Most people—including us—have difficulty knowing when it’s time to take a break from their helping efforts. If the needs of others take precedence over every other responsibility and activity, including self-care, you’ll burn out and lose your ability to effectively serve. It’s important to learn to care well for yourself as you care for others, which begins with learning to recognize burnout and practice strategies for healthy coping.

What is burnout?

Burnout is the state of physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion caused by a depletion of the ability to cope with your environment. It’s the result of your responses to the ongoing demands and stressors of daily life, and it occurs when your perceived demands outweigh your perceived resources. Burnout involves the depletion of physical and intellectual energy that happens when you are overworked, stressed, and involved in demanding situations over a long period of time. It leaves you feeling tired, rundown, overwhelmed, and irritable.

Burnout has also been associated with a reduced sense of personal accomplishment and a sense of discouragement as an employee. It can happen concurrently with the emotional and spiritual energy depletion that is indicative of compassion fatigue: when exposure to too much pain and suffering weakens your ability to actually feel the level of compassion you usually would. When you’re in a situation in which the demands on your body, mind, and heart exceed your resources, and the situation continues for a long time, then you’re at significant risk of burnout.

Recognizing, preventing, and treating this condition is vital. Burnout can destroy your productivity, sap your energy, and (in extreme cases) lead to a total collapse.

How are helpers and leaders at risk?

There are many factors that put helpers and leaders at risk of burnout. Such factors can be personal, social, work-related, and spiritual.

Personal factors that can contribute to burnout include being a perfectionist or demanding near perfection from yourself and/or others, being pessimistic or negative and quick to find fault, feeling the need to personally be in control of everything around you, developing multiple physical ailments, and being a “Type A” personality with high demands for achievement.

Social factors include unresolved marital or family problems, people in your life who expect you to help them, lack of friendships or close relationships, insufficient sleep, lack of exercise, or feeling that you have many demands with little help or support from others.

Work factors include extended periods of time without a break, unclear or poorly-defined expectations from a boss or from those you serve, a sense of failure or fear of losing your job, working in a disorganized or chaotic environment, or working with little to no recognition or support.

Of significant concern for helpers and leaders are spiritual factors: feeling the need to push as hard as possible in doing the Lord’s work, and wanting to represent the Church and God as caring first for the needs of others. All of these factors increase stress and make it difficult to find relief.

What are the signs of burnout?

The signs of burnout can be grouped as physical, emotional, behavioral, and spiritual.

Physical signs include:

  • Chronic fatigue;

  • Low energy;

  • Low immunity;

  • Frequent illness; and,

  • Poor or changing appetite.

Emotional signs include:

  • Self-doubt or a sense of failure;

  • Constant self-doubt or questioning;

  • Flat affect and lack of enjoyment in things that usually make you happy; and,

  • Sense of defeat and discouragement.

Behavioral signs include:

  • Procrastination or avoidance of responsibility;

  • Withdrawal or isolation of yourself from others;

  • Turning to excess food or drugs;

  • Lack of discipline in your self-care habits, such as exercise, hygiene, or grooming.

Spiritual signs include:

  • Spiritual disconnection and isolation (e.g., “God has abandoned me”);

  • Religious strain (e.g., “God is so far away from me”);

  • Major changes in spiritual meaning-making (e.g., “Why would a good God let such a bad thing happen? I don’t think I can believe in that God anymore”).

What can helpers and leaders do to address burnout?

There is no one “right” way to address burnout. Intervention needs to be tailored to the unique experience and interests of those involved. Following are several examples of how burnout can be addressed.

Maintain faith:

  • Get in touch with and do things in which you find meaning and purpose;

  • Read spiritual, inspirational, or religious materials, such as Scripture;

  • Stay involved in church life and discuss spiritual topics with others;

  • Attend community-wide church services and engage in spiritual disciplines like prayer, worship, and Bible study;

  • If you are experiencing spiritual struggle, talk to someone you trust, such as a close friend, family member, chaplain, or counselor.

Plan well:

  • Set a goal and break it down into easily-managed pieces;

  • Take small steps, working through each piece, until you reach your goal;

  • Reward yourself as you complete each step and when you reach the goal (a reward can be a break, some social time, or simply working on a less demanding task);

  • Tell others in your life what your goals are and enlist their support;

  • After you reach your goal, work to maintain your improvements.

Balance life activities:

  • Engage in meaningful leisure activities, including activities you’ve enjoyed in the past and new activities that get you out of a weekly pattern;

  • Schedule regular vacations and be intentional in finding times to relax;

  • Exercise regularly;

  • Prioritize sleep and practice good sleep habits (e.g., going to bed around the same time each night);

  • Eat balanced meals each day.

Keep an optimistic perspective:

  • Balance the reality of a situation—avoid focusing only on the negative;

  • Recognize there are multiple contributing factors to your difficulties;

  • Focus on the big picture and avoid “all-or-nothing” thinking;

  • Think realistically and gather the facts—avoid “jumping to conclusions”;

  • Avoid rigid expectations and watch for the words “should,” “must,” or “have to” in your speech and thoughts.

If you’ve tried these strategies but continue to feel burned out; if your reactions worsen over time; or if they cause interference with your daily life at work, home, or with other relationships, it may be appropriate to talk to a professional. You can get professional help from your primary care physician, a mental health provider, or church leader.

For even more ideas, words of encouragement, supportive Scriptures, and prayers, download a copy of our free eBook: 101 Ways to Overcome Burnout.

Jamie Aten, Ph.D. and Kent Annan, M.Div. are the co-founders of Spiritual First Aid. They also co-direct the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.