Burn-out is a prevalent problem, not just at the workplace but in all facets of life. I recently attended a course at work, and we spoke about preventing it in ourselves and our peers. I have friends who have quit residency and medicine altogether, some citing this being the driving cause. These incidents made me want to think of it more deeply. According to PubMed, The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s and can affect anyone who faces the consequences of severe stress and high ideals. There were times I felt that too, and the desire to get out of that emotional state can sometimes be desperate. To start, we need to come to a diagnosis.
“Burnout” as a word does not occur in the Bible. But as I read scripture, I found that the emotion expressed that closely resembles burnout is hopelessness. And as I pondered further, I realized that burning out and hopelessness are indeed inextricably linked; even scientists have drawn their association. Some causes of burnout may not initially look like hopelessness, but on further introspection, they are.
As we all know and have experienced, burnout and hopelessness come with many physical and emotional consequences – e.g., fatigue, insomnia, somnolence. Most of the advice I have come to read is to treat these symptoms. For example, Mayoclinic advocates that we “try a relaxing activity,” “get exercise,” get some sleep,” and “practicing mindfulness.” Some of them are good advice: to have open communication with our spouse of employers to change expectations or set goals that are reasonable and seek support. Ultimately, the final option is to move on.
This is not to say practical help and action are not helpful and that quitting is never the option. But to only focus on the symptoms and practical needs is like only giving paracetamol to a cancer patient while withholding the chemotherapy. To avoid doing so, I need to address my root issue of hopelessness. I need to ask again, “What Does Scripture say – on burnout?”
To me, one of the best examples of how the installation of hope can address burnout and hopelessness is the narrative of the two disciples on Emmaus Road, as recorded in Luke 24. In context, the Jews have been facing silence from God for 400 years since Malachi and were under Roman rule and oppression. They were the outcasts, in poverty, literally seeing no end in sight in their lives. They had high hopes for Jesus, who claimed to be the Messiah, thinking that He will march them out of such dire straits. But when Jesus died on the cross, they were dejected and left for home. Essentially, they quit in hopelessness.
What happened next that led them to go from their hometown back to Jerusalem? There, I think, lies the solution to my hopelessness. In Luke 24:24-27, Jesus diagnosed their sense of hopelessness as being foolish and slow of heart to believe. According to Jesus, hopelessness is not primarily a practical problem but a spiritual one – it is an issue of faith. To address this, Jesus did not offer any practical help like money or food. Instead, He “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
Jesus is making it clear that whenever I am amid hopelessness and “burnout,” indeed, besides addressing immediate needs, I have to address my faith in Christ. And the means to addressing the faith is through His Word given to us in His grace because faith comes from hearing (Rom 10:17). His word is my source of strength and hope to overcome “burnout”. For example, in 1Cor 10:13, He provides the way of escape through trials, that he may be able to endure it. Such are the promises he gives to those who love him.
I need to guard myself against following the world’s myriad of advice on distracting myself from the root problem of hopelessness and pursuing vacations, toys, and activities. Not that these in themselves are “bad,” but to pursue them without Christ will only obscure the hopelessness I face. God’s solution to burnout is to trust in what he said in Matthew 6:33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. It pays well that I heed the advice of Peter in 1Pet 1:13, to set my hope, not on the things of this world, but fully on the grace that will be brought to me at the revelation of Jesus Christ – it is a hope that is unshakeable and eternal.