Avoiding burnout pt. 2 (or, breaking free from total work by doing nothing)

We looked at a biblical theology of work and leisure in part 1, but after all that groundwork, are we any further on? Are we any closer to getting to a cause for burnout, or a solution to preventing burnout, or treatment for it? Let’s see…
Why does it happen? Every single person is different. I like the word multifactorial – it’s a way of saying that there are lots of different causes, but right now I don’t know which particular one it is. It’s a bit of a lazy word, I suppose, but the causes of burnout are multifactorial, and those factors will be different for everyone. I’ve grouped the major factors into four groups [which all begin with s, or nearly. Spot the Presbyterian]
Societal factors. It used to be that leisure time was the chief good – you worked to earn money to allow you and your family to have time not working to engage in culture – conversation, listening to music, reading good books, appreciating the world around us. That all changed at some time within the last 300 years. We now live in an industrial, post-enlightenment society, where individuals are no longer valued for their humanity, but for their productivity. You can blame Kant, you can blame Marx, you can blame Adam Smith, or Margaret Thatcher, whoever you like – but to the corporations and the governments and the economists a person is only of value if they are productive. And logic would dictate that the more productive they are, the more valuable. In a society where increased production equals increased profit, then the pressure is on to maximise productivity. I’m an employer, I understand how this works! But freed from the restraints imposed by Christian morals and a Christian understanding of the person, society imposes productivity in a wrongful and harmful way. Out the window goes any conception of day and night, out the window goes any concept of a Sabbath rest. If you can make more money by sacking staff and making the rest work harder, for longer hours, so be it!
I’ve been reading about a concept called ‘total work‘ – society is so completely attuned to work and productivity, that everything else is made subservient to it – education, healthcare, holidays. It’s no longer the case that we work to allow ourselves to have leisure and rest – rest and leisure is there to allow us to be better workers! And it is so easy to be swept along in this attitude! Because society cannot simply work us into the ground, it needs to dangle a carrot in front of us – Success. Status in society. Material wealth. Cheap entertainment. Humour me for a moment and let me give an extended quote from a man called Joseph Pieper on this subject:
“The world of work and of the worker is a poor, impoverished world, be it ever so rich in material goods… genuine wealth, wealth which implies overflowing into superfluities, into unnecessaries, is just not possible… on the other hand, divine worship, of its very nature, creates a sphere of real wealth and superfluity, even in the midst of the direst material want – because sacrifice is the living heart of worship. And what does sacrifice mean? It means a free offering freely given and never anything useful or utilitarian; in fact it means the very opposite of using and useful” [Leisure as the Basis of Culture;1999]
We need to take a step back and look clearly at our relationship with work, and our relationship with leisure. Work to live, or live to work? My parents are both teachers, both retired early on ill heath grounds. People complain about how teachers have such long summer holidays – my parents would always have said that the first month off was recuperation, and the second month off is preparation. I think that reveals a disordered attitude to work. How do we view our time off? Is it there mainly to allow us to recharge our batteries to enable us to go back to work again afterwards, or is it an end in itself?
And we need to think carefully how we approach this leisure time, this rest time. There is so much that I could say here! But that’s for another day.
I have been asked about whether I could recommend mindfulness, but mindfulness as a concept has its roots in Buddhism, which I can’t honestly recommend. However, there is an alternative which I’d like to talk about. I call it ‘doing nothing‘. The opposite state would be called ‘doing something’, otherwise known as ‘work’. You see, as part of this concept of ‘total work’, of work having value, and more work having more value, then not doing work must have no value! If what I’m doing isn’t difficult, then it can’t be valuable! If what I’m doing has no use, then it must be useless! But what do I mean? I need to clarify more. I’m not talking about lying sleeping on the sofa. It’s the ability to take in your surroundings without having to wrestle with them. Say, for example, that I see a beautiful sunset – can I just sit and watch it and appreciate its beauty, without having to think about its artistic merit, or its symmetry, or what time it is? Can I listen to a piece of music and be carried along by the melody, without having to consider the mechanics of that music? I remember in first year music class our teacher playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and encouraging us to think about how one part of it was meant to be like a walk, and how music could communicate these things to us, if we just listened hard enough. I spent years listening to music, trying to analyse it like a foreign language that I didn’t quite understand; but it’s much more fun to listen to it and play it and be carried along! Can you sit and watch your children playing and take joy and pleasure in them, without having to consider whether they’re developing normally, whether they might need a change of clothes, what time you’re going to bath them at? Even just for a few minutes? Can you sit in the presence of a friend or a loved one and just enjoy their company and their closeness, without having to fill the silence with banal speech? These are fine examples, but the problem is that we are losing the ability to do nothing! We have been culturally conditioned to feel guilty at doing nothing! If it’s easy, it must be of no value, and if it’s of no value, then I’m wasting time here!
I am asking you to consider a high calling – I am asking you to transcend the world of total work – I am asking you to do nothing! Regularly. Deliberately. Without guilt or shame, but with delight and pleasure. Put away the phone and the computer, because the Internet and social media is the ultimate enemy of doing nothing – we never lack work to do when we have the internet at our fingertips, and we are impoverished in so many ways because of it! The Canadian Reformed Baptist blogger Tim Challies has great advice on this – take a digital Sabbath once a week, and for one week a year – turn the gadgets off, put them away, speak to real people with words, unmediated, face to face. Break the addictive hold of total work by doing nothing. It’s going to be hard at first, but it’ll get easier.
Situational factors. I’m talking about the circumstances we find ourselves in, directly or indirectly, and how they grind us down. Sometimes we are just stuck in a situation. maybe you’re a single mum, and you’ve got four kids, or you’re a widow, or a carer – there are no easy answers there! Or you’re in a workplace where you are being bullied, through no fault of your own – I see this a lot. It’s unpleasant, it’s painful – your work is making you sick. That same workplace bears a responsibility for your wellbeing, but how do you keep on fighting, day after day? There is no shame in going to your GP and getting a sick line and getting advice. Do you start a grievance procedure, which will likely be prolonged, painful and confrontational? Do you open up the Jobfinder and start looking at your options? Or do you just keep going in to work, day after day, prayerfully and patiently, sitting under the abuse of a petty minded dictator? Get wise advice from someone you trust. Sometimes we are burning out because of circumstances over which we have no control.
Sometimes, however, we have got ourselves into a pickle, and we are burning out because of our own poor judgement. I can say this because I’ve been there – getting into debt for the wrong reasons, and having to work round the clock to keep your head above water. Deciding that you really need to do that extra course of study, as well as your daytime work, while also being a parent. Because there are 30 hours in every day. Stretching yourselves as a couple to buy that bigger house in the nicer part of town, maxxing out your mortgage repayments, and both of you having to work hard to make ends meet, rather than living reasonably on what one person’s wage would cover. Or to consider darker things – having to live with the consequences of past actions – adultery or a child pornography conviction, with the shame and guilt that lingers long after the crime. These are circumstances which we are directly responsible for, and we need to recognise that responsibility – there’s no use crying “poor me!” We need to own that responsibility for our mistakes. There is no point in dwelling on the what-ifs. We bought a house just as the market was beginning to crash – we sold it 2 years ago for a loss of nearly 6 figures. That hurts, let me tell you, that hurts! Looking back, it was a mistake, and it was a rash thing to do. But here’s the thing about making mistakes – it teaches wisdom, and it makes you stronger.
I want to reframe things again here – just for a moment, let’s consider how burnout can be redemptive. Let’s hear that again. Burnout can be redemptive. God needs to humble us, to break us down sometimes, to see that we are weak, and in need of his strength. When we are at our very lowest, then God often steps in. If you have burnt out, or you are burning out – the world and society will tell you that you are a failure! My friend, you are indeed a failure, but you are in the fortunate position of realising that you are a failure! Pity the rest of us deluded failures, who think that we’re doing ok! You have been granted a temporary glimpse behind the veil of human hypocrisy and external appearances, just like Dorothy finding the Wizard of Oz out to be a little old man with a bald head and wrinkled face, not “Oz, the Great and Terrible.” The best and most appropriate place to fly when we are burnt out is into our Father’s loving arms. Whenever my kids fall and hurt themselves, I pick them up and carry them. I know that they are weak, and that they fall, but they are my kids, so my heart fills with compassion when I see them struggling – how much more, then, will our heavenly Father delight in scooping us up, dusting us down, and setting us off on the right track? Hopefully wiser and stronger for the next time.
Psychological factors.  How you think, what makes you tick. I firmly believe that if you understand what sort of person you are, what your blind spots are, what your prejudices are, what your basic ways of reacting are, then you can protect yourself. So, take me, for example. I’m an introvert. I find it difficult and stressful to be in groups  of more than 3 or 4 people for long periods of time. I know that I’m going to need to go and recharge my batteries somewhere quiet for an hour or two later today, and process things, maybe go for a cycle and sweat a bit, then I’ll be grand. I need to build that into my day, or at least my week; but I’m fortunate that I have a job which has a nice mix of intensive one to one consulting, discussion with a larger group of my colleagues, phone call work, and quiet paper-based work. And I cycle to and from the office as well, to balance out all the sitting down. It’s taken a while to get there, but I think I have a good balance.
But I find that certain types of people are prone to burnout. Let me give you a couple of major examples. Conscientious people, nice people, caring and compassionate people burn out on a regular basis. Is it possible to care to much? Absolutely. And certain types of work will drain you dry, they will suck every ounce of compassion from you and spit you out. What are the most common professions who come through my door? Now, this isn’t exactly a scientific study, but based on my experience – social workers. Social work is a difficult job, maybe an impossible job. Social work as a profession has no room for Christianity – judging by what social workers have been taught in the last 10 years at least. Yet it is a job which attracts kind-hearted, diligent Christian people. If you’re a social worker, you have my sympathies. Our society needs Christian social workers, but I fear that being a Christian in social work will become impossible in the not too distant future. You need to fight for the right to practice your job in keeping with your firmly held beliefs! You are presiding over a society that is going down the tubes – you have been charged with putting the brakes on a society where the family is no longer valued, the elderly are no longer valued, the unborn child is no longer valued, and the disabled are no longer valued.  Compassion fatigue is a very real thing here – you may have hundreds of people on your case load, and you can’t get around them all – now listen to me – you cannot save these people on your own. You cannot fix them, or their lives, no matter how wonderful a social worker you might be. All you can do is show kindness in small ways, and the best thing you can do is be an excellent social worker. You cannot be their friend, their parent, their carer – but you can advocate for the voiceless, you can point people in the right direction to start helping themselves, you can watch out for the vulnerable. And then you need to go home at 5 o’clock or 6 o’clock, and stop being a social worker. This may sound harsh, but you will be a better and more efficient social worker by staying on an even keel, and you will be more equitable and fair by protecting yourself and rationing your compassion.
The next most common category would be teachers. There’s something about exerting your will over 30 kids for hours every day that seems to sap your strength, and I don’t begrudge teachers their long holidays! It seems, sometimes, that people who love studying go on to become teachers, as an extension of their studies. I don’t know if this is wise, because the learning of knowledge, and the teaching of knowledge seem to me to be two very different things. There’s a great concept which I’ve come across lately called pseudopersonality – it’s an observation of people who are by nature introverts, yet in social situations, they slip into a different mode – they take on another set of behaviours which are more appropriate for their situation. The quiet person may become the talkative, witty one; the placid person may engage in debate and arguments. I suspect that we all do this, to a certain extent. But the point about it is that it is draining – it requires energy. So a normally introverted teacher who spends 6 hours a day mastering a class of pupils, inspiring them, sharpening their minds, stimulating their senses – that person needs to pay the piper. Maybe that’s what your like – you spend hours every day occupying this pseudopersonality, until it starts to define you totally – and it gets harder and harder to maintain.
You have no idea how many people in this country are putting a face on. At least one person every day comes through my door, confident and successful, smiling and chipper – and as soon as the door closes, the face falls, the tears start, the truth comes out. In this country, we have a problem with being honest about how we are feeling, and about who we are. We don’t open up about our struggles to our friends, our elders, our ministers, or our family. You know what? You need to be honest. You need to let people in on who you are fundamentally, you need to be vulnerable – because the ultimate exposing of our weakness and flaws comes whenever we burnout despite our best efforts to keep up appearances.
Ministers – what I find about ministers who are burning out, and who have burnt out, are that they are exposed – perhaps they have a session who aren’t supportive, and they bearing the bulk of the spiritual burden diligently, labouring away every day, faithfully preaching and pastoring. But sometimes, there are personality or theology problems at the root of that isolation. Sometimes that man, or woman perhaps, has a rather overvalued sense of their position in the church – not overtly, perhaps not intentionally, but they have become the Bishop – they are the spiritual head of their branch of the Church, and they willingly take on the burden of the ‘spiritual’ work. They are the spiritual hero! Perhaps their personality is so engaging and overwhelming that they can sustain that role, for a while. But that is not the model for Christ’s church – these burdens are not for one man to shoulder. Maybe you need to be in control like that? Maybe you can’t let go of tasks, and you need to be helicoptering over everything that’s happening. I see people who have issues with control. I believe certain types of self harm and eating disorders are attempts to regain control in the midst of chaos. But if you’re a minister, or any kind of worker who needs to be in control – let go. Let go. Bit by bit. Relinquish your precious  projects and plans. Let other people in. Trust other people – trust is a big problem if you have control issues. It is painful to watch someone like this burning out – as they approach the wall, their anxiety increases and increases, and they try harder and harder to regain control of an impossible situation, until finally, it all falls down. Chaos. Disorder. Mess. It is going to be so hard for that person to put the pieces back together, and get on with their life.
Sinful factors.  I think this is the thread that runs through a lot of what I’ve written already.  I’m just going to focus in on one particular sin, which I think is particularly prevalent, and that’s pride. I see it in myself, the times that I’ve been running close to the edge, when I’ve been burning out. It’s the overvalued sense of my own importance. Surely everything is relying on me! Surely I’m the only person who can do this job! I can work harder and harder, because I am not like other people, who have limits, and who need to sleep! Burnout gives the lie to this, doesn’t it? When we fail, we realise our frailty and our flaws. As I said before, maybe burnout isn’t a bad thing all the time? Perhaps it’s actually ordained by God to rebuke us and to teach us wisdom? Perhaps it’s ordained by God to lead people to Christ? How many people have wandered into a church, burnt out and desperate, and found a Saviour who says to them “come to me all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest“?
I wrote earlier that burnout can be redemptive – maybe some of you today need to burn out before you realise your besetting sins, so that you see your flaws more clearly. I’m not advising that we actively pursue burnout – in fact that’s the exact opposite of what I’m advising; but I don’t want you to be ashamed if these things have happened to you – own them, talk about them, learn from them. And if you’re in the fortunate position of never having experienced these symptoms of what I’ve talked about – that’s great! Maybe you’re putting all my suggestions into practice already, or maybe I’ve been able to give a few quick pointers to avoid that pre-burnout condition – whenever life gets tough, don’t do what I’ve done! But a plea to those of you who have never suffered from burnout – look kindly on those of us who have. Everyone has their limits, no-one is superhuman. But we give thanks to the God who knows our weakness and frailties, and loves us despite them; the same God who commissions us to work for Him also gives us rest, every night, and one day in every seven to rest from that work.
I want to finish on a high note – burnout reminds us that we live in a cursed world. We work, we sweat, we rest a while, the cycle continues ad nauseam – but it will not always be so! Marx said that “religion is the opium of the masses” – he believed that it was all a gigantic trick to take peoples’ minds off their toil and drudgery – ‘heavenly pie in the sky when you die’. But what do the masses have now? Entertainment! Prescription drugs! Sex without commitment! ,But we have something greater to trust in.
“There remains then a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from His.” Heb 4:9-10.
There is a day coming when the work will be over, and the eternal Sabbath day will begin. And Revelation 21:25 says that “there will be no night there“. There will be no night because we will no longer need sleep and rest!
Even though we are bruised reeds and smoking flax now, “this light and momentary affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” 2 Cor 4:17.
Take heart! Live in the moment, but look to the weekend, and look to eternity! Sleep well. And I mean that.

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