Burnout happens to the best of us, even when we are living at the center of our calling. Many of us experience burnout episodes several times in our professional and personal lives. Given the high level of stress in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world, this should not surprise us. However, the word ‘burnout’ is taboo in many circles since it suggests incompetence and weakness. As such, we push ourselves through the grind and pretend we are okay when really we are experiencing burnout at a deep level on the inside.
This can be especially true for teachers. Teaching is a highly stressful job, managing a class of 30-40 adrenaline-charged, growing adolescents is no joke, and we have precious little time in between lessons and workdays to process our emotions and exhaustion. In this post, I want to share some of my strategies from my experience in managing the burnout episodes in my life. While this is specifically written for teachers, I hope my experiences can help those of you working in other professions as well.
1. Recognise the Symptoms of Burnout
Ever experienced this voice in your head telling you that you can’t go on another day? That feeling of overwhelmed and pained from facing the not-so-appealing parts of your work? Or find that what you used to enjoy doing are not longer appealing to you? These are some of the telltale signs of burnout.
I was going through some of these symptoms of burnout, way back since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. I was edgy, anxious, and perpetually exhausted. At my worst, I would wake up at 3 a.m. and could not sleep. I would post all kinds of S.O.S. messages on my Facebook wall, knowing that nobody would read them, and delete everything before 6 a.m. I would lose my cool at students for the smallest affront and became extremely impatient and irritable with them and even with some coworkers (you must know that this is very out-of-character for me).
In hindsight, I was burnt out on two fronts – teaching, and parenting. But I couldn’t see it at that time. At work, I was coping with all the changes and demands that teaching in the COVID situation had placed on us (which I am sure many teachers can empathise with). At home, my son had a difficult time adjusting back to school after two months of lockdown. Both of these took an emotional toll on me. I still loved my job, but I was also dreading coming to work every day as it took so much energy to push aside the pain and face the people.
My recovery begins only when I recognised it for what it is – I was burnt out. There were other issues I was facing, but burnout is something that affected me professionally, and something I need to address on its own terms.
Think of it as driving a car with a gearbox that is failing. You won’t want to drive it on the expressway! It is better to recognise the problem and send the car to a workshop to get it fixed. That will cost some money, but far less than having your car break down in the middle of the road, or worse.
2. Recognise the Types of Burnout
Not all burnouts are the same in nature. In a podcast interview by Linda Kardamis on Teach4theheart.com, Amber Harper said that it is important to identify what kind of burnout you’re experiencing. There are 3 types of burnout:
- Burned and “Over It”– You are surrounded by negativity, apathy, and frustration.
- Burned and Unbalanced– You have become extremely overwhelmed with too much to do and not enough time to do it.
- Burned and Bored– You look like you have it all together on the outside, but you’re actually seeking a challenge and a change.
Personally, I did the quiz and found out that my burnout type was (2) Burned and Unbalanced – there was just too much on my plate and too little time to do it. I also struggled with my idealism (read: lack of realism) that always want to do more than I could, and that worsened the burnout (the higher the expectation, the harder the fall). Hence, having this awareness also gives me pause whenever I want to pick up new things to do.
Yes, you read that right. Being an idealist means that even when I’m burnt out, I can still be looking out for that ‘something more’ that can get me out of this fix. And that made the burnout worse. More on this later.
3. Recognise the burnout as an opportunity to grow
Early in the podcast I mentioned above, Amber Harper said that, “Burnout actually gives us an opportunity to make the changes we need to in our lives.” Good point. I would add that burnout helps us to learn about ourselves. Not the personas that we try to project to others, but the real state of our souls. It shows us where our triggers and weaknesses are, and points us to where we most need to grow.
Burnout actually gives us an opportunity to make the changes we need to in our lives.– Amber Harper
For me, my long struggle with burnout actually surfaces my problem with saying ‘no’ and drawing personality boundaries. That stems from my insecurity and – if I could dig deeper – my yearning for significance and approval. By saying ‘yes’ all the time, it makes me feel that I am needed, that I am important. This endless loop of approval-seeking actually became my idol. The feeling of being important becomes a way for me to keep going, even though I was burning out.
All this is not healthy at all. In fact, it is spiritually dangerous, because I did not base my security in God and His love for me, and instead base it on what I can do for others. It soon became a recipe for burnout disaster.
Isaiah 30:15 speaks into that anxious, approval-seeking state of my soul:
“In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,
but you would have none of it. (Isaiah 30:15)
Burnout is often a symptom of a bigger problem. By embracing repentance and rest, quietness and trust, I am learning to reorient my eye to look to the Lord for the security and significance I crave. Burnout gives me the opportunity to grow in learning to find rest in the Lord.
But what does it mean to find rest in the Lord? How is the biblical idea of rest different from our modern-day understanding?
What is your burnout story?
I will share more on the myths of self-care, and what I learn about true rest, in my second post in this series. For now, I want to hear from you. Do you have a burnout story to share? Was it difficult for you to even admit that you are burnt out? How are you coping with it? Drop a comment below!
This post is part of my column on Called to Teach, which primarily discusses the joys and challenges of teaching as a calling. Feel free to check out my other blog posts on teaching and other professional-related topics.
Update: Since writing this post, I have reflected on my experiences and written an article specifically on Teacher Burnout and 5 ways to prevent it. Check it out!