Burnout is emotional exhaustion, ‘compassion fatigue’ (Hart). Sympathetic people are most vulnerable. Researchers like Maslach, Freudenberger and others from 1977 onwards gave the name ‘burn-out’ to the special stressors associated with social and interpersonal pressures.

  • Stress now contributes to 90% of all diseases.
  • Half of all visits to doctors are stress-related.
  • Doctors, lawyers and clergy have the most problems with drug abuse, alcoholism and suicide.

BURNOUT VS. STRESS – by Dr. Arch Hart

Burnout is a defense characterized by disengagement.
     Stress is characterized by overengagement.
In Burnout the emotions become blunted.
     In Stress the emotions become over-reactive.
In Burnout the emotional damage is primary.
     In Stress the physical damage is primary.
The exhaustion of Burnout affects motivation and drive.
     The exhaustion of Stress affects physical energy.
Burnout produces demoralization.
     Stress produces disintegration.
Burnout can best be understood as a loss of ideals and hope.
     Stress can best be understood as a loss of fuel and energy.
The depression of Burnout is caused by the grief engendered by the loss of ideals and hope.
     The depression of Stress is produced by the body’s need to protect itself and conserve energy.
Burnout produces a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
     Stress produces a sense of urgency and hyperactivity.
Burnout produces paranoia, depersonalization and detachment.
     Stress produces panic, phobic, and anxiety-type disorders.
Burnout may never kill you but your long life may not seem worth living.
     Stress may kill you prematurely, and you won’t have enough time to finish what you started.


It is not possible to live without stress. Stressors can be positive, like weddings, but they still mess with your emotions. Most of us are not subject to physical danger very often, but whenever you are ‘driven’ by a very tight program, or threatened by a demand or expectation you don’t think you can meet, your body reacts in the same way. Dr. David McClelland, professor of psychology at Harvard, says stress addiction is similar to the state of physiological arousal some people derive from a dependency on alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. A recent book Management and the Brain (Soujanen and Bessinger) suggests that some professionals are actually hooked on stress ; they get a high out of controlling people and making complex decisions.

  • Bio-ecological factors related to poor diet (too much caffeine, refined white sugar, processed flour, salt etc.) and poor exercise habits. They also include noise and air pollution.
  • Vocational factors include career uncertainty; role ambiguity (a lack of clearly defined functions); role conflict (between work expectations and personal or family needs); role overload (too many real or imagined expectations); lack of opportunities to just be yourself, for a change; loneliness (lack of spiritual direction); time management frustrations – and many more.
  • Psychological factors relate principally to the great life-change stressors – from the most stressful (such as the loss of a spouse), through divorce, death of a close family member, personal injury or illness, all the way to getting ready for Christmas or being handed a speeding fine!
  • Spiritual causes of stress may include temptations of all kinds (sexual, despair, jealousy of the success of others, anxiety over financial problems, anger and any other way the devil can get at us). According to one study, even prayer can be stressful !


Dr. Arch Hart says burnout symptoms may include:

  • Demoralization – belief you are not longer effective 
  • Depersonalization – treating yourself and others in an impersonal way
  • Detachment – withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Distancing – avoidance of social and interpersonal contacts
  • Defeatism – a feeling of being beaten
Christina Maslach, who described burnout as ‘a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion marked by physical depletion and chronic fatigue, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and by development of a negative self-concept and negative attitudes towards work, life and other people’, offers the following signs:
  • Decreased energy – it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up the pace
  • Feeling of failure in vocation;
  • Reduced sense of reward in return for pouring so much of self into the job or project; 
  • A sense of helplessness and inability to see a way out of problems; and
  • Cynicism and negativism about self, others, work and the world generally.
The following are indicators someone is heading toward burnout, if not already there. Sadly, we too often become so focused on our tasks and responsibilities that we fail to see these warning signs until it is too late.
  • Emotional – Unusual mood swings that may include weeping without just cause, anger, or depression. General irritability. Exhaustion
  • Moments of panic and feeling totally overwhelmed
  • Fantasizing about dying or running away to get away from the pressure
  • Insomnia – Including difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep, which can lead to a reliance on sleeping pills
  • Self-medication – Caffeine addiction. Too frequent use of alcohol or tobacco. Comforting yourself with unhealthy foods packed with fat, sugar, and simple carbohydrates
  • Recklessness
  • Health-related issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, heart trouble, chronic sickness, and stomach problems including ulcers. Weight change, including gain or loss. High blood pressure.
  • Fatalism – A victim mentality that sees the world as against you and everyone as an enemy to varying degrees. Paranoia and suspicion.
  • Heavy Burden – Children, friends, and loved ones begin to feel like yet another burden
Jerdon found three out of four parish ministers (sample: 11,500) reported severe stress causing:
  • Anguish
  • Worry
  • Bewilderment
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Fear
  • Alienation
The following are simply some things I do in my own life that I have found helpful to prevent me from dying a death by burnout.Counselors studying this phenomenon are becoming unanimous in their suggestions.
1. Fresh Spiritual Disciplines. Learn the art of relaxation, meditation and contemplative prayer. Then, as the New Testament suggests, don’t be surprised when trials come your way. As psychotherapist M. Scott Peck points out in his brilliant book The Road Less Traveled, when you expect life to be difficult, it is much less difficult.
2. Take Regular Time Off. You can’t expect to work harder than your Creator who models and instructs that we take rest each night, rest each week, and rest each year. Develop a way of leaving work at the office. On your days off, do something very different from what you do the other days. Do not neglect your weekly date night if you are in a serious relationship or married. Take your full four weeks’ annual leave in one stretch. Listen to Spurgeon: ‘Repose is as needful to the mind as sleep to the body… If we do not rest, we shall break down. Even the earth must lie fallow and have her Sabbaths, and so must we’. Jesus said, ‘Come apart and rest awhile’. (If you don’t rest awhile, you’ll soon come apart!).
3. Get Proper Exercise and Sleep. Exercise fairly vigorously 3-4 times a week. Walk, swim, play tennis; perspire and regularly breathe deeply. Allow adequate time for sleep. Dr. Hart again: ‘Adrenal arousal reduces our need for sleep – but this is a trap; we ultimately pay the penalty. Most adults probably need 8-9 hours’ a night!’
4. Relax. The relaxation response is the opposite of the fight/flight response. Taking time each day to intentionally not be controlled by pressing tasks can counteract the harmful effects of stress. Two ways to relax: tighten each set of muscles from your feet to your face, counting to five before relaxing them; or begin meditation by repeating a one-word or one-phrase prayer (‘Maranatha’, ‘Lord have mercy’), repeat it slowly over and over and enjoy the ‘other side of silence’.
5. Deepen Relationships. Pick up the phone. Go out for coffee. Stay connected. Join a small support/prayer group.
6. Renewing of the Mind. Take a personal audit. Reassess your goals; change them sometimes, as you do your clothes. Improve your self-attitudes. Learn a healthy assertiveness (e.g. by using the middle two letters of the alphabet – NO – sometimes, without apology). Know your gifts, and your limits. Face your fears; don’t avoid them by pretence, or bury them in an addiction. Above all, avoid states of helplessness: take time to develop coping strategies for difficult situations. Learn not to make catastrophes out of ordinary events (increasing paranoia – ‘they’re out to get me’ – is a sign of burnout). Be a growing person: if God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word, what new understandings have you experienced recently? Freudenberger suggests: ‘Discard outmoded notions. Don’t wear points of view just because you used to! Like old-fashioned clothes, they may become ill-fitting and ridiculous as time goes on’.
7. Have fun! To belong to the kingdom you have to be like little children. They aren’t bothered about piles of correspondence or running the world. They get absorbed in things, even forgetting to run their own lives! So develop a few ‘interesting interests’: buy a bird-book and identify 100 native birds; collect stamps; play indoor cricket; take your spouse to an ethnic restaurant; give each of your kids an hour a week, where you do together what they suggest; build something ; audit a course. But do something! And laugh sometimes! Did you know your body will not let you laugh and develop an ulcer at the same time? Remember, with humourist Kin Hubbard: ‘Do not take life too seriously; you will never get out of it alive!’

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