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Three Major Signs of Burnout in Cross-Cultural Mission Workers (and how to prevent it)

Why is it so hard to talk about mental health issues in church and mission circles? Find out how to identify warning signs of burnout and actively prevent it.

While preparing to work abroad with a Christian organisation I once heard it said that we need to leave our emotional baggage at the door. Really?

As broken human beings saved by Jesus but still living in a sinful world, if we waited until we had it all together to serve God we’d never get started. We see in the Bible that when God called his people to lead, they were far from perfect. Yet he called them anyway.

When God invites you to participate in his story for the world, you will be equipped. That doesn’t mean that it won’t be hard – Jesus said the opposite (John 16:33) – but it does mean that the Lord is with you.

It also means that we don’t have to hide our emotional or spiritual ‘baggage’. In fact, being Instagram-happy and pretending everything’s okay when it’s not, internalising unhealthy expectations, putting a brave face on it, and not talking about how you’re really doing, is a sure way to burnout. What are the warning signs? And what can we do about them?

Withdrawal and disconnection

Personal emails become less frequent. It can feel overwhelming replying to your supporters, and not saying anything seems easier than giving a fuller account of how things really are.

You don’t want to talk about individuals or teams visiting because the idea of hosting people in your half-way home while navigating the nuances of cross-cultural life is exhausting – the mere thought of it drains you. You withdraw even from those who love you the most.

The need to just ‘have it all together’, be tactful and polite hangs over you, so you don’t feel like you can convey the frustration and despondency you’re really feeling. So you bottle it up instead.

Your withdrawal from nationals can manifest in a few ways. It could be disinterest and apathy. Compassion fatigue creeps in and people’s needs feel crushing, so you ignore them. Or it might be that you express hardness and cynicism towards people.

What can you do about it?

You probably won’t feel like it but check in regularly with a small accountability group or even just one person, who understand what you’re going through and are willing to listen and not judge. Be honest about what’s getting you down. The burden will be lifted if you can express the blunt, raw truth of what’s going on inside your head.

When you do take time out, make it count. Use it as a time for spiritual self-care, where you can rest in the presence of the Saviour and mediate on the promises of scripture. Write a list of things you’re thankful for. When you do this after several months, you’ll start to see how God is faithful in so many ways. Let this encourage and embolden you to get back out into the world. To start showing up again.

Inability to make decisions and lack of creativity/productivity

The pressure to achieve can be pervasive and can lead to feelings of failure. You may feel like you’re ineffective at best and messing things up at worst. Society often measures our worth according to our output, and in the age of social media – where personal accomplishments are paraded on newsfeeds – we see people’s lives one-dimensionally, filtered and curated to seeming perfection. Our offerings may seem paltry in comparison, and the tendency to compare slips into our mindset, often unnoticed.

You may want to give up. Perhaps you wonder, what’s the point? You might even question whether God really called you to where you’re serving, or if anyone back home even cares what you’re doing.

The fear of underachieving acts as a mental block and can stop you from coming up with new ideas or developing yourself. Spiritually, it can rob you of the joy that comes from stepping out in faith and trusting in God.

What can you do about it?

Set realistic goals. Remember: progress not perfection! These goals might find their way into your prayer diary, where you can be reminded that God will give you the strength to do what He calls you to do – including the everyday minutiae!

Stop comparing yourself to others. If social media is an unhelpful stumbling block in your thought patterns, switch off from it. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). His glory makes everything else pale by comparison.

Neglecting the basics

Poor sleep practices, unhealthy eating habits and lack of self-care are both a cause and effect of burnout. You may start to notice persistent headaches, shallow breathing, a tight chest and stomach complaints when prolonged stress takes its toll.

Pay attention to your body. Our physical health and mental health cannot be neatly separated. Mental stress can often manifest in physically surprising ways, and the physical distress will add to the mental burdens you carry.

What can you do about it?

Eat well. You reach for the high-sugar or fat quick-fix comfort food because chopping up fruit and veg seems too much like hard work. Why not prepare in advance for those sugar-laden lulls?

Ever heard of batch-cooking? Try batch-snacking ­– chop up a load of vegetables and fruit when you get a quiet moment, be they carrot sticks or mango slices, so that when you’re peckish but too tired to commit to anything more than a packet of crisps or a big ball of fried dough (or whatever version of fast convenience food you can get where you’re living), you can munch on those instead.

Sleep well. Read before bed. Have an hour before you turn the lights out where you don’t look at a screen. Whatever relaxes you, do that, and try to be consistent in what time you clock out and roll in.

Do ‘you’ well. Whether you’re a connoisseur of crocheting, a dab hand at drawing or a first-rate writer who can lose themselves in creative writing, making time for the gifts God has given you is vital. Make time and space for things that bring you joy and allow you to breathe – things that aren’t related to work and ministry.

You cannot give what you do not have. You cannot lead others where you yourself have not gone. If you do not take good care of yourself, how then do you love others “in the same way” you do yourself and have that be a blessing to them?

Josh Spurlock

Ultimately, the goal is to thrive where God has put us, and that means giving ourselves permission to be honest, realise the warning signs of burnout, and actively take steps to prevent it. We’re all wonderfully different, so what works for one may not work for another, but take time to listen to God and listen to your body. Observe your thought patterns and then ask God to help you take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).

The new MA award in Staff Care and Wellbeing, validated by The Open University and delivered through All Nations Christian College, takes a deeper look at issues in staff care and wellbeing. If you want to reflect on your practice, learn from others in the member care/staff care space, and develop leading research in this exciting, emerging field, this could be the course for you. It can be done full-time one year residential, part-time, completely online over three years, or a mix of it all! Find out more about the programme here.

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