Burnout or Chillout?

Most of us have experienced the feeling of being on ‘overload’ – our energy feels low, problems feel insurmountable and we begin to doubt our abilities.  A weekend away from it all and a good heart-to-heart with a reassuring friend can often put us back on track and help us lighten up. Then, in retrospect, crises that felt so painful at the time were often growth points for us.  We somehow manage to see things from another perspective, our attitude shifts and we move on.

However, for workers who have been dealing with other people’s crises on a daily basis, or managers constantly faced with decisions that impact heavily on people’s lives, the experience of overload can progressively deteriorate into ‘burn out’.

Burnout can creep up slowly, gradually draining energy until the feeling of being on emotional overload becomes intolerable.  Even small things that we are used to taking in our stride can send the mind screeching in pain.  It’s as though the soul cries out, “I can’t take any more”.  If we don’t respond to the initial warning signals, we can find ourselves waking up one day unable to cope with the thought of even turning on a light switch or making a cup of tea.

John McConnell has worked in caring professions for over 20 years as both an assistant prison governor and later, as a social worker. His compassion had always led him to help others through vulnerable periods of their lives.  Even though the workload was often heavy, he felt he was contributing to the world the best way he could and was enriched by his work.

For months, he didn’t notice the emotional pressure building up inside himself. He was a single parent, his teenage kids were going through the chaotic period of adolescence and he had taken on more and more difficult cases at work. “Maybe I was using work to run away from myself. Then, one Friday evening, after a particularly stressful week at work, I went to the supermarket and found myself unable to get out of the car. I thought I had had a stroke. My body felt so heavy, as if it was encased in lead”.

That was the start of six months off work.

For the first few days John could do little else than sleep. He felt completely drained of energy on all levels. After a series of tests, which proved negative, the doctor concluded that he was suffering from exhaustion and that the only solution was complete rest.

The road to recovery was long and challenging. John tried various alternative therapies, including acupuncture, massage, homeopathy and counselling. These provided some relief but did not get to the heart of the problem. Thinking that a bit of relaxation would help, he enrolled on a meditation course taught by the Brahma Kumaris. As he began to practice some of the reflective exercises learned on the course, he experienced, for the first time in many years, a deeper part of himself, which he found to be both powerful and positive. He started to feel more energised and to feel alive again.

He began to reflect on his life in a more detached way and eventually came to the conclusion that the root cause of much of his stress and eventual burnout was a lack of self-esteem. He realised that he had spent most of his life trying to please other people as a way of getting love and approval, often at the expense of his own well-being. Through meditation, John learned how to generate feelings of self-worth independent of successes and failures at work and home. He began to feel a new kind of inner strength.

John feels that his experience of burnout was a turning point in his life – his daily practice of meditation has generated higher levels of motivation, creative energy and an ability to ride through difficult times. He is happier now than at any time in his life. Two years ago he took early retirement and now lectures on personal growth issues, drawing on his own journey of transformation, which he relates with openness and humour.

In his opinion, “Many people are frightened to look deeply inside themselves yet, with a little self-understanding, they could take a lot of the pain out of life’s crises and failures. We all have an innate reservoir of peace, love and wisdom within which can give us the power to deal with anything. All we have to do is access it to nourish and protect ourselves from stress. I feel that everyone should be taught these skills. With the right support and training, there is no need for anyone to go through the burnout experience.”

Last November, John was part of a team who organised a ‘Peace of Mind’ retreat for social workers at the Brahma Kumaris’ Global Retreat Centre, Oxford, to teach the skills of contemplation and stress management to sixty participants from around the country.

Modupe Kebu, a senior social worker in fostering, was experiencing very high stress levels when she attended the retreat.

“It was very timely for me. I was at a crisis point in my professional life. I didn’t think I could cope any more with the level of stress I was experiencing and was wondering if it was time for me to get out. In one sense, the things being taught were quite familiar to me because I used to practice meditation to centre myself and overcome my anxiety about fulfilling my ‘duty’. The retreat got me back to that calm state of mind and helped me over a very stressful period in my life. I find that I am now able to hold on to the capacity to go ‘within’.

I have always tried to be positive but I wasn’t calm on the inside. Now I am operating on a different level – with a sense of detachment, not in a cold way, but with more love, which I think is the key. You just can’t help people in crises unless you are relating to them on a deeper level – nothing gets through if you deal with them only on a superficial level. The effect the retreat had on me has certainly generated a lot of interest among my colleagues. I would recommend it to anyone”.

The programme of workshops and presentations was designed to give people working in a social care environment the time and space to reflect on themselves.  The peaceful, non-judgemental atmosphere of the Global Retreat Centre allows people to get in touch with the positive side of themselves and to see their lives in a more detached way.  Many of the participants had been experiencing high levels of stress.

Further details about events held at the Global Retreat Centre can be found at www.globalretreatcentre.org