Burnout: What is it? Do I Have it?

Posted by Kevin Respress on May 20th, 2011

What do you think of when you hear the term, “Burnout”? What thoughts does it trigger? What examples come to mind? If you’re like most of us, the first thoughts are of sports stars, celebrities, or successful executives who have used the term to describe their reason for escaping a high profile position or career. We often see burnout among overextended ministers, those providing arduous long-term healthcare to a declining patient or family member, military personnel subjected to continuous combat, and couples in dysfunctional marriages. Similarly, at the end of a long and difficult economic recession or industry decline, many CEOs feel weary after fighting the good fight for so long. They say they’re just “burned out.”

A classic definition of burnout is “a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding or draining.” Burnout is summarized succinctly by Dr. Richard Swenson1, a best-selling Christian physician who has written extensively on the need for margin and balance in our undertakings:

“Burnout is that point when something within you breaks. It is that point where you quit trying, when you finally throw up your hands and say, “I don’t care anymore. I don’t care who sees me. I don’t care who hears me. I don’t care about anything. I just want out.”

Burnout comes most frequently from realizing that doing more of the same will only produce more of the same, and whatever ‘the same’ is doesn’t mean enough to us to justify the effort. When we reach that state we’re burned out. Someone beginning to experience burnout will often react in one of three unhealthy ways:

  • Taking Action without Understanding – Some are unaware or blind to what they’re experiencing and may simply flee the pain by running away. For CEOs and business owners, this can produce tragic results when it manifests in selling the business and getting into another. Burnout is almost never the result of being in the wrong business. It’s usually the result of being in the right business with the wrong attitude!
  • Relishing Power – A few realize that material things won’t satisfy but keep going to seek power over others and maintain their own special status. They keep the business and drive it as hard as they can. They’re driven to gain money or retain power because to them money and position equals prestige and control of other people.
  • Digging a Moat – Some recognize that they’re experiencing the law of diminishing returns and decide to shift gears to stop trying to accumulate more material wealth through business success. They realize that more money will only bringthem more of what they already have “more than enough of” without a bit more peace or satisfaction. Their problem is that, while they don’t want to go forward, they don’t want to go backwards either, so their mode of thinking becomes very defensive, protective, and grasping. They either lead a soon-to-be-stagnant business or sell the business and “retire” to manage their assets.

Hopefully, those of us in the beginning stage of burnout will realize that none of the options listed above are healthy for ourselves, our families and stakeholders, or our eternal impact as God’s stewards and ambassadors. The true cause of burnout is the loss of the feeling that what we’re doing has continuing and significant value to ourselves and others. That’s the bottom line. When we feel that our efforts count toward something that has significant value to ourselves and, better yet, to many others, we don’t burnout, we light up! Burnout happens when vision and passion are somehow lost or so dim that we lose sight of them.

Press On!