The High Cost of Burnout

Do you feel like a hamster on a wheel and you can’t find the way out?
Have you experienced burnout? Do you know what to look for?

As a social entrepreneur, we are daily faced with an inordinate amount of challenges. We chose this career because of our deep compassion and desire to provide an opportunity for others. Often, we chose this career because of our own life experience.  On top of all this, we take on the business aspect of starting a nonprofit or social enterprise. We find ourselves in two, three, or more full-time positions so we can “get it all done.”  In short, we daily add more expectations of ourselves because of our vision. Eventually, we can become blinded by our vision until it’s too late and we burnout.

I know because I completely burned out four years ago. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know what to watch for and I ran into the burnout wall at full speed. Recovering meant a five-week leave of absence from my position as Lead Case Manager. It had a profound effect on me and my family. It had an even more profound effect on other staff members who suddenly had to cover for me while I healed. My clients, who were in varying levels of their healing, suddenly lost one of the few people in their life they could trust. The fallout was immense. Here are a few things I learned through that experience along with some helpful resources.

The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic
as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.
~ Remen

What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is described as the “cost of caring” for others in emotional and physical pain. It is reaching a point of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion. Key warning signs include:

  • Exhaustion
  • Anger and/or irritability
  • Reduced ability to feel empathy, compassion, or sympathy
  • Lack of enjoyment in career
  • Hypersensitivity or insensitivity to emotional material
  • Struggling to make decisions and/or care for patients or clients
  • Missing work
  • Having trouble with intimacy and with personal relationships
  • Isolation

The day I hit the burn out wall I completely melted down. I could not stop crying for days. I made choices I would normally never make. I was deeply grateful for the ability to take a leave of absence, see a therapist, and rest. I recognize many reading this do not have the same opportunity. I want to help you avoid the same pitfall.

You don’t have to experience burnout, especially at the level I did. Avoiding it means being intentional. Being self-aware. It means allowing others to speak into your life when there are concerns about what they see. You are the only one who can stop burnout from happening. 

How can you avoid burnout?

Incorporate practices of self-care into your life. Author D.L. Mayfield describes self-care as, “…building resilience; it’s not about checking out or numbing out.” She goes on to ask this important question:

How can you build yourself up so that you can get up the next day ready and engaged with the work you are supposed to do?

Here’s what I do:

  • Daily assess my state of mind and body
    I pay attention to the physical tension in my body. To when my heart races. I notice when I can’t stay focused or turn my thoughts off at night. I notice when I feel at peace and filled with joy.
  • Incorporate practices of rest and meditation
    I’m a morning person. I enjoy being up before everyone else and the early morning quiet. Beginning my day in quiet meditation and contemplation prepares myself mentally and emotionally for the day ahead sets me up for success.
  • Exercise
    I started running about three years ago. It provides an opportunity to disengage from my work and engage at home. The “runner’s high” I receive from the endorphins lifts my spirits after a difficult day or starts my day on steady ground.
  • Make time for fun
    I am a social person. It is important for me to make time with friends and family, or to do something fun alone. Sometimes it’s as simple as ending my day sitting on my porch, lighting candles, and relaxing to classical music.

 These are only a few ways I stay ahead of burnout. I have found this assessment helpful in periodically checking my level of compassion fatigue. This second assessment is also helpful. I recommend starting your own self-care toolkit by going here.

Self-care is not the same as selfishness.

Making space in our lives to take care of ourselves renews the passion and energy we need to continue in our calling. It is impossible to pour out of an empty vessel.

Keeping it real,


References: Mathieu, F. M. (2007, Spring). Running on empty: Compassion fatigue in health professionals. Rehab and Community Care Medicine. Retrieved from Compassion Fatigue Solutions Portnoy, Dennis, M.F.T. (2011, July-August). Burnout and Compassion Fatigue: Watch for the signs. Journal of the Catholic Health Association of the United States.Retrieved from Ramen, R. N. (2006). Kitchen table wisdom: Stories that heal.New York, NY: The Berkley Publishing Group