Burned Out

One of my fond memories growing up as a child was an annual family trip to the local racetrack called Barrie Speedway. Being a quarter mile track, there was always lots of action. When I became a father myself, I carried on the tradition, by taking my own kids to the races at least once a year. It was so much fun.  During those years, the track was revamped to become wider, it was extended to one third mile in length with much steeper banks on the corners. This made for some really high caliber racing. After the feature race it was common (and often expected) for the winning driver to do some donuts in what is know as a celebratory burnout. Fans loved it and they always would be on their feet cheering. The acrid smoke from those spinning tires sometimes was so thick, you could barely see. Those tires were pushed and stressed to their limits, to the point where they were no good anymore. They were all burned out. 

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We live in a very fast paced society, where there is a lot of expectations placed on us based on performance in our workplaces. What happens is that we keep pushing ourselves to the point where we burn out. At that point we are no good to anybody anymore. From Psychology Today, the term “Burnout” is defined as,  “A state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress”.  1104080007-1

When I was college in the social service worker program in 2010 and 2011, I learned about the importance of keeping a personal  self-care “toolkit” to make sure we look after myself in this type of work. Compassion fatigue is very real in professions such as doctors and nurses, social workers and mental health practitioners. The Canadian Mental Association defines Compassion Fatigue as, “The cost of caring for others or for their emotional pain, resulting from the desire to help relieve the suffering of others”.  While in training, this is something that was addressed frequently, so those going into that type of field know exactly what to expect. It is important to have self-care resources at hand to avoid compassion fatigue. 

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Unlike the helping professions, which are often government funded, the corporate world is different, in that their purpose is to make a profit.  The vast majority of my working life has been in this production type of work.  From the clock in at the beginning of the shift until I clock out at the end of the shift, my purpose through my physical and mental effort is to get as much production completed as possible for the company. Without any mistakes. When I see on a regular basic, fellow co-workers let go because they did not make the mark, it places an enormous amount of stress and pressure on the workers that remain. As the main family breadwinner for the vast majority of my working life, there has always been that stress and pressure to perform well. This type of work related stress builds up, and can lead to burnout. Work related burnout has become so prevalent these days, that as of May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified it as an occupational phenomenon, or syndrome. So what does this mean? It means burnout is not the result of an errant gene, family history or your behaviors. Burnout has environmental causes. To bring awareness of the seriousness of burnout, every July 2nd is designated as #BurnoutAwarenessDay. From the Burnout Awareness Day website it mentions that “The Burnout Awareness Day is shining a light on something that often happens in the shadows.  People who burn out are ripped from jobs, and their businesses, knocked sideways and left to recover themselves”.

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Catherine Cloutier, a registered clinical counsellor in Kamloops, BC, mentions in an October, 2019 Alive magazine article called “The Reality of Burnout”, that “Burnout symptoms varies from person to person, but the symptoms can often resemble those found in people with depression, which include extreme fatigue, negativity, and a loss of joy in everyday life”. Personally, on the outside, I have been able able to keep a pretty positive façade in public. My dear family knew however, that I had been struggling deeply for years. The scary thing is that burnout can lead to major health effects. Quoting directly from the Alive magazine article, it reads as follow, “Burnout can drastically alter neural circuits, causing neurological dysfunction and cognitive problems. Over time, chronic stress may translate into a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. People who suffer from high stress and prevalent burnout syndrome are thought to have an increased risk of insulin resistance due to high triglyceride levels, which persist even after improving exercise and diet. Insulin resistance can stress the cardiovascular system and increase the risk of heart disease. Prolonged stress also increases the cortisol concentration in the body, which can cause the body to secrete less over time to compensate. One possible consequence is body-wide inflammation and buildup of plaque in the arteries, which ultimately can cause heart attacks”.

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In March 2019, my wife Lynne got a full time postmaster position with Canada Post. As a backup crossing guard for over a decade, I was offered my wife’s old crossing guard position with Springwater Township. After over 40 years of various forms of heavy, physical production type work, I accepted and put my resignation in at Busch Systems. I was 61. My old company had a lot of great perks for their employees, and great camaraderie. So it was extremely tough saying goodbye. The way I looked at it though, my new job was much less physical and taxing on the body. I accepted the school crossing guard position with the hope that I could do it for a lot of years to come. 

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My new job as school crossing guard does not have the production pressures that I have experienced for decades. It is simply show up, and get the school children safely across a very dangerous and busy highway. It involves setting up lots of bright orange pylons for visibility, as a means of traffic calming. At the highway, it means carefully reading traffic, and being extremely mentally alert. Children are children, and can be easily distracted by the tiniest things. At a busy highway such as the one in Hillsdale, their lives are at stake. Which is why I take my job very seriously.  Little extras I greatly enjoy doing is making sure each child knows they are very special and important. In response, I get spoken the words thank you hundreds of times a week from the children. They are so polite and mannerly. On Crossing Guard Appreciation Day, as I was walking up to the highway for my crossing guard duties, the kindergarten class was outside the school holding a big banner which read, “We love you Mr. Wright. Thank You”. There was a swag bag filled with hand made thank you cards from the children of all ages, treats, maple syrup and even a Hillsdale school mug. 

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With COVID-19 and virtual schooling, I have really missed the children. So it was an extremely pleasant surprise when the school contacted me asking if I could help be a part of the Grade 8 graduation ceremony. With restrictions in Ontario allowing only a gathering of 10 people in an outdoor setting, it was a major challenge the school faced. They put a lot of effort into this, and did an amazing job to make it work around the restrictions. Each graduating student had a time slot for him or her and family. I helped out at the greeting table, where we welcomed the families and made sure they used the hand sanitizer and was wearing a mask. It brought me much joy to see those students again, and wonderful to see them all dressed up for the special occasion. From there they went to the table to pick up their program. After that, they went to receive their diploma. If they were to receive an award, this also happened at this time with very hearty cheering from the teachers. It was all done with an “Oscar” theme. From there to a spot for photo taking. The final table was where each student received a personalized swag bag, including chocolates from our wonderful local chocolatier Chelsea Chocolates. After the final graduating student and family filed through, it was time to pack everything away. In the midst of all this, the school’s wonderful principal, got everyone to gather social distantly in the parking lot. She wanted to make sure I was recognized for my part in the school. I was presented with a beautiful card and a wonderful Hillsdale Huskie hat. A hat that I am wearing with great pride. 

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My part time job as crossing guard and part time job as lay pastor at Hillsdale Presbyterian Church has been a great fit for me. I no longer felt like I was spinning my tires, going in circles and burning myself out. I have much less stress, and am now able to spend time daily in nature to recharge. The year 2021 will be my 10th year with the church. Though with COVID and both my jobs shelved I have been feeling out of sorts mentally. Scarcely a day goes by that I am not questioning if I made the right decision.  Except for a few weeks last fall, the church has been closed during this pandemic. With all the vaccinations, dropping case numbers and loosening restrictions, I am hoping the church will reopen sometime this year. And that in class school will resume in September. 

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As a lay Pastor, I am very fortunate that I have been very appreciated by my church congregation. However, there are many Pastors out there who are deeply struggling. Compassion fatigue and burnout are very real. In 2015 an 2016, the Schaeffer Institute of Leadership Development conducted a major study of 8,500 randomly selected full time Christian ministers from 20 countries. The good news is that 53% say they are happy and fulfilled as a Pastor. Which leaves the other 43%. Thirty four per cent are stressed out, fatigued and discouraged, and nine per cent are burnt out. If you are reading this and are part of another church, I really encourage you to pray for and encourage your Pastor. It will mean far more that what you could ever imagine. 

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If there was anyone who would be a prime subject for burnout, it would have been Jesus. During His ministry, Jesus had more stress, more pressure and more responsibility than any of us would ever have. Yet he constantly remained relaxed, joyful, and generous with people. In his humanity, Jesus had limitations. He could only be in one place in one time. Jesus set boundaries for Himself. He made time for life’s small pleasures. Such as the time he welcomed the little children (Matthew 19:13-14). Jesus got tired and hungry like we all do, and led by example by taking the time for proper nourishment and rest for his body. He advised others to get needed rest after emotionally draining days. An amazing example is found in Mark 6:30-32. Jesus built a support network with his disciples, this is so important. As together we can accomplish so much more (Matthew 10:1-4).  There were times when he withdrew from the crowds who wanted him, so He could some one on one time in lonely wilderness places with His father in prayer. Jesus made prayer such a priority (Luke 5:15-16).  Another part of the self-care that Jesus used was relying on scripture that he memorized. Amy Senter mentions in her website “Intentional Living“, that “Scripture can be an encourager, a motivator, a guide, a counselor, and a tool. And Jesus quoted the Old Testament wherever he went”. In times like the wilderness temptation, scripture memory really helped him at his lowest (Matthew 4:1-10). Jesus knows exactly what we are dealing with, as we try to avoid burnout. He has been there. This same Jesus offers comfort and rest to us who are tired and weary. Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light”. 

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Photo credits: Above photo (Bob Smerecki Art on Flickr), crossing guard photo (Kyle Wood), wildflowers photo  (Alicia Freeborn), church pulpit photo (Alton Ruff), Happy Retirement (Busch Systems), funeral photo (Steckley-Gooderman Funeral Home.) Photo is a screenshot from the livestream for a funeral I conducted for local patriarch Charles Simpson. Link found here. All other photos are my own. 

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