Burnout is real. And burnout seems to be an epidemic in Western culture. On so many levels, our cultural atmosphere is aggravating burnout. Think about the current characteristics of our cultural atmosphere.
- A culture that is fast-paced.
- A culture that is hurried.
- A culture that is overwhelmed with options and decisions.
- A culture that is overloaded with information.
- A culture that is overstimulated with digital stimuli.
- A culture that values achievement and progress more than rest and margin.
- A culture that often lacks margin.
- A culture that is stressed.
- A culture that has not educated people on how to manage stress.
This is the type of atmosphere that fosters burnout.
If you are currently on the verge of burnout, you are not alone. If you are currently experiencing full-blown burnout, you are not alone. Burnout is not the experience of a few. Burnout has become the experience of the majority.
Think about these recent studies on burnout in our culture:
- 84% of millennials say they have experienced burnout in their current job. (article)
- 70% of people experienced burnout in the last year. (article)
- 84% of Gen Z report burnout. (article)
- 74% of Millennials report burnout. (article)
- About 33% of employees and executives are struggling with fatigue and poor mental health. (article)
- 68% of employees and 81% of the C-suite say that improving their well-being is more important than advancing their careers. (article)
- In 2021, 38% of pastors considered quitting full-time ministry. (article)
In my late twenties and early thirties, I was pastoring a fast-growing church and experiencing full-blown burnout. For three years, I was running on empty. I could describe the experience using these words: Hurried. Overloaded. Stressed. Anxious. Lacking Margin. Exhausted.
During my burnout, I lost hope that I would ever feel normal again. My body and soul were depleted. I tried to do things to feel normal, and nothing seemed to make me feel well again. I longed for a sense of well-being to permeate me—body and soul. I was so depleted that nothing I did to change my state of exhaustion seemed to work.
At a point of hopelessness, I met with a mentor who had written a book on burnout for leaders. I processed with him everything I was going through. I remember sitting in his living room for hours and him telling me that I needed to take a break. My body would not recover overnight. I needed time to heal. I needed time to reflect. I took him up on his advice.
During my break, I decided to re-engineer how I functioned as a leader. I wanted to run the marathon of life and leadership with health. I was sprinting. I did not want to end up on the sidelines long term. I wanted to find a way to be well and flourish as a leader.
What Is Burnout?
The term burnout was coined in 1974 by a psychologist named Herbert Freudenberger. He saw volunteers working at a clinic in New York City lose motivation and become emotionally depleted. He used this term to describe a condition that would develop after a cycle of severe stress, often with people who helped others in a professional setting.(source)
Psychology Today defines burnout as follows: “Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” (source)
Burnout occurs when you get stuck in an unhealthy negative cycle. This is often related to cycles of stress. Stress in society. Stress in family. Stress in relationships. Stress in the workplace. Stress in ministry.
Burnout is an interesting metaphor. It pictures the sapping of energy. Think of the days when you were passionate and a fire was burning inside of you. But now you are depleted and the fire is no longer burning as strongly as it once did. You have come to a point where you are drained of energy.
You may say, “I am continually exhausted—mentally + emotionally + physically + relationally” to describe your burnout.
In his book about adrenaline and stress, Dr. Archibald Hart pictures the prolonged activation of stress like a rubber band that “is stretched and then held in an extended position for a long period of time, it begins to lose its elastic properties and does not return to its former relaxed state. It develops hairline cracks and will eventually snap.” That is a fitting illustration of burnout. Stretched, cracked, and broken on various levels. Our bodies were not created to function in a perpetual state of stress.
When I began to pursue healing from my burnout, I asked myself two questions:
- What can I do to heal from burnout?
- What can I do to change my lifestyle to prevent burnout in the future?
I would like to share with you the answers I found along the way in my journey, particularly what I learned theologically and practically to heal and find long-term well-being after burnout.
Jesus + Margin
Jesus had a full schedule. Jesus had a full set of responsibilities. He was a sought-after teacher. He was a sought-after healer. He was a polarizing religious figure—many people loved him, and the religious leaders hated him. He had a lot of practical, relational, mental, and emotional stressors to navigate. At the same time, Jesus understood his humanity. He knew that he had limitations and needs as a human. He knew that with all of the demands of teaching, discipling, and healing, he needed rhythms of rest and refueling.
Notice the consistency of this theme mentioned in the gospels:
- Matthew 14:13: He withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.
- Mark 1:35: Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.
- Mark 6:31: Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
- Mark 6:45-46: Immediately, Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
- Luke 5:16: But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
Getting away was a common practice for Jesus. He GOT AWAY. He got away TO A SOLITARY PLACE. He got away to a solitary place TO PRAY. Jesus navigated the pressures and demands of his calling in a healthy way. He rested physically. He rested at a soul level. And he replenished his soul in quietness and prayer.
Learn To Break Away
We need to learn to break away so that we do not break. Jesus exemplified this. He knew that he had human limitations and needs. He grew tired. So Jesus took time to break away. This was a rhythm that I began to learn and process through in the initial stages of healing from burnout.
Jesus mirrored the pattern of creation—work and rest. Long before God’s good world was marred through human sin, God gave us a pattern to follow. Work for six days. Rest for one day. Jesus not only followed this weekly pattern, he broke away when he felt he needed spiritual, mental, emotional and physical rest.
We can lean into this healthy pattern as a preemptive practice to prevent burnout. We are not robots. We were not created to work endlessly. We are not superhuman. We were not created to do everything for everyone. We were created to work and rest. At a human level, we need to break away. Breaking away allows us to rest and replenish.
Breaking away to create rhythms of rest may look like the following:
- A daily rest. An intentional commitment to cultivating healthy sleep patterns.
- A weekly sabbath. An intentional day to rest and replenish your soul.
- A monthly disconnect. An intentional few days to invest in your health—spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally, and relationally.
- A quarterly margin check-in. An intentional few days to evaluate healthy margin in your life. Margin is a valuable commitment to creating rhythms to rest and replenish our souls. Margin means that we become aware of our stress and exhaustion levels and invest in margin when we see those levels moving toward an unhealthy point.
- A yearly vacation. An intentional time away, once or multiple times per year, to enjoy life and disconnect from work.
Learn To Make Intentional Changes
We cannot thrive on empty. Human flourishing is not possible in a constantly depleted state. Jesus knew this. He broke away consistently. He found quiet places to rest. He disconnected from his work. He spent time in communion and prayer with his Father. Jesus broke away with intention.
We need to learn to break away with intention. Breaking away with intention means that we create margin and rhythms that fill us up. Life empties our tanks. Mentally. Emotionally. Relationally. Physically. Spiritually. Empty tanks need to be refilled. Mentally. Emotionally. Relationally. Physically. Spiritually.
Another way to explain this is healthy output demands healthy input. Output and input are equally valuable. In a culture that values output—work + parenting + entrepreneurship + responsibilities + accomplishments—we need to create a subculture that equally values input. The hustle and achievement culture has bred mass burnout. And, as followers of Jesus, we have Jesus as the ultimate example to follow in not allowing the demands of life to dictate healthy input. Input is essentially an investment into our well-being so that our body and soul can flourish as we carry out our responsibilities.
Each of us lives with a set of responsibilities, tasks and stressors. We cannot flourish in a continuum of output around these. Responsibilities will often outweigh our human ability to accomplish them without healthy input. Demands will often outweigh our human ability to meet them without healthy input. We can become paralyzed in a state of emptiness and exhaustion.
Maybe you are feeling paralyzed in a state of burnout. I understand. I mirrored the hustle-achievement culture—accomplishing at the expense of my well-being. There was hope for me. There is hope for you as well. You will not always exist in this state. Hope comes when we reflect and begin to re-engineer how we live moving forward. Hope comes when we think deeply about what we can do to create intentionality in our lives to refill our tanks.
So, what can we do to refill our tank? Here are the categories of input that I began to intentionally think through during and after healing from burnout:
- Mentally. What could I do to rest and refill my mental tank? I learned that my mental tank was normally the last area to empty. However, mental exhaustion for me became a warning sign that I was quite depleted. I learned to break away from the mental grind of strategy, vision, and study to rest and replenish my mental tank.
- Emotionally. What could I do to rest and refill my emotional tank? I learned that my emotional tank emptied faster than any other area. This meant I needed to take intentional time alone as a borderline introvert in order to refill my emotional tank.
- Spiritually. What could I do daily and weekly to fill up my spiritual tank? I learned that my spiritual tank needed daily filling with prayer and scripture reading. I also leaned into the rhythm of work and rest that God wired into creation. I learned to rest in the gift of rest instead of feeling guilty for breaking away from work.
- Physically. What could I do to rest and refill my physical tank? I learned that the triad of sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet was essential for me to feel well in every area of my life. I committed to investing in healthy sleep patterns more intentionally, 4-5 days a week of exercise, and eating a plant-based diet.
- Relationally. What could I do to rest and refill my relational tank? I learned that my relational tank had many facets to it. I needed to sit with a therapist to process painful points of my childhood. This helped me to unravel how growing up in a broken home conditioned me to carry conflict inside of me in an unhealthy way. And I needed to lean into a few close friendships over the long haul of life and leadership as a safe place to share life and find support.
God created each of these areas of our lives as humans. These facets of our humanity are essential to our overall well-being. These areas of human life need tending. Tending leads to flourishing. I needed to make intentional changes to tend to these areas in my life.
I was already practicing some of these inputs prior to burnout, but not with the same amount of reflection and intentionality as post-burnout.
As I processed through and answered these questions, I found a number of life-giving intentional inputs that not only allowed me to heal but also helped me to feel well.
These inputs may be similar or different for each person. Every person’s life context is unique. However similar or different, the important element for each one of us is learning to break away with intention.
I would be remiss not to mention that intentionality does not mean rigidness or perfection. With any change, there needs to be a healthy amount of flexibility. Life is not a perfect ecosystem. It is wise to remember that as you implement changes into your life.
Learn To Reflect On Stress Cycles
Because burnout is connected to unhealthy cycles of stress, we need to reflect on stress cycles, particularly reflecting on how cycles of stress are hindering us from flourishing. Burnout becomes a reality because of cycles of stress. Stress is a reality for every person. And because stress is a reality, we need to learn how to manage our stressors with healthy coping mechanisms. Unhealthy coping mechanisms are destructive to our body and soul. Healthy coping mechanisms can lead to healing and health.
Here are a few questions that can help to identify the reality and root of stress cycles in your life:
- What cycles of stress have led to your burnout?
- What is at the root of your stress cycle?
- What can you do to manage your stressors in a healthy manner?
- What change(s) do you need to make with your particular stress cycle?
I processed through these questions, identified unhealthy cycles of stress, and learned how to manage my stress in a healthier way.
For all of us, we can intentionally lean into universal inputs and coping mechanisms for stress and also thoughtfully think through changes that will be unique to our personal context.
Here is a list of healthy stress-coping mechanisms that helped me. These were life-giving inputs and tools that helped me to manage stress in a healthy way.
- Sleep. Sleep is restorative. It restores our body, brain, and soul. It gives us rest on every level of our humanity. Most of us need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Sleep was designed by God in the garden for human flourishing.
- Exercise. Exercise is a natural stress reliever. It boosts endorphins. It can help to refocus on thoughts. It helps us to relax. It can also decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Movement was designed by God in the garden for human flourishing.
- Food. Healthy food is not only our source of energy; it can also help us to relieve stress. The food we eat also affects our mood. Healthy foods were created by God in the garden for human flourishing.
- Prayer. Prayer allows us to bring our stressors to God in an open and honest way. God did not create us to carry our burdens and stressors alone. He is our helper. He cares about the stressors that we carry. And God wants to help us carry the burden and stressors in our lives.
- Communication. Communication helps us to share our feelings instead of burying our feelings. Processing our stressors within a healthy relationship provides a relational outlet to be vulnerable about the stressors we are carrying. Rather than projecting our stressors on others, we can utilize relational communications to share in an honest way what we are walking through.
- Margin. We need healthy margin to flourish. Margin is the space we give ourselves to be human. We have limitations. As much as we would like to accomplish everything, please everyone, and solve every problem, we cannot. We are not wired to flourish without tending to our own well-being—mentally, emotionally, relationally, physically, and spiritually. We care for others better when we also care for our own well-being.
- Support. We need healthy relationships to flourish. We are relational beings. And a part of that relational design is finding support in safe relationships. Social support is integral to our well-being. Social support is connected to improved mental health. Cultivating meaningful and supportive relationships is a healthy coping mechanism for stress.
Take time to reflect on how these intersect in your life. What aspects are you currently doing well in? What is missing in how you are managing your stressors? And, how can you implement these into how you are managing stress in the present and future?
Burnout Is Not a Destination
My burnout was not a destination. I was not stuck in a permanent state of burnout. I had an opportunity to reflect and make changes to heal and feel well in the future. Recovering from burnout takes time and intention. And preventing burnout in the future takes reflection and intention. Just as a car needs maintenance and refueling, so too do our lives need maintenance and refueling. We cannot flourish without these. Conversely, we can flourish as we navigate each season of life with intentionality—creating margin, learning to break away, making intentional changes, and managing our stressors in a healthy manner.
There was hope for me. I healed from my burnout. There is hope for you too. You can heal as well.
There Are Better Days Ahead.
Much Love + Peace,
Wesley Towne, Founder + Speaker
 InformedHealth.org, Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG), 2006-, Depression: What is burnout? June 18, 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279286/.
 “Burnout,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/burnout.
 Archibald Hart, Adrenaline and Stress: The Exciting New Breakthrough That Helps You Overcome Stress Damage(Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995), 8.