What Is Burnout?

What Is Burnout?

Maintaining Motivation from Achieving Excellence in the Sunday School,  Vol. 2

By Jim Williams

Herbert J. Freudenberger is credited for coining the term burnout as it is  presently used: a term that denotes a state of physical and mental  depletion resulting from conditions of work. Freudenberger took a word  used in the 1960s to refer to the effects of chronic drug abuse and used  it instead to describe the psychological state of some of his volunteer  co-workers. He used this term in an article entitled “Staff Burn-out,” which appeared in a 1974 issue of the Journal of Social Issues. Since  1974, there has been much discussion and debate over a precise definition  of burnout.

Burnout Defined

Burnout is a psychological state which results from disillusionment from constant or repeated emotional pressures associated with intense  involvement with people over long periods of time that have failed to
produce expected rewards. Burnout is cyclical in nature, rather than  linear, and is developed through five stages of the “burnout cycle”: (1)  enthusiasm, (2) stagnation, (3) frustration, (4) apathy, and (5) intervention.

The Causes of Burnout

Burnout is caused as a result of our own natural defense mechanism against  frustration. Factors that contribute to burnout include inadequate  training, an unrealistic expectation for success, overextension
emotionally, and inability to accept failure and limited successes. The  burnout victim is always “on fire” for the cause, but can’t cope with  long-term setbacks because of a desire for self-perfection. Burnout
victims are often perfectionists, and any failures they blame on them  selves. When they don’t find success, they rationalize it as all their  fault. The burden of a poor self-image, coupled with feelings of  helplessness, aggravate the condition until burnout victims cannot get themselves out of their stagnation and apathy.

Burnout can occur because of spiritual problems, physical conditions,  psychological problems, emotional problems, or environmental situations  that persist over a prolonged period of time.

The Symptoms of Burnout

From its discovery by health professionals, burnout was hard to define and  its causes hard to discern because of the number and variety of symptoms.

Here is a list of symptoms as described by social science professionals:

1. fatigue and physical depletion

2. feelings of helplessness and hopelessness

3. feeling emotionally drained

4. a negative self—image a sense of distress

5. a sense of distress

6. discontent

7. sense of failure in quest for ideals

8. negative altitudes toward life, work and other people

9. frustration

10. progressive loss of idealism

11. becoming cynical and blaming others

12. lateness to Position of responsibility (work or class)

13. absenteeism

14. deterioration in quality of performance

15. anxiety

16. irritability

17. sadness and/or depression

18. insomnia

19. headaches

20. high blood pressure

21. backaches

22. increased marital and family conflicts

23. ulcers

24. weariness in facial appearance

25. psychosomatic illnesses

Burnout has been nicknamed “staff infection” because, like the virus, it  is very contagious. Once a person “burns out” he affects those around him.

It can travel from:

1. Student to student

2. Student to teacher

3. Teacher to student,

4. Teacher to teacher

Pupils with an apathetic attitude affect other students.  Pupils who don’t care about learning affect the teacher.  The teacher becomes apathetic and in turn affects other students.  Students Teachers become apathetic and cynical and in turn affect other  teachers.

The Burnout Cycle
1. Enthusiasm. In this stage teachers have high hopes, high energy, and  unrealistic expectations. They don’t really understand how to teach. The  teacher over- identifies with students’ responses. The teacher often will  exhibit inefficient expenditures of energy.

2. Stagnation. The high hopes and excitement of teaching are gone. The  emphasis turns to meeting person al desires.

3. Frustration The teacher calls into question his or her own  effectiveness as well as the effectiveness of the role of the teacher. “What is the point in trying to teach children when they do not respond?”  “Who can teach when the bus outreach packs the kids in like sardines?” Emotional, physical, and ehavioral problems can occur at this stage.

4. Apathy. This is a typical and very natural defense mechanism against  frustration. it occurs when teachers are frustrated in their class, yet  for various reasons they can’t or won’t quit. It is characterized by the  teacher putting in the minimum required effort, avoiding challenges, and  seeking, mainly, to just get by.

5. Intervention is whatever is done in response to or in anticipation of  enthusiasm, stagnation, frustration, or apathy. Intervention breaks the  cycle!

It may mean changing classes or quitting altogether. It may mean enrolling  in a teacher training program to obtain more understanding or better  teaching skills. It may mean stimulating an interest in the class. It may  mean looking around for the nearest “workshop high.” It may mean, simply,  taking a vacation.

Some interventions are more effective than others in the long run. The  trick is to find the ones that produce lasting results.

Progression of burnout is not linear, but cyclical. It can repeat itself  any number of times. The good point is that the cycle can be broken at any  point (although apathy is harder to break than stagnation or frustration).


Intervention means the steps that are taken – consciously or not,  constructively or not—to break he cycle of disillusionment. It can and  should occur at any of the four stages of disillusionment.

False Interventions

False interventions are like a medical treatment that temporarily relieves  the symptoms of a disease without curing the disease. An example is “workshop high.”

When teachers become lethargic, disgruntled, or simply stale from the same  old routines, the quick fix is to schedule a workshop or seminar. When the  seminar is over you’ll hear comments like, “It was fun meeting people” and “The speakers were really motivational.” At the very least, it was a break  from the normal routine. However, the beneficial effects are short-term at  best. It does make people “feel good” and they can get an emotional  release, but when nothing really changes hack in the classroom, after a  while the effects of the seminar and the emotional release it brought  gradually subsides.

If the seminar only makes them feel good without bringing about changes,  then the seminar did not adequately meet their needs. These kinds of  seminars can be addicting. The teachers have to go to a seminar or  workshop to get a fix.

It is essential for anyone organizing a Sunday school teacher’s seminar or  workshop to structure it so that participants carry away more than a  temporary high, and for participants to come to the seminar with that goal  in mind.

Sunday schools need an effective burnout awareness training program. An  effective training program should include in-service training to develop  better teaching skills, with class rotation during the training phase to  help teachers decide for themselves which age group they feel more  comfortable teaching. Teachers and staff need periodic breaks.

Most of the time those who suffer burnout also suffer from the symptoms of  stress. Not all stress is bad. We need stresses to motivate us to achieve  our goals. However when stresses overwhelm us, they can be destructive.

Stress Symptoms

Body Symptoms
Flushing Constipation
Sweating Fatigue
Dry mouth Loss of Appetite
Shallow breathing Nervous chill
Chest oppression and pain Insomnia
Heart palpitation Breathlessness
Pounding pulse Flatus (passing gas)
Increased blood pressure Belching
Headache Abdominal cramping
Backache Irritable colon
Feeling of weakness Dizziness or faintness
Intestinal distress Paresthesias (illusory
Vomiting prickly-skin sensations)



Feeling States
Agitation Panicky Feeling
Shakiness Depression (feeling blue)
Easy tiring Irritability


Cognitive States
Worry Forgetfulness
Dread Nightmares
Inattention Fear of Death

Motor Symptoms (muscles involved)
Muscular tightness Uncoordination
Tremors Sighing
Tics (spasms) Freezing, feeling immobilized
Increased startle reaction


Life Changes
Changes in one’s life can also affect the stress level of a person. These  in turn can lead to burnout. Two researchers, Dr. Thomas Holmes and Dr.  Richard Rahe, developed a scale to measure the amount of stress-related  changes a person experiences. The scale is called the ‘Life Events  Survey’, and it list forty three events that involve life change. A value  has been assigned to each ‘life event.’ If you feel that you are under  considerable stress, you might like to evaluate yourself with this survey.  You simply have to fill out the survey, total the score, and see how you  compare to the average person. It is found in most psychology textbooks  today and in many other books on the subject of stress and burnout. Martin  Shaffer includes this survey in his book Life after Stress, which is  referenced in the bibliography.

Sunday School Teacher Burnout

Just as teachers in public schools can experience burnout, so can Sunday  school teachers. Experiencing burnout doesn’t mean that you’re  backslidden. To burnout and to backslide are not the same! Backsliding
denotes a spiritual condition. Burnout can happen regardless of a person’s  spiritual status.

Burned-out Sunday school teachers feel emotionally drained. They begin to  dread having to go into the class room. Sunday mornings are more endured  than enjoyed.

As human beings, there is no way that we can function at peak efficiency  all the time. The Bible says, “To every thing there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1), and Paul warned Timothy to be prepared in both “in
season and out of season” (II Timothy 4:2).

Judi Maki in her teacher training seminar entitled “The Ideal Teacher” gives us insight about how Sunday school teachers, in general, feel:

Have you ever met a Sunday school teacher in any department who has got it  all together? Their style of teaching is perfected. They have applied all  the basic skills. Their techniques are polished, no discipline problems  here, no cobwebs to be found in the corners of their rooms, no further  need of training, no further need of improvement? Of course you have not!  And neither have I! As I travel giving teachers training, I have met and  observed many teachers, watched them work, decorate, and teach. Know what
I discovered? There ain’t no such creature! Not on this earth anyway!

We read about this dream of a teacher—this ideal person who uses ideal  resources and in which ideal results are produced on an ideal scale. By  the way, the word ideal means ‘ model” according to Webster’s Dictionary

But there simply is no one out there that is complete, finished, or  perfect. There is no ideal classroom, no ideal curriculum, and NO ideal  teachers. Job 9:20 confirms this: “If I justify myself, mine own mouth
shall condemn me: if I say I am perfect [ideal] it shall also prove me  perverse.”

Actually, the truth is, I have met many teachers who feel just the  opposite. They feel frustrated, discouraged, unqualified, and lacking in  the tools they feel they need to be the ideal. Not that they do not know  what is expected, they just feel that they fail miserably on the job.  Listen to what they say:

“How can I love some of the children in my class when I have trouble  loving my own son?” ‘They look to me to be an example, yet I know I am  such a poor example. I do not read my Bible as I should or pray enough.” I  know I need to spend time with them outside the classroom, but I don’t  have the extra time to read a story to my own children.” “I don’t know  what wrong with me! I’ve lost control of my class! I can’t handle teaching  anymore! My nerves feel like they have been dragged across a grating  board! I’m uncreative, uninspired, (except when I’m yelling at the kids),  and very frustrated!”

Perhaps you have one or two statements you could add to the list. Take  heart, teachers! In God’s great plan, realizing our weaknesses is actually  the stepping stone to being effective and the beginning of a real
ministry. And remember we will always remain discouraged until we realize  we are inadequate and always will be. That is what makes our job so  exciting—the glory of God is in His use of frail earthen vessels (that’s

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains  many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most  churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”