless hours self-reflecting. That’s not as true for the population at large. Often, we don’t like to explore the roots of our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, relationships, and more. Becoming more self-aware helps us break out of patterns that drag our lives down, and it enables us to make more life-giving decisions.

  • Caring for self: This may seem obvious, but few do it. In American culture we talk a lot about self-care and do very little about it. Perhaps it’s the American way of constantly veering towards extremes, which makes us feel like caring for self means we have to become Olympian in our fitness, eating, and more. Self-care simply means doing what’s healthy for us, even if it goes against the grain of our culture.

  • Caring for others: In study after study, it’s clear that the happiest, most content people are those who find ways to care for others. Why is it so important? From a spiritual, meaning and purpose perspective the answer is simple—we’re on earth to love and care, and when we do we end up doing what really matters.

  • Family and friends: Not all families are healthy, nor are all friendships, but it’s important to carve out time with others with whom we can laugh, do things with, and love. This may mean looking for new friends who can help us have healthy relationships and working on our families in counseling to create greater health. Much like what was said about caring for others, family and friendships are the primary people we can care for.

Reflecting on all of this, how can each of us turn our levels of burnout into insight that leads to a better life. Our therapists at Samaritan are here to help.

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