6 Things to do When You’re Burned Out

I thought I could just power through it. It will pass. I just have to get through this stretch, then things will get better. But it didn’t get better. Each new day I felt like I was sinking deeper and deeper into a dark pit that I couldn’t pull myself out of. I knew I needed to make some significant changes, but I didn’t know how. I felt trapped.

Nearly a month passed from the moment I first realized something significant was wrong until I decided to do something about it. In that stretch, I was largely ineffective as a leader, husband, and father and probably hurt a lot of people – myself included – in the process. If you suspect you might be burning out, don’t wait. Take immediate action.

[See 7 Warning Signs You May be Suffering from Burnout]

Here are 6 things to do if you suspect you may be burned out.

Stop immediately

But I can’t stop! There’s too much to do.

But who will…?

But how will…?

But what about…?

All of these questions raced in my mind causing a mild panic attack.

How will the church survive without me?

Listen up, Leader!

This is probably the #1 reason why you’re burned out. You think your organization (church, nonprofit, business, etc.) can’t survive without you.

You think nobody else can do what you do. And that may be true.

But your organization belongs to God. And either you choose to trust Him in this moment, or you don’t. You choose to trust that He can still accomplish His purposes without you or not. You must choose to believe that He is bigger than your burnout. He is greater than your fear.

And let’s be honest. If you had made this choice sooner, you might not be in this predicament.

You may think you can’t afford to take extended time off, but truthfully, you can’t afford not to. At this point, your choice is either to stop or be stopped. Either you’re going to make the conscious decision to take a break or somebody or something else is going to make it for you. Only then it might be too late for any hope of returning to your organization or position of leadership.

Leader, I plead with you to make the decision to stop before someone has to make it for you.

See a therapist

If you don’t already see a therapist, see one right away! Get over any reasons you have for not going to therapy. You’re not crazy, weak, or unspiritual. You just need help. And therapists are in the business of helping.

I was already seeing a therapist bi-weekly, so she wasn’t surprised when I told her I thought I may be burned out. She listened. She validated my feelings. She gave me hope that I wasn’t crazy, weak-willed, or unspiritual. She told me it wasn’t surprising that someone in my situation would get burned out. I felt relieved. I wasn’t crazy. I was “normal.”

Hopefully, you have a good Christian counselor in your area who understands the pressures of ministry that you can get in to quickly. If not, find one somewhere else. I know a leader who drives four hours one way to see a therapist he trusts.

Your mental health is worth it! Don’t wait!

See a medical doctor

Burnout is now an official medical condition. It can be diagnosed and treated by a medical doctor. A therapist will listen and reflect back to you that you may be burned out, but when a doctor diagnoses you with burnout and prescribes treatment, it carries a hefty weight.

It probably helped that my doctor had gone through burnout himself years earlier, so he made a swift and clear diagnosis. But I was not ready for the remedy: you need to stop doing ministry right away and take 6-12 months off.

6-12 months?!?!

Yes. Ideally, a full year, but at a bare minimum, 6 months. If you don’t, you will literally end up killing yourself.

I was not prepared for that prescription, but at the same time, I felt relieved. Someone gets it. He understands. This is a doctor. This is serious.

Having an official medical diagnosis provided me the permission I needed to take this seriously. It also made it much easier to tell my Board that I was taking a leave. It carried a serious weight that conveyed, Jeff is more than just tired. He’s dying. He needs help. We have to help him.

If you think you may be burned out, go see a medical doctor. Having an official diagnosis will give you, your family, and organizational leadership peace of mind.

Write about it

Diary. Journal. Notebook. Computer. Unpublished blog. I don’t care. Just privately write down your raw unfiltered thoughts and feelings. This isn’t for anybody else to read (unless you later want to share it with your significant other). It’s just for you. So, don’t hold back. Let the f-bombs fly!

I tried to make it a habit to at least write something every day. Some days I could only write a few lines. Other days, I’d fill up pages. Writing helped me process what I was experiencing. It gave expression to thoughts and feelings I didn’t even know I had. I begun to recognize patterns that had been established over years; ingrained habits that I hadn’t realized.

For the first two months, all I did was vent. I vented in my journal about broken relationships, unfilled expectations, and unrealized dreams. I questioned God’s goodness, faithfulness, and love. There probably wasn’t a “Christian” thing I wrote for the first eight weeks.

Then something shifted in month three. It was like the dark fog lifted and I saw a glimpse of the sun for the first time. I don’t know what changed. But I am confident of this: the ray of light wouldn’t have been possible if I had not embraced the darkness.

If you are going through burnout, your journal should be your best friend.

Do things that refresh you

Go for long walks in the woods. Read a book at the beach. Go fishing. Take a bike ride on a winding country road. Kayak on the river. Take a nap. Sleep in. Date your spouse. Play with your kids. Do that house project you’ve never had time for. Take that vacation you always wanted. Do nothing.

You get the picture.

Don’t have an agenda. Toss your to-do list. Throw any notions of being “productive” out the window. You’ve been running hard for years. Now is the time to rest. You need to be replenished, refreshed, renewed, restored.

Do NOT feel guilty for being “lazy.”

Soak it all in. Slowly.

Recover slowly

You will be asked incessantly by people who love and miss you: So, when are you coming back?

Get comfortable with answering, “When I’m ready.”

That may sound rude, but it’s the only acceptable answer. When you’re ready and not a minute before.

If you put a timeline on it, your entire break will be like a ticking time-bomb causing panic and anxiety. You don’t need that kind of stress. You need the freedom of knowing you have as long as you need to fully recover.

I made the mistake of coming back too soon. My doctor told me a minimum of 6 months. I took 10 weeks. It was just long enough for me to begin to feel rested, but not long enough to be replenished, refreshed, renewed, and restored.

I knew it wasn’t enough. But I felt pressured. Not by anybody else, but by myself. I didn’t want to miss the tremendous outreach opportunity the Christmas season affords churches. So, I came back. Too soon.

To others I seemed reenergized. And I wanted to believe them. So, I acted the part.

I did feel better, for sure. But I knew it wasn’t enough.

Six weeks into my return I started seriously contemplating resignation and less than five months later I did.

You may wonder how you can possibly take as much time off as you truly need. My employer won’t tolerate it. How will we survive financially? What will we do?

I don’t know the answer to your particular predicament. But I do know this:

Energy is like a dripping faucet slowly filling a tub. If you pull the plug too soon, you’re going to be drained.

My doctor told me so and he was right.

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