Burnout Warning Signs
Our cars have warning lights that we can look up in our owner’s manual. But what do the “warning lights” look like for men? What are the danger signs that our present pace may prematurely end our race?
Here’s a checklist arranged in categories. Whereas the physical category had the most ticks for me, for you it might be the emotional, mental, or another category. God has designed us all differently and knows which warning lights will best get our attention. But as some of us can’t (or won’t) see warning lights, even when all of them are flashing red and blue right in front of our eyes, why not ask your wife or a friend to go through these lights with you and give you a more objective outsider’s viewpoint?
Physical Warning Lights
- You are suffering health issues one after another. Seventy-seven percent of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress, including headaches, stomach cramps, achy joints, back pain, ulcers, breathlessness, bad skin, an irritable bowel, tremors, chest pains, or palpitations.1
- You feel exhausted and lethargic all the time, lacking energy or stamina for sports or playing with your kids.
- You find it difficult to sleep, you wake up frequently, or you wake up early and can’t get back to sleep. Maybe you can identify with my friend Paul’s nightmare: “Then came the insomnia. Killer insomnia. Like all night. Then another night. I was panicking. What on earth was going on with me? I went to my doctor. He gave me some heavy-dose, prescription sleep aids. It worked like a peashooter on a tank.”
- You are following the example of a young entrepreneur who admitted to me, “I used my lack of sleep to justify sleeping in later, which only perpetuated that poor sleep cycle.”
“I used my lack of sleep to justify sleeping in later, which only perpetuated that poor sleep cycle.”
- You are like one pastor who confessed to me that “my excessive sleeping was simply an escape.”
- You are putting on weight through lack of exercise or eating too much junk food, or you are drinking too much alcohol or coffee.
Mental Warning Lights
- Concentration is hard; distraction is easy.
- You think obsessively about certain difficulties in your life. Jim described it to me like this: “Even little things began to fall on me with great weight. I would try to put them out of my mind, but it was like my brain was stuck. The thoughts kept spinning over and over. Nothing new was added to the process, no new solutions, no new information. Just the same cycle.” Another man said it was like “trying to swat mental flies.”
- You forget things you used to remember easily: appointments, birthdays, anniversaries, phone numbers, names, deadlines, etc.
- You find your attention drawn to negative subjects, and you are developing a hypercritical and cynical spirit.
- Your brain feels fried.
Emotional Warning Lights
- You feel sad, maybe so sad that you have bouts of weeping or feel you are on the verge of tears.
- It’s been a long time since you had a good laugh or made someone laugh. Instead, there’s emotional numbness.
- You feel pessimistic and hopeless about your marriage, children, church, job, nation, etc.
- Worry stalks your waking hours and anxiety climbs into bed with you every night.
- As soon as you wake and think about the day ahead, your heart starts pounding and your stomach starts churning over the decisions you face and people’s expectations.
- You find it difficult to rejoice in others’ joy, often forcing yourself to fake it.
- At times, you feel so hopeless and worthless that you think it would be better if you were not here.
Relational Warning Lights
- Your marriage is not what it once was. You don’t delight in your wife as you once did.
- Your sex drive is erratic, as you often feel too tired to have anything but perfunctory, and mainly selfish, sex.
- You are irritable and snappy at your wife and children. They view you as angry, impatient, frustrated, and critical (ask them!).
- You spend limited time with your children, and any time you do spend is interrupted by smartphone use or poisoned by thinking about all the other things you could be doing. A Christian friend admitted that he once started sobbing uncontrollably: “My startled wife asked what was wrong. I was watching my father-in-law play with my children and said to her, ‘I wish I could enjoy them the way he does.’ My own children had become a source of irritation. I envied him. I couldn’t enjoy my own kids. I couldn’t enjoy anything.”
- You avoid social occasions, neglect important relationships, and withdraw from friendships, even with people you care deeply about.
- You frequently lose your temper and are in conflict with various people. One businessman told me that although he had rarely suffered through overwork, “as I have looked back over my life, the times that I have struggled with extended periods of depression have most often had in common that I was really struggling with a relationship. One time it was with my brother, twice it was a romantic relationship, twice it was struggles with my spouse.”
Vocational Warning Lights
- You work more than fifty hours per week, although not very efficiently, productively, or satisfyingly. As Greg McKeown puts it, “We have the unfulfilling experience of making a millimeter of progress in a million directions.”2
- Your work regularly spills over into evenings and weekends, or whatever days make up your “weekend.”
- You have little joy in your work, you dread it, and you are so miserable that you would consider doing anything else but your present job. “I was confused,” one pastor wrote to me, “and soon my confusion turned into bitterness toward God. ‘What do you want from me? I work all the time. I have no hobbies, no down time, no joy, no life.’ I began to hate the ministry.”
- You are falling behind, feel constantly overwhelmed, and have begun to cut corners, take shortcuts, and drop your standards.
- Procrastination and indecision dominate as you flit from one thing to another to another with little sense of accomplishment. When you do make decisions, they are often the wrong ones.
- Motivation and drive have been replaced with avoidance, passivity, and apathy as you drag yourself through the day.
- You find it difficult to say no and feel like every woodpecker’s favorite tree. One pastor admitted to me that he had reached the point where he hated being needed by so many people. He just wanted a regular job that he could leave behind after eight hours.
- You feel guilty or anxious when you are not working and regard yourself as lazy or weak for taking time off.
Moral Warning Lights
- You view risqué material on the Internet or have even “graduated” to using porn.
- You watch movies with language and images you’d never have tolerated in the past.
- Your expense account and tax return have some halftruths in them.
- You cultivate close relationships with women who are not your wife (or you think about it).
- You shade the truth in conversations, exaggerating or editing as appropriate.
- You medicate yourself (and your conscience) by overspending, overdrinking, or overeating.
Spiritual Warning Lights
- Your personal devotions have decreased in length and increased in distraction, with little time or ability for meditation and reflection.
- You check email and social media before you meet with God each day.
- You don’t have the same ongoing conversation with God that you used to have.
- You skip church.
- Listening to sermons sends you to sleep. One burnt-out businessman wrote to me, “One of the things that has been a great concern to me is the fact that I haven’t been ‘moved’ by a sermon in years in spite of listening to some great sermons.”
- You don’t enjoy fellowship with other Christians or serving God’s church.
- You believe all the truths of the Bible but you don’t believe them for yourself.
Pastoral Warning Lights
- You are bored with the small stuff of ministry, thinking yourself above ministering to the seniors, the sick, and the time-wasters.
- After church, you don’t hang around to fellowship with or minister to others.
- You are more taken up with the advancement of your own name than God’s.
- You find it difficult to confess sin and even to admit weakness to God and others you are accountable to.
- You draw only on past knowledge and experience rather than present. As Aaron Armstrong put it: “We can rely on the backlog of information in our heads from years of reading, and not notice that something’s wrong—that our metaphorical tanks are getting low— until we stop in the middle of traffic.”3
- You base your acceptance by God on your hard work, your success, or your faithfulness. This painful story is too many pastors’ experience: “When I felt like I was failing as a husband, father, pastor, Christian, even a human being, all I could do was work more, try harder. After all, there’s no time for lollygagging when there’s so much ground to regain. I made it impossible to rest. This made me a worse husband, father, pastor, Christian, and human being. That left me feeling more guilty.”
So What Now?
So you have your checklist and have analyzed it. It has a worrying number of ticks on problems that are sufficiently serious and that have been going on long enough for you to be concerned. What now?
First, you need to realize the danger you are in and the potential consequences if you don’t slow down. As one of the men I’ve counseled put it: “One of the most important lessons I have had to learn is that if I don’t slow down God will slow me down. And it’s usually much more painful when he does it!”
Second, be grateful that God has alerted you to your danger before it is too late. The good news is that there is a way back, a way to reset your life, get all of these dimensions back on track, and start enjoying a grace-paced life.
As you evaluate your own life, remember: God knows where you are. Although we don’t know where God is and we may not even know where we are, God knows our exact location, direction, and destination. Just like a child on a long car journey, we don’t need to know where we are as long as Dad knows.
God also knows what he’s doing. He’s not just proving us but improving us. With his hand on the thermostat and his eye on the timer, he knows exactly how hot the furnace needs to be and how long to leave us in it to make our gold purer and brighter.
God knows where we are and he knows what he’s doing! The end product is gold, especially the gold of a closer relationship with God and of greater usefulness to others. Hold on to these priceless answers as you look for warning signs in your life and seek wisdom from God.
1. “Stress Statistics,” Statistic Brain website, October 19, 2015, http://www.statisticbrain.com/stress-statistics/.
2. Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: The Crown Publishing Group, 2014), 7.
3. Aaron Armstrong, “I’ve been running on empty—and what I’m doing to change that,” Blogging Theologically, December 30, 2015, http://www.bloggingtheologically.com/2015/12/30/running-on-empty/.
Be sure to take a look at Crossway's burnout infographic for more statistics related to this important (yet neglected) issue.
- 4 Pieces of Advice for Stressed Out Christians (David Murray)
- Preventing Pastoral Burnout (David Murray)
- A Plea for Holistic Christianity (David Murray)