My Story of Being Stretched Too Thin
Several years ago, I was essentially working two full-time jobs at the same time and was very close to going over the edge into complete burnout.
I was a school teacher in a private school, teaching a fairly wide range of subjects. In a typical week I taught computer classes to literally every single grade from 1st though 12th grade, as well as teaching a Jr/Sr level theology class, speaking in assemblies several times per month, and teaching drama as well as band and choir. If you know anything about school teaching, it starts early in the morning—long before the students actually show up for class—and doesn’t end when the students go home. A typical day saw a least a few extra hours of homework and tests to grade, reports to write, and much more before the work day was done.
On top of all this I was the music minister of the church to which the school was connected, a job which called for a minimum of 15 hours of work per week on top of my teaching responsibilities. Rarely did I spend just 15 hours on this aspect of my job, it was typically more like 20-30. The thing is that a lot of the time I was stealing moments of quiet during my classes—while students were getting independent work done—to focus on the ministry portion of my vocation. And as a minister Sunday was a workday, while Saturday was often taken up with more grading papers or other work-related stuff. Translation, I rarely took a full day off in any given week.
Add other stressors that were nipping at me and my family at the time and you get someone who was walking on the edge of burnout more days than not. I’m not telling you this to whine or complain, just to let you know what being overworked looks like, and to share with you some of the strategies I’ve learned over the years to help you back away from going over that edge into burnout.
9 Actions to Take Before You Run Out of Fuel
- Ask for advice. I was only 30 years old when I went through my near-burnout, so I had a lot to learn about life. (I still do!) I went to the school principal who was not only my supervisor but also a good friend. He gave me some great advice and some strategies I could implement in my classes that he had learned over several years of experience in education. His door was also always open when I needed someone to talk things through, which is something you should always highly prize when someone’s willing to do the same for you.
- Ask for help. My wife became a huge help during those days, from just being an encourager to giving me space for peace and quiet from the kids when I needed it. One of the other things she did was help me get through my paperwork when I asked. Having the help of someone who loves you will bring your stress levels down exponentially.
- Get a kitten! Okay, maybe not a kitten specifically, but it’s no secret that having a pet helps lower stress. Not a pet person? Well, maybe you just haven’t found the right fit yet, so take a look at the options. You’d be surprised how relaxing a small aquarium with a few fish and the soft sounds of moving water can be. (Don’t believe how stress-relieving a kitten can be? Watch this awesome video I found yesterday.)
- Work toward long-term goals with incremental steps. One of the best pieces of advice my principal friend gave me was the concept of taking small steps toward the completion of major goals. One of the things stressing me out that year was a huge spring concert that I’d planned, but I was having trouble pulling all the pieces together and felt like the whole thing was going to flop. He calmly directed me to focus on what I needed to get done today/this week/this month in order to pull it off. In the end, that concert ended up being one of the best I directed in my time at that school.
- Take a day off. Your body, mind, and soul need rest on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter how well you work under pressure, even the strongest person will eventually break when that pressure is non-stop. One of the things I learned in my high-stress season of life was the real need to take a day off regularly and just be. Even if it meant taking on a little more work after my day off, I was refreshed and better able to tackle that work later on.
- Learn to say no. When I was in the ministry full time, I often struggled with telling people no when they asked for my help. Over time, I found my calendar filled with more and more activities that I’d volunteered to take on, or extra responsibilities I’d agreed to tackle in an effort to be a go-getter employee. One of the reasons I left the position where I experienced my near-burnout was that I just had too much going on, so I’d become mediocre at everything. Don’t feel guilty to tell someone no.
- Ask for relief. My principal friend was also able to take some of the pressure off when I asked. I have a friend now who recently realized that they’ve also taken too much recently, so they went and talked to their supervisor with openness and honesty and let them know what was going on. Just like in my case, their supervisor couldn’t take away everything that was weighing them down, but they could share and distribute the load.
- Burn some vacation days now. If you’ve got some vacation time and you can get approval from your boss, the best time to use those days might just be when you’re close to burnout. Unless you just can’t get away, consider using at least a few days to put everything down and walk away, even if you already had plans for those days. If you burn out and can’t function in your job any longer, you’re going to lose that job and the vacation days too. Better to use them now than save them up for when you might feel better.
- Take care of yourself. This is probably one of the areas where I struggle most. I’ve been better in recent years, but one of the things I realize as I look back on my near-burnout days is that it was a time of my life where I was doing the least to be healthy. I was borderline morbidly obese, drinking a 2-liter or more per day of soda, and the only exercise I got was climbing the stairs each day to sit in my classroom. The human body was made for motion—for work—and that body’s systems break down if they’re not taken care of properly.
For most of these tips you’ll see that the key to avoiding burning is to keep from spreading yourself too thin in critical areas of your work and personal life. I’ll be the first to admit that there are even more practices you should implement in your life long before you get close to burnout such as letting go of perfectionism, laugh more, spend intentional time with your family, staying socially active, having a hobby, and more.
If you feel like you’re close to burning out, you need to take action to begin relieving your stress TODAY. Don’t wait a moment longer. Go and talk to someone you trust who can help share your burdens and take an objective look at what’s going on in your life and what action steps you can take.