Burnout is, at its core, an issue of being temporarily used up.
Think of energy in your life—both physical and emotional energy—like money in a bank account. When you rest, and invest in energizing activities, deposits are made in the energy account. In this way, energy really is a renewable resource in your life. But you should also remember that when life throws stressors at you (and let’s face it; life does that all the time), you make withdrawals from that energy account. Sometimes you make big withdrawals. But so long as your withdrawals are less than the deposits, your account doesn’t overdraft. And you’re okay.
But there are certain stressors we face in life, or certain especially stressful seasons of life when we make bigger withdrawals. In those seasons when stress really gets out of hand, it curiously tends to coincide with seasons where we make fewer deposits—we rest less, and we don’t engage in as many energizing activities (what’s an energizing activity? Stay tuned, there’s a blog post about that headed your way). And it’s in those seasons when we’re most likely to overdraft our energy bank account.
Those of us who study stress academically often use the term “exhaustion” to talk about the main feature of burnout. In fact, while there are a lot of different models of burnout in the academic world, exhaustion tends to be the feature that ties them all together. But when we talk about “exhaustion,” we’re not talking about being “tired.” We’re talking about being used up. Exhaustion in this sense would be like saying we’ve exhausted the funds in that bank account. There’s nothing left to withdraw. And the energy checks are bouncing.
The disfunction that happens in burnout is kind of like the disfunction of demanding that your car keep running after it’s completely out of gas. It’s like demanding your bank cash a check when your account is empty. It’s like demanding that a used match strike once more. When we’re burned out, we expect ourselves to be able to bear up under the same stressors and strains that we managed yesterday simply because we were able to do it yesterday. The only problem is that we don’t have any energy anymore. So we can’t.
I can’t emphasize enough how disorienting it is to “go to the well” of energy expecting to be able to manage the same stress load you’ve always managed, only to realize the well is dry, and you can’t manage anymore. At that point, a lot of the other “symptoms” of burnout happen. And, to be honest, this is where a lot of academics start arguing over what is or isn’t a normal symptom of burnout. For me, the point is that once you’re shocked to find out you can’t carry the load you’ve always carried up to this point, you’re likely to have any one of a number of emotional responses. And none of them are pleasant.
You might feel anxiety or have symptoms of depression. Some burnout sufferers suddenly struggle to trust anyone, including themselves. They start to wonder if they can believe anything anyone tells them or even believe their own ability to process things. There’s definitely a shame component of burnout, with most sufferers feeling like a failure at some point. Some people become tremendously inflexible in their thinking, holding to yesterday’s ways of doing things like a sailor holds to the mast of a ship in a storm. Some people become terribly cynical about their work and withdraw from parts of their job about which they used to be passionate. Others become very irritable and do damage to relationships that they very much need to weather the storm they’re going through. Still others may make drastic alterations to their personal or work life hoping that they will find their old self again by making huge and sometimes irreversible changes.
And, if you are burned out, or love someone who is, chances are I’ve struck a nerve somewhere in the last paragraph. As someone who’s watched a loved one go through the pain of burnout, let me tell you that I understand how scary it is. The good news is that burnout can be successfully addressed. It doesn’t have to be a forever problem. The bank account can balance once again. In future posts we’ll keep talking about the nature of burnout and what you can do about it.
So to return to the original question that titles this blog post (What does burnout look like?), it looks like a crisis. It’s a crisis of emptiness where once there was energy. To people on the outside, it will often look like an emotional breakdown. And it may happen to someone you would least expect to ever have a breakdown. It always involves some kind of distress. So it’s unlikely a person is experiencing burnout if they are still feeling great about life and their work.
The good news is that burnout can be beaten. If you’re dealing with burnout, it doesn’t have to define your future. In posts on this blog, we’ll talk about ways you can battle burnout. Stay tuned for future posts, and in the meantime, review our big three steps for beating burnout.
The Big Three for Burnout Sufferers
- See your doctor for a full checkup, and share any concerning symptoms or issues
- Review your diet, sleep, and exercise habits, and make healthy steps forward in each area
- Visit a licensed mental health professional that is trained in addressing burnout and depression
- Begin a daily journal where you keep track of how you’re doing emotionally day to day. Entries don’t have to be more than a couple of sentences. It’s not a diary unless you want it to be. You’re just helping yourself keep track of how you’re doing day to day
SPIRITUAL FITNESS (For Those in My Readership that are of the Christian Faith)
- Visit a pastoral counselor and discuss your struggle with burnout and any spiritual challenges you’re also dealing with
- Simplify (or start) your daily devotional routine. Focus on one key thought from scripture each day, and think about how you can apply it to your battle with burnout
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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.