The blog is back—
To loyal readers who remember the original blog that was focused mostly on family relationships, thank you for your patience as I’ve been away for some time focusing on completing my education and finding my footing as both a pastor and a college professor. Now, since my research focuses on stress and burnout, I plan to blog about stress-related life challenges, and research-based ways to think about and face those challenges.
Okay… back to the question… How big of a problem is burnout, really?
Usually when I tell people I study burnout, I get the same response. There’s usually a knowing look, followed by a light-hearted joke of some sort—“well, then, you’ve found the perfect study participant in me!” But one thing that I worry about a bit is that almost without fail, when I talk to people about burnout, they treat it as a sort of necessary evil—a part of life that can’t be avoided. They talk about it kind of like college students talk about being sleepy during exams week; burnout is unpleasant, but it’s just part of being productive in a high pressure world. And, I also find that people who work in the highest pressure environments are the first to downplay burnout, as though it’s really not that big of a deal.
As you’ll see if you continue reading, burnout is a very big deal. If burnout is left unaddressed, it can absolutely attack your physical and emotional health. But before I make my case that burnout is a big problem, let me take a minute to make sure that we’re on the same page about what burnout really is (I’ll just briefly discuss the nature of burnout here, but next week, I’ll write or perhaps video a post called “how to spot burnout” in which I’ll go into much more depth about what burnout is and how to spot it). Sometimes there’s a bit of confusion because some people use the term “burned out” as a way of saying they’re tired. We all get tired, and there will always be times when our body and our brain tell us we need to take a break. That’s not burnout. But, of course, if we ignore those “time to take a break” signals long enough, then burnout does happen.
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When a person is burned out, it’s because they’ve been trying to carry a burden that is “too much for too long.” And they’ve ignored their need for rest and reduction (rest in the sense of recharging so that you can continue to have energy to give, and reduction in the sense of getting rid of parts of your burden that are unnecessary or unreasonable). So they reach a point of mental (and sometimes physical) exhaustion. And, by exhaustion I mean being completely used up. Like a person with an empty bank account, an empty gas tank, or a completely burnt match, there is the realization that you have nothing left to use to face the demands of the situation. And that’s anxiety provoking, and it can cause a person to hit a wall that looks a lot like major depression.
There is so much to share about what burnout does to a person, but at the moment, as I write this, some of the things that come readily to mind from the research is that burned out individuals tend to experience less mental creativity and flexibility, and start to struggle to do simple work tasks that would once have been very easy to accomplish. They often become cynical about their organization, the kind of work they do, or the people with whom they work. And, sadly this happens for people who truly love their organization and the people in it… burnout robs them of those genuinely warm and enthusiastic feelings. They may become cognitively rigid (I will soon be posting about what cognitive rigidity looks like with a very interesting story about Henry Ford), unwilling to accept or entertain new ideas, regardless of how innovative their thinking used to be. They may struggle to regulate their impulses, to make long range plans, to handle emotional ups and downs, and to be compassionate or empathic with others. One of the biggest challenges is that burned out individuals often struggle with very negative feelings about themselves and go to a dark, shame-oriented place where they feel like a failure, or as though they are doomed to fail in the future.
In future posts I’ll talk more about the consequences of burnout, but for today, I’d like to base my answer to the question “How Big of a Problem is Burnout, Really?” in Dr. Salvagioni’s (2017) excellent summary of outcomes that have been connected to burnout in the research:
“Burnout was a significant predictor of the following physical consequences: hypercholesterolemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, musculoskeletal pain, changes in pain experiences, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries, and mortality below the age of 45 years. The psychological effects were insomnia, depressive symptoms, use of psychotropic and antidepressant medications, hospitalization for mental disorders, and psychological ill-health 36 symptoms. Job dissatisfaction, absenteeism, new disability pension, job demands, job resources, and presenteeism were identified as professional outcomes.”
Salvagioni, D. A. J., Melanda, F. N., Mesas, A. E., González, A. D., Gabani, F. L., & Andrade, S. M. d. (2017). Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies. Plos One, 12(10), e0185781. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185781
Isn’t that amazing? High blood pressure, diabetes, heart problems, digestive issues, pain issues, early death… those are all things I’d prefer to avoid if possible.
For me, these outcomes of burnout are far too costly to ignore. I do believe burnout is a very big deal. I’ve seen it impact people that I love, I’ve seen it ruin people’s careers, and I’ve even known individuals for whom I truly believe it shortened their lifespan. That’s why I’ve dedicated the last couple years of my research to burnout, and plan to continue doing that in the foreseeable future. I hope you’ll either subscribe or stay subscribed so we can go on this journey together to focus on ways to regulate stress in our lives as we seek to live healthy, godly lives. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be blogging more about what burnout looks like, ways you can avoid it, and how a person who is burned out can find peace and a new path toward a healthy approach to stress. As always, I welcome your comments.
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About the Author
Jonathan Hoover, Ph.D.
Jonathan is the senior associate pastor of NewSpring Church in Wichita, KS, and he also serves on the faculty of Regent University as an assistant professor and the program director of the M.S. in General Psychology program. Jonathan holds a bachelor’s degree from Liberty University in Psychology and Christian Counseling, a Masters degree in General Psychology from Regent University and a Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Grand Canyon University. Here, Jonathan blogs about stress, burnout, and other psychological challenges from a research-informed and Christian perspective. Jonathan has been married to his wife, Wendy since 2002, and, together they have two daughters of whom they are very proud, Cheyenne, and Summer. If you’d like to learn more about Jonathan, you can see his full bio here.