Dean Davey takes our questions on why the term “burnout” is overused and how to gain a healthier perspective on work
Interview by Ilana Reimer
Have you personally experienced burnout? What did that look like for you?
After pastoring for 17 years and after a whole series of unfortunate events, as Lemony Snicket would say, it was just a crash, and then about two years of recovery. That led me to make burnout one of my social science studies for my dissertation because I really wanted to explore, you know, what did happen here, and how did it happen?
How do you define burnout?[Christina] Maslach’s multidimensional theory of burnout mentions three components. One is emotional exhaustion, the second is depersonalization, and the third is inefficacy.
So basically, with true burnout you’re emotionally exhausted, you’ve begun to depersonalize, that is you’ve begun to isolate yourself away from other people, and there’s a feeling of lacking impact. You aren’t able to accomplish what you know you need to be doing.
It’s kind of like we’re a fire that once burned brightly. It does so no longer; there’s this depletion of the resources needed to maintain performance. You can’t keep going, you feel that you have nothing left in the tank.
Anecdotally, it seems that burnout is becoming more common. Is this because we’re more aware of what it is, or are there other factors? What’s going on?
We use this word “burnout” and we throw it around so easily, rather than understanding what actual clinical burnout is. And I’m not sure we’re entirely honest about what’s going on inside of us. We use burnout as kind of a catch-all phrase; it’s sort of the common nomenclature that’s easily acceptable.
My impression after studying burnout is that it’s an easy phrase to explain the general distress and dissatisfaction with our lives rather than really understanding it. So when I see a lot of young people saying, “I’m burnt out,” my sense is that they need to be a little bit more honest about what’s going on inside them if they want true healing and true health.
I think what’s really going on here is that we burn out because we’re overstimulated and unable to live in the present moment. That’s the first thing. And the second is we get our egos wrapped up in what we’re doing. We attach our identity, worth, and value in our accomplishments, and that becomes overwhelming to us because we don’t feel we have the capacity to satisfy what our egos need.
It would be better to be more honest and articulate what the real issue is. Saying, “Well actually, I’m not burnt out. I’m feeling tired and paralyzed and anxious about this task because I’ve attached my identity and worth and value on how well I’ll perform.” Or, “I’m feeling overwhelmed because I’m not accepting the limitations of my humanity. I’ve taken on more responsibilities than I can reasonably manage, and I’m afraid I’m disappointing people.”
Now we’re getting somewhere for healing because we’re able to address what the real issue is. The questions to consider then are: Why do you overextend yourself? Why are you so affirmation-dependent that you can’t live within healthy boundaries?
So my concern with the use of the term burnout is it sort of becomes this blanket where we can say, “Okay, take time, just rest,” without addressing what the deeper issues are.
What’s a healthy perspective of work?
I find it intriguing when I get a college student who comes to me saying they are so burnt out. I’ll ask, “I’m sorry to hear that, what’s going on?” And they’ll say, “Well, I’m taking three classes and I’m involved in ministry, doing youth group or something.”
But you don’t burn out from working hard. There’s actually a satisfying tiredness that comes from a good day’s labour. I’m convinced God has wired us and designed us that way to work hard. In fact, right at the very outset of Scripture in the book of Genesis, God could have first introduced Himself in His love, holiness, and justice. But how does God introduce himself? He introduces Himself as a worker. He begins by working. “In the beginning, God created.” This is our first introduction to God.
We’re made in His image and I think we’re made to contribute. I’m convinced we can do a lot more than we think we can with a healthy perspective and proper practices. We can actually be high-functioning, healthy adults. But what I think is happening for our millennials and Gen Z is there such a reaction to the over-extension and excessive work by the Boomers and Gen Xers. They became so invested in what they were doing and there was a lack of relatedness in the family systems and a breakdown of families.
So I feel overall within our young adults, there isn’t necessarily a good philosophy of work. We’re doing people a disservice if we don’t call them to a higher ability and say, “You know what, I think you can do more.”
It takes some time to process, because we don’t find our identity and worth and value in work, but we do find it becomes an expression of our very existence, of our purpose and meaning. So we have to integrate those two together and hold them in a healthy tension.
What are things we should avoid when we’re experiencing signs of burnout?
I find when people take a leave of absence, they step back from things but they don’t engage in restorative and life-giving practices. They come back from their leave of absence and they feel just as unsettled or they still don’t feel refreshed and restored, but now they have to work because they’ve already had a leave. They haven’t really dealt with the deeper issues.
And partly that’s because what were they doing on leave? They’ve been binging on Netflix. They’ve been scrolling Instagram, they’ve been playing video games, socializing with secondary friends. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those things at all. But we’re wrong to think those activities are going to restore us.
I was pastoring the same church for 17 years and the church had gone through some significant transitions and stuff in the ministry, the building, programs, and some staff changes. There was a lot of discomfort and distress, but the reality was I was only pastoring. That’s it. Like how could that burn anybody out? It’s like the best job in the world. And yet I hear it so often from pastors and I remember feeling so burnt out.
But it’s our heart posture and our perspective. What happens is we fail to learn how to live in the moment and we get our egos wrapped up in what we’re doing, and these two heart postures become very debilitating and end up zapping all our strength and energy.
The irony is, years later, after recovering from my burnout, learning healthy boundaries, and understanding where my true worth comes from, I was managing a retail manufacturing store that had 10 staff. I was vice president of a Bible college, I was completing my PhD dissertation and I have a family and I have friends. I was able to manage all of those things. And that’s why I concluded, I think we’re capable of doing way more than we realize if we have a healthy perspective and have proper practices.
What are some of the ways we can change our attitude and practices around work?
I think that first and foremost, people need to understand where their primary identity lies. And that enables them to be free in their work. Then you’re not people-pleasing, you’re not trying to live for the affirmation. You’re satisfied because you are working hard as unto the Lord.
The second thing is learning to live in the present, being fully present in the moment. That has been hugely helpful to me to not burn out because our brains have limited capacity for how much we can carry at any given moment.
This was a huge time management skill that I had to learn: whatever task I’m working on is the only thing that exists. I might be working on something in preparation for the future, but even my preparation, say, for a future presentation, it may never come. But at this present moment, it’s all that exists right now.
And then when that moment is gone, I shift onto the next task and that’s all that exists. This is a crucial practice that I’m not sure we do very well at. But I think it’s necessary, especially if we’re going to be leaders, so that whoever we’re dealing with, whatever we’re attending to in the present moment has our complete and undivided attention.
The third thing of course, is life rhythms. My wife and I live by this model: work hard, play hard. My students will often laugh at me because I take these sort of outlandish vacations. But we do it because my wife and I work very hard, but then we also know how to rest well.
Remember in 1 Kings 19, Elijah was burnt out. You see his emotional exhaustion and depersonalization—he leaves his servant and is alone. He experienced inefficacy, saying “I am no better than my ancestors.” And God gets him to sleep and eat, and then he sleeps again and eats again. Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is sleep and eat. We need to attend to the care for our physical bodies and attend to our souls.
How can we support friends and family who are experiencing burnout or heading in that direction?
As much as I want to challenge people when they use the term burnout, that challenge has got to be extremely careful and cautious and compassionate. People are using that term because they’re hurting; they’re at a place where things are not right.
So we can invite them to ask the question: What’s going on below the surface? I use this practice I call the five why’s. I’ll ask, “Why are you feeling this way?” And then they’ll explain. And then I’ll say, “Well, why is that being such a burden to you?” And I’ll keep on asking why questions. By the fifth “why,” you’ve probably gotten down to what the real answer is.
Every time, it boils down to they’re feeling this way because one of two needs is being threatened. Their need for security, or their need for significance. And this is a crucial point, because we invite people to articulate that they’re feeling burnt out, but really what they’re feeling is a need for security, a need for love, a need for acceptance, a need for significance, a need for purpose, a need for meaning—and these things are being threatened.
And there we begin the path of healing. Okay, where do we actually find those needs? Where do we look to meet those needs? Ultimately, we want to lead them back to a place of finding their true self, their true security, their true significance in relation to God.
Depending on their level of burnout, another way we help people move beyond it is simply inviting them to go and serve someone. Because sometimes what happens with burnout is people will feel like they need to step away from everything. But inviting them to kind of get past themselves and go and serve someone is a critical piece to the healing process. It’s getting outside of our little fragile worlds that we often get wrapped up in.
Burnout is not our enemy. Burnout is trying to reveal to us that something’s amiss. We’ve missed the mark on something and we need to attend to that, not just rest and then get right back in the game and find ourselves in the same position, but attend to what’s going on.
Dean Davey is vice-president of student development at Pacific Life Bible College in Surrey, B.C. He has conducted PhD research on pastoral health and failure as a transformative process. Dean is also a certified life coach. Find out more at deandavey.com.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.