Sixteen years ago, I entered into the darkest period of my life.
I set high standards an had a strong work ethic. I thought nothing of working 60-80 hour weeks. Associates and a good friend and mentor had warned me that I would burn out. I thought I was strong and would prove them wrong.
And usually I did. I would get tired – out of balance – but I would keep pushing.
Until it happened. I woke up and went on my morning run, training for the Midnight Madness Marathon in Alaska. My hands hurt in a way I had never experienced, and I turned and headed back home. After a few weeks the pain went away and I returned to my pressure schedule.
Nine months later, the pain returned in my hands and this time also to my feet. I made an appointment with my physician who ran some blood tests. A few days later, I received the results of those tests and they were positive for Rheumatoid Arthritis.
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder that involves the body's immune system attacking itself. In addition to joint pain, it is accompanied by massive fatigue because the immune system is running on "high" without any way to shut itself off. It was as if God had said, "Oh, you think you're so strong? Watch this!"
I could get out of bed every day, and I did; but my energy was minimal and my speed decreased to a snail’s pace. It is said that the good news is that RA doesn't kill you; and the bad news is that RA doesn't kill you. You just wish you were dead.
Hope felt like it had died. My motivation and passion dropped to zero. I became depressed.
I had never been there before.
I knew many had gone down this road before me, and what scared me is that some of them never made it back.
For them, they thought their career and life as they knew it were done, which resulted in depression, and sometimes, tragically, they were done – hope never fully returned and they didn’t ever become the person they were before.
That was the last thing I wanted to happen to me.
The RA diagnosis was daunting, the origin of RA is not completely known and their is no cure to date, but their are many ways to treat it.
As for depression, no one really knows what corrodes our spirit to the point where it deflates. But I’d say the most likely candidate for what derailed me is what I’d call emotional burnout.
In caring for others and trying to do too much, I had not adequately cared for my own body, heart or soul, or let others who wanted to care for it do so.
I spiraled down for about 3 years before I hit bottom. Then with the love and assistance of a great wife, close friends, a counselor, a wise physician and a very gracious God, I slowly began to recover. It took a few years to really feel full stride again, but I recovered to 80-90% of full strength in two years. The last 10%-20% took two or three more years.
Stress and burnout seems to be an epidemic in leadership. In fact, there are more than a few of you who know you are right on the edge of the cliff and you could so easily fall off.
And probably a few of you who are in free fall right now.
So how do you know if you’re heading for burnout?
Here are 9 things to watch for:
1. Your motivation has faded. The passion that fueled you is gone, and your motivation has either vaporized or become self-centered.
2. Your main emotion is ‘numbness’ – you no longer feel the highs or the lows. This was actually one of the earliest signs for me that the edge was near.
3. People drain you. Of course there are draining people on the best of days. But not everybody, every time. Burnout often means few to no people energize you anymore.
4. Little things make you disproportionately angry. When you start losing your cool over small things, it’s a sign something deeper is very wrong.
5. You’re becoming cynical. Many leaders fight this one, saying that they are just discerning, but cynicism rarely finds a home in a healthy heart.
6. Your productivity is dropping. You might be working long hours, but you’re producing little of value. Or what used to take you 5 minutes just took you 45. That should sound a warning bell.
7. You’re self-medicating. Your coping mechanism has gone underground or dark, and you start resorting to "inappropriate self-medication." Whether that’s overeating, overworking, marathon TV or video games, living in social media, drinking, impulsive spending or even drugs, you’ve chosen a path of self-medication over self-care. Ironically, my self-medication was actually more work, which just spirals things downward.
8. You don’t laugh anymore. Nothing seems fun or funny, and, at its worst, you begin to resent people who enjoy life.
9. Sleep and time off no longer refuel you. Sometimes you’re not burnt out; you’re just tired. A good night’s sleep or a week or two off will help most healthy people bounce back with fresh energy. But you could have a month off when you’re burnt out and not feel any difference. Not being refueled when you take time off is a major warning sign you’re burning out. (This is also a sign to visit your doctor, because it is a major sign of sleep disorders.)
Identifying with just a few of these signs might just be a sign that you’re tired.
If you identify with half, you might be close to the edge.
If you identify with most or all, well, you might be in the same place I found myself–burnout.
If you are burned out, I would encourage you to seek immediate professional help – a medical doctor and a trained Christian counselor. I would also encourage you to get a life coach. You can contact us for a free consultation at www.ignitingyourfuture.com