What To Do with Burnout

By Michaela O’Donnell

July 11, 2022

Burnout, De Pree Journal

It happens the same way every time.

I’m in a Zoom meeting talking with someone about their work—what they’re up to, where they see God at work, and what they’re hopeful about.

And, then they visibly exhale. Though we’re separated by screens, I can see their shoulders drop, their face loosen, and the cadence of their breathing change. It’s then that we start talking about what’s really going on and just how hard work and life really are. Some talk about their bosses. Others want to quit. More and more use the B-word.


It’s then that we start talking about what’s really going on and just how hard work and life really are. Some talk about their bosses. Others want to quit. More and more use the B-word.


Executives to church planters. Entrepreneurs to teachers. Women. Men. Baby Boomers. Millennials. I’ve had entire teams tell me they’re burned out. It’s everywhere. And its effects are staggering.

Ok, so what exactly is burnout?

I appreciate the work of sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski who wrote Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Drawing on the work of psychologist Herbert Frudenberger, they describe burnout as having three components: emotional exhaustion, decreased sense of accomplishment, and depersonalization. In a podcast interview with the sisters, Brené Brown paraphrased their definitions in a helpful way:

Emotional exhaustion…is the fatigue that comes from caring too much for too long. Depersonalization: the depletion of empathy, caring, and compassion, and then decreased sense of accomplishment: the unconquerable sense of futility, feeling that nothing you do makes any difference.[1] 

Caring too much for too long. It’s just too much. It’s no wonder that it leads to a depletion of compassion and a sense of futility. I’ve heard several people describe themselves as despondent—which is a state of extreme discouragement or loss of hope.[2]  It’s not just that people are over going to work. It’s that we’ve cared so deeply about so many things without feeling cared for ourselves by the systems we hope will seek our flourishing.

Do you see yourself in any of the definitions?

Have you been caring for too much for so long that you’re out of cares to give? Maybe you’re at the point where you doubt that your work makes any actual difference. Or maybe you oscillate between hope for all that might be and dread at what actually is.

If so, you’re not alone.

Because the leaders I talk to are usually Christians, talking about burnout often leads them to questions of calling. Did God call me to this work that is taking such a toll on me? If so, why? If not, how do I make sure I hear God more clearly next time? How can I be part of the change I so desperately want to see?

My colleague Meryl Herr and I are knee-deep in a research project investigating what healthy leadership looks like across industries. In our initial round of focus groups with nearly 100 leaders in the marketplace, one quality rose overwhelmingly to the top: relational. One aspect of healthy leadership is as simple and as complex as being oriented toward others. Toward the needs of others. Toward their hopes. Toward their pain.

You might say, But wait! We’ve been caring about too much for too long. That’s why we’re in this burnout mess to begin with.

Importantly, one of the other findings from our research is that healthy leaders don’t go at it alone. They let others invest in them. They see themselves as part of teams. They see their flourishing tied to others. Again, it’s not our caring that’s the issue. It’s that while we’re caring so much, we’re not being cared for enough.  That’s of course, a larger systemic issue. One that healthy leaders are best positioned to address.

Amidst burnout, and especially for those of us interested in questions of calling, we have to retain our identity as deeply caring beings. This is because relationships are so often the place where discernment happens. Where we ask should I or shouldn’t I? Where we work out What if? And why not? Where we are able to both care and be cared for.

We’ve got to spend time with people who know us and love us. People who care about our needs. Our hope. Our pain.

We’ve got to spend time with people who know us and love us. People who care about our needs. Our hope. Our pain. We need to hang out with friends. Talk with mentors. Be loved by our spouses. Do life with our neighbors. Confide in trusted colleagues. Commune with other believers. People matter deeply to every aspect of our lives.

It almost feels silly to say that in order to stave off burnout we’ve got to spend time with others. It feels like saying, eat food and drink water and get sleep. All of which are also critical, by the way.

But, because we are burnt out, we also need the next step not to be rocket science. We need it to be something we feel deeply in our bones. So, let’s give ourselves over to the very good news that relationships are central to life, work, and leadership. That they help us to live as healthy people who are able to differentiate from the systems and energize us toward the hopeful, redemptive work that God is doing in and around us.

By the way, as I mentioned at the top of the article, I talk to a lot of people about their work. In fact, one of my favorite parts of leading the Max De Pree Center for Leadership, a place that’s committed to the spiritual formation of leaders across industries is that people invite me into their most pressing work challenges. Yes, it’s where I’ve heard so much about burnout. But, it’s also why I have so much hope. So, feel free to reach out anytime. I’d love to hear from you.

[1] https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-emily-and-amelia-nagoski-on-burnout-and-how-to-complete-the-stress-cycle/#transcript

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/despondent

Michaela O’Donnell

Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director

Michaela is the Mary and Dale Andringa Executive Director Chair at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership. She is also an assistant professor of marketplace leadership and the lead professor for Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Global Leadership, Redemptive Imagination in the Marketplace progr...

More on Michaela

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *