Today, I happened to bump into an old friend who I hadn’t seen for a while. I knew him in the context of our both working among the homeless and other vulnerable persons, which he did diligently, although he recently gave up that work. One of the reasons for doing so was he was burnt out and needed a change. We chatted a while about this and that, including some of the issues around burn out, before saying good bye and going on our separate ways.
Having this conversation got me thinking about something I have long associated with many of those who work among the needy, especially the more sensitive and conscientious types, those who are prepared to go that extra mile and keep on going when others would have long ago given up, although it could apply to any, and that is how many do suffer from burn out. I don’t purport to have all the answers regarding causes and cures and I am sure a simple search on the Internet will come up with many helpful tips and resources. My first hit when I did a Google search revealed the following intriguing statement: “If constant stress has you feeling disillusioned, helpless, and completely worn out, you may be suffering from burnout. When you’re burned out, problems seem insurmountable, everything looks bleak, and it’s difficult to muster up the energy to care—let alone do something about your situation”, which I will use as a working definition of the problem. While burn out is something I have personally experienced and can identify with, rather than enter into the domain of the experts, I will offer some thoughts arising out of what I have observed going on all around me, hoping it may help some of those affected.
It is difficult to know where to begin, and I realize burn out occurs among all sorts of people, doing all sorts of activities and involves those whose burn out happens to have taken place while in a paid role as well as those doing voluntary activity, with each experience unique, including the complex mixture of external and internal factors leading to burn out. While my comments may prove helpful for the entire range of burned out and potentially burned out people, I will focus on those whose activities involves helping the needy and vulnerable, in particular the homeless, and doing so in a voluntary capacity, for that is where much of my more recent experience lies. While taking all this on board is no guarantee burn out won’t occur, it will at least help identify some of the tell tale signs and proven remedies and, hopefully, raise awareness among those who up to now may have shown little empathy and support to those suffering from burn out, especially so those who do care are also cared for.
One of the lovely things that make us truly human is the desire and ability to show kindness to our fellow humans. Some take this further than most and are especially susceptible to burn out. This is also a phenomenon that affects people of all different religious persuasions and none, and is why I want to address my remarks generally, respecting those who are very much in the battle to rescue the needy who don’t share my faith. Quite clearly, there are all sorts of human need and in the context of this discussion around themes such as poverty, oppression and vulnerability. Just as it is human to want to help those experiencing these things, sadly, it is also human nature to ignore what is happening around us and rationalizing our response inactivity. But burned out types tend not to do this and they go out of their way to help. One of the things one quickly finds out is that often we can help only a few, often only a few of those we try to help respond in the way we hope, even when we put a lot of effort into trying to be helpful, and often there are barriers, criticism and negativity by those looking on, which all takes its toll. How one reacts to all this will depend on what led to burn out, one’s own make up (physically, mentally, socially and spiritually) and one’s own past experiences (some can be particularly harrowing).
The resultant burn out might be looked upon as something negative and avoidable, but it can be positive and may be natures wake up call for us to redress our life balance. Given what has taken place, avoidability may not be something we can see at the time but it is important to deal with the aftermath. Sometimes this is triggered by a traumatic experience or a build up of negativity. Often the signs include deterioration in health (physical as well as mental), a breakdown in relationships, particularly when it involves those closest to us, and a general feeling of finding it hard to cope and be motivated, which often is revealed when we go about our tasks. While this may be a good time to take a step back and even dropping what we do, yet given the nature of what we do and the laudable concern not to let others down, we may well press on regardless.
But it is at such times certain actions should be taken, in the interest of taking the long term view and seeing through what we begun and then handing on to others. This may involve taking at least a short break, strengthening bridges with those we are close to, having to say “no”, sharing with others, setting boundaries, reassessing our priorities, learning to forgive, accepting our limitations, taking care of our personal affairs (often something that gets ignored when fully engaged in our helping others), taking care of our family, taking a wider view of a rich plethora outside of helping the needy, which is life, and anything else that may help. Those who are involved with the person being burnt out, especially if in some sort of authority role, should make particular provision, ideally right from the outset. This may involve counseling, adjusting the workload, setting boundaries, telling the person he or she is appreciated, valued and listened to, and simply being understanding, empathetic and supportive. One thing all of us should be working toward when dealing with the needs around us is to be able to share the burden.
While not purporting to give instant fixes, I have, I hope, made some helpful suggestions. The best, perhaps, is to look at the life of Jesus. It is interesting that his intensive helping out of the poor and needy occurred over a short period of time, 3 years from the age of 30, and then stopped altogether as his greater purpose, to redeem mankind, could only happen through his dying, pinning his hopes that those who follow him afterwards would carry on this work, which while including practicing justice also involves making further followers and honouring God. Even when in full flow, he didn’t help everyone and made the point the poor would always be with us. His ability to endure was due to his dependence on his heavenly Father. He invited those who trusted him to cast their burdens onto him, because he will take them and be with all those who put their trust in him. In any case, we need to take stock and do what we are meant to do (rather than what we aren’t meant to do), as best we can.