The pressure, responsibilities, and pace placed on leaders can be immense. If leaders don’t care for themselves, burnout is inevitable. Sadly, many leaders struggle with reading the signs that they are approaching burnout. Despite all the advice, books, and sessions calling leaders to care for themselves, many leaders struggle with slowing down. Many fail to listen continually to their bodies, their friends, and their emotions.
I am not a medical doctor or counselor, but I have learned the rhythms in my own life and have sought counsel continually from leaders I respect. I have seen and also learned the hard way that pushing through seasons of exhaustion can backfire. Here are signs I look for and encourage other leaders to look for in their own lives.
1. Frustration with people
If you feel you are continually mad or frustrated with people, you are quickly approaching burnout. You are in this for people. It is foolish to knock out tasks in perpetual frustration with the people you are ultimately here to serve.
2. Difficulty focusing
If you sense you are mentally having a difficult time focusing or are slowing mentally, you are likely exhausted. One day several years ago, while serving as an executive pastor, I was unable to focus on a simple report. I had been attempting to push through the exhaustion, and it was backfiring. I called Kaye (my wife), and she quickly set me up at a friend’s house out of town for several days of rest.
3. Physical signs
Several doctor friends have told me that intense stress will often manifest itself in your body somehow. From random eye twitches, to neck pain, to something else, stress will impact your body. Listen to your body.
4. Feeling exhausted
If you are a pastor and you used to feel rested from preaching by Monday afternoon, but now it is Wednesday or later (or never) before you feel rested, you are spiraling into burnout. If you lead a team and you used to feel tired on Thursday evenings from an intense week of leading, but that feeling is settling in earlier and earlier in the week, you are approaching burnout.
When I sense these reappearing in my life, I know it is time to evaluate quickly. I may need to get away for a day, adjust my sleeping, or double-check my eating and exercise routine. I have learned that if I can catch these early, I can address them much more quickly and easily than if I foolishly attempt to push through the approaching burnout. Attempting to push through burnout is poor and stupid self-leadership. Leaders, lead yourself first. You and those you lead will benefit.