My Personal Story of Burnout
by Kevin Defriend (Elder and Wellbeing Pastor)
I really didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career, so back in 1985 I attended a careers fair at my school and was told by various teachers I should become a doctor. I think it looked good on the school prospectus to have students achieving places at medical schools.
I went off to medical school and qualified in 1993 and started GP training in 1994. I was fortunate enough to be offered a partnership at my training practice in 1997 which was a dynamic, forward thinking, highly regarded practice that had a general attitude of grabbing hold of every exciting new initiative in primary care and never saying ‘no’. We covered a local community hospital, did hospital outpatient clinics, surgeries for the local army barracks, occupational health for larger companies, emergency cover for the local Police, cared for patients with learning disabilities in the community, looked after 5 nursing homes, offered specialist clinics for cardiology and of course, in addition, just did ‘normal general practice’!!
It was common that the partners would be up at the practice at weekends, if not doing emergency clinics, then just catching up on admin tasks. The weight of work for each clinical activity increased over time, recruitment became ever increasingly difficult, patients’ needs were becoming ever more complex and hospitals were passing more and more back to GPs to follow up with patients. Working days were long and intense and I was even eating breakfast at my desk early mornings to catch up on tasks.
The partnership ‘can do’ attitude remained resolute and, rather than start to notice both mental and physical warning signs, I just kept ‘doing’. When you are in a job which is about caring for others, it is easy to justify overworking from a good moral standpoint. When others are doing the same around you, it feels more difficult to challenge if it is wrong to be doing so.
In 1994, after some physical health symptoms and an operation for presumed appendicitis, I hit a brick wall. I could no longer keep ‘doing’. I quite suddenly became confined to a sofa, hardly able to stand up without extreme fatigue and dizziness, had abdominal pains, weight loss, cold peripheries, tremors and waves of extreme panic and anxiety. I had some days when I couldn’t recall what had happened, even lost awareness of what was real and was not. I had a lot of medical investigations; blood tests, scans, endoscopies and nothing really showed anything of great significance.
In hindsight, I now know I had hit a point of extreme burnout, when both body and mind had literally collapsed in on me. I knew about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome / ME and after 6 weeks of the same ongoing symptoms started to wonder if this state was going to become chronic.
I was a Christian, I prayed in desperation to feel better, I would love to say I saw miraculous healing but I did not. In the end, through sheer grit and determination, I crept myself back to work and built up my hours, I think on many days I felt worse than most of my patients and it took many years before I started to feel more ‘myself’. I soon reduced my hours to part time and established a healthier work/life balance.
I strongly believe that God works things out according to His purposes (Romans 8:28) and when we mess up He can still bring good out of the situation. If I had never gone through that period of burnout, I would not have taken early retirement from being a Doctor and come to work at the Church. God clearly spoke to me about 6 months before doing this when I was asking what next? It is not surprising that He gave me a very clear directive to be a ‘wellbeing lead’ at JCC.
I don’t believe that it was God’s intent that I should have become burnt out. I believe He would have far preferred me to be living life according to His rhythm and to be thriving rather than surviving.
During this period of intense stress and burnout, I was a fairly hopeless husband and father, my wife had to take on most jobs and chores relating to the household; there was some significant impact and extra burden on her for several years and this even culminated in her returning to work to allow me to go part-time. God was with us through it all because He is faithful and merciful but it was all avoidable and could have looked very different if I had been more in step with Him and had had a greater insight and awareness about wellbeing & God’s intention of how we should live our lives.
He deeply loves us, wants the best for us, waits wonderfully patiently when we mess up and makes every resource available through Himself for us to have life to the full (John 10:10) when we turn to him in need.
STOP & CONSIDER – Is your life too busy? Do you frequently feel overwhelmed? Are you at risk of becoming burnt out? Would you be aware of the warning signs? Do you need to take action now?
Recommended Books :
The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer
YouVersion Reading Plan – The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry – 5 day plan (For those with greater time pressures)