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Burnout is a psychological term for the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest (depersonalisation or cynicism), usually in the work context. It is also used as an English slang term to mean exhaustion (definition taken from Wikipedia article). It's very real problem facing not only us but those around us. Another way of defining would be continuous stress that gradually destroys one's inner being. Burnout prevention forms part of Self Care in the Missionary Care files.


It is not uncommon for people in caring professions, such as missionaries, to experience burnout from time to time. It can be a serious condition and can take time to recover from. It is also possible to avoid burnout.

Symptoms of burnout

  • Tiredness, even in the morning before you start the day.
  • Depression; emotional exhaustion.
  • Feeling trapped: I can't get out of this job!
  • Feeling worthless, troubled; you wake up hating the day.
  • Negative self concept, even feeling like a failure all the time.
  • Negative attitudes towards co-workers, blaming them for your problems.
  • Psychosomatic difficulties - sometimes a tightness in the neck; insomnia etc.
  • Feeling alienated from friends and family. When you're depleted emotionally you tend to withdraw from people and other people tend to withdraw from you.
  • Quitting - you feel like giving up.
  • Doubting your call from God.
  • Lack of ability to concentrate.
  • Detesting your environment.

See also Depression and Stress Management.

Circumstances or factors which can lead to burnout

  • Unfulfilled plans or expectations. You thought it would be one way, but it was another, so you are frustrated.
  • Unrealistic expectations. Sometimes you set goals too high for yourself and can't achieve them -this can cause emotional exhaustion.
  • Working with unhappy or demanding people.
  • No choice over your work situation; feeling trapped.
  • Inadequate rewards from your work - you do not feel affirmed, encouraged or appreciated.
  • Lack of ability to get the necessary day or hour off. This is not vacation time, but 'mental health' time.
  • Competitiveness: hindering friendship or intimacy among staff.
  • No support system. You can't talk about your feelings and the stress, because no-one wants to admit it, due to the lack of freedom to be honest.
  • Lack of variety. Sometimes you get bored with routine; work loses its significance.
  • Lack of significant or fulfilling work.
  • Conflict at home or school.
  • The environment in which you work - like living in a big city!

Coping with burnout

  1. Have a regular time away from your work and environment in which you can find yourself. Go for walks; visit other places; take days away.
  2. Develop friendships with one or two people whom you can share closely with.
  3. You need to develop an adequate support system. Every department and every ministry should have at least one time a week where people can share their needs and be prayed for. Leaders should not be threatened by people sharing their questions or complaints. Be sensitive to felt needs.
  4. Develop a good sense of humour. Be able to laugh at yourself.
  5. Get plenty of exercise.
  6. Have an outside hobby.
  7. Learn an attitude of emphasizing the positive.
  8. Develop a regular time for the Lord; a worship time when you can be refreshed emotionally.
  9. Recognize your weak points and danger signals in yourself, so that you will know when to slow down.
  10. Face the issue of burnout. It is real and needs a realistic response.
  11. Learn to take an hour off occasionally when you are exhausted, to read a book or get away from people. Often our tiredness comes from 'compassion fatigue' or 'people tiredness'.

Burnout Inventory

This is a tool that can help you check yourself for burnout. It helps you look at the way you feel about your job and your experiences at work, so that you can get a feel for whether you might be at risk of burnout.A simple generic self-test