Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Recently, a regional meeting of battered women’s shelter workers was held in a local church building. They meet periodically, in different settings, for training and companionship which in turn better equips them to do their work in a volatile setting. The staff of My Sister’s House, a local shelter for women and children fleeing abuse and sexual assault, served as hosts for the meeting. The theme for this particular meeting was “Burn-Out.”

Before I proceed, I must say that burn-out is a staggering reality and can cause a severe diminishment of life. I have seen burn-out victims firsthand. It is not a pleasant sight. It can carry with it serious medical and psychological consequences. And it takes hard work, probably in cooperation with trained professionals, to deal with it.

Having said that, I also believe that burn-out has become a kind of buzzword for people suffering from other ailments and what they experience is not anywhere close to what I have observed of someone who is truly “burned out.” This is especially true for the category of human service workers. They invest their lives in the lives of others, sometimes for the good, sometimes not. Their service can be both rewarding and terribly, terribly frustrating. It is not unusual at all to hear human service workers speak of the need to take care of themselves. That idea came into vogue in the past few decades as a result of therapeutic practice. And to be sure, a servant of humankind who does not take care of oneself physically, mentally, and spiritually, is not going to be very effective in the long run. Folk who work long, hard hours for extended periods of time can also be a candidate for burn-out, I guess, but I do not think it is because they have worked too hard. I will explain my reasoning. First, let me try to quantify what may be happening under the heading of “burn-out.”

There is no intriguing way to say it, but for some who claim burn-out, the reality is they are lazy. Sorry to be so harsh, but it is true. I have known too many in my life who make a daily litany of how burned-out they are and how they must take care of themselves. This means the neglect of their appointed services. It means they lose effectiveness as far as interpersonal relationships are concerned. And in the long run, they are just damn boring to be around. These are the ones for whom the statement “GET A LIFE!!!” was invented.

But there is a second group. These are the folk who have legitimate claim to being totally worn out. It is more appropriate to say that they are exhausted. Included in this group are the same human service workers mentioned above, business people, housewives, movers and shakers all around. Their condition may proceed into a diagnosis of burn-out. This is the category that probably catches most of us. Living with stress, a bad medical condition, concerns related to guilt and shame, 18 hour days every day – all become hallmarks of the exhausted one. The antidote to exhaustion may be multi-faceted. It may mean the discipline of taking regular days off, learning stress reduction, using those vacation days, practicing Sabbath. If an antidote is not found and applied, then the result can be devastating. Heart attack, ulcers, abuse of substances, the break-down of relationships: all become familiar companions for the exhausted one.

And then there are those who are really burned-out. It is as though their inner core is charred through and through. Dysfunctional becomes a descriptive term. This condition sometimes must be treated through in-patient hospitalization. This is serious stuff.

What causes it? My answer is simple, but I have sensed it profoundly applied on too many occasions. People become burned-out when they lose their commitment to the task for which they give their life, but still continue giving.

The precipice of burn-out is a good time to consider a career change, the giving up of “get and gain” and becoming a servant, finally saying no to a relationship that is crushing, or engaging those questions that having been hanging hard in one’s heart for way too long.

1 comment:

  1. I studied counseling, and I could definitely relate to this topic. When I did my counseling internship, I was constantly reminded that I needed to take care of myself before helping others. I was told that I needed to separate my professional and personal lives, meaning not to bring your work at home. These advice were only to avoid getting "burn out."

    As the first-year counselor, I had struggle with this advice. First of all, it wan't possible not to think about my clients sometimes even when I was home. Secondly, I wanted to help people, and I wanted to succeed in my career. But, if I could work only certain place or time, I felt what I could do for my clients were only limited. I hated the feeling of failure, being unable to help people and not giving my best efforts to help them.

    It was difficult to balance everything. There's no black-and-white answer. When to feel "burn out" is different for each individual.