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Question 9: What are the responsibilities of a professional suffering from burnout?

I was full of enthusiasm when I began my career and really enjoyed the work. My training was good, and I quickly and steadily advanced to my present position, which is about as far as a person can go in this profession. During the past few years, however, I have found my work becoming more and more burdensome. Various things have contributed to my loss of enthusiasm. People used to trust persons in my profession more and were more ready to cooperate, and when professionals gave their best, people were grateful. Today, it is like picking your way through a minefield. The professional gets very little positive feedback when things go well, but when they go badly, there is plenty of negative feedback. Then too, laws, regulations, and budget constraints inhibit one’s freedom to do the job as it should be done.

I am not suffering from depression. I still enjoy other activities, especially my marriage and family life—though lately even they have begun to suffer from the wear and tear of the daily grind. I tried psychological counseling. That helped me become more aware of my feelings, but it did not change them. The counselor suggested I make small changes in my daily routine and develop a hobby I could carry on in odd moments during my working hours. I did that, and it helped me get through the day, but it did not make the work itself any more fulfilling. Then he told me I am suffering from burnout and suggested I take several months off. Being self-employed, I was able to arrange it, and my wife and I did a number of things we had been putting off. The time went well. But since getting back into harness four months ago, I have found the drudgery even more oppressive than before.

While I meet my professional responsibilities well enough that nobody can fault me, I seldom provide people with the service I once did. That bothers me, for I would not wish to be in their place. Yet I simply do not know what I should do in this situation. If I could retire early or quit and go into something else, I would. But with my family responsibilities, I cannot get by without the income I now make or something close to it, and, being fifty-one, I am too young to retire and too old to change jobs without giving up at least half of my present after-tax income.33


The explicit question is whether the questioner may continue professional practice of reduced quality due to burnout. The answer is yes if, despite emotional obstacles, he continues to do as well as he can under the circumstances and regularly meets at least the minimum standard for competent practitioners of his profession. If the answer is no, the questioner must give up his profession regardless of the consequences. The implicit question is whether the feeling of burnout is in part due to a moral failing. It may well be. So, possible moral failings also should be indicated and ways of dealing with them suggested.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Though the facts you present do indicate that you are not suffering from depression, your state of mind with respect to your professional work is similar to depression inasmuch as it involves strong negative feelings you cannot ignore. That being so, it is good that you are not concerned exclusively with your feelings but also are anxious about the possibility that you are being unfair toward those you serve. This commendable concern is encouraging evidence that, despite everything, your essential professional commitment remains and can serve as a basis for renewing your dedication to your professional work and, perhaps, regaining your lost enthusiasm for it.34

Your situation raises both psychological and moral questions. Perhaps the counseling you already received has dealt as fully as possible with the psychological dimension. But perhaps the psychologist you consulted overlooked something—for example, something in your life affecting your work in a way entirely hidden from your conscious awareness. Unless you are confident that possible psychological sources of your problem have been adequately investigated, you might do well to seek additional expert help in looking into them.35

You explicitly pose one moral question but implicitly raise another. I shall consider first your explicit question and answer it briefly, then deal with your more difficult, implicit question.

The explicit question can be sharpened by rewording: May I continue practicing my profession despite my present inability to provide the service I once did? A negative answer may seem demanded by the Golden Rule, to which you allude in saying you would not wish to be in the place of the people you serve. Yet that would be very difficult for you to accept, given what you say about your responsibilities and your need for income.

Only you can judge whether you may continue. To make that judgment, you must answer two factual questions. First, does your performance regularly meet at least the minimum standard for competent practitioners of your profession? Second, despite emotional obstacles, are you willing to continue to do your work as well as you can under the circumstances? An affirmative answer to the first question seems indicated by your statement that you fulfill your “professional responsibilities well enough that nobody can fault” you. An affirmative answer to the second question is within your own power. But if you cannot or will not answer yes to both questions, you cannot fairly continue to offer your service and must give up your profession, despite the consequences for you and your family. If you can and do honestly say yes to both, however, I see no reason why continuing to practice your profession would necessarily be unfair to those you serve. In that case, you may dismiss your guilt feelings and carry on as well as you can.

Sometimes, of course, clients and colleagues with whom you have dealt previously will expect from you work of a quality you no longer can provide. In such cases, consider the facts of the situation and apply the Golden Rule to judge whether you must warn someone that you are no longer functioning as well as you used to. Special challenges perhaps will arouse your interest and spark the enthusiasm you generally lack, so that they will present no problem. But if you do not expect to be able to do an adequate job in some cases, you should, like any practitioner of limited competence, refer them to someone more competent or obtain a colleague’s help to ensure adequate service.

So much for your explicit question. Your implicit question also can be sharpened by rewording: Is my feeling that I am professionally burned out the result of some moral fault? You have tried psychological counseling, a diverting hobby, and time off from work, but none of these has helped; your work remains drudgery. Now you present your problem to me, hoping for helpful advice, and I shall try to provide it, for the problem may well be, at least in part, a moral one.

In the first place, if you continue to practice your profession, you should resist the wish that you could retire early or quit and do something else. That wish is inconsistent with your professional commitment, and imagining appealing alternatives arouses emotions contrary to the ones you need. Regard the wish as a bad thought, and do not deliberately entertain it. Moreover, though vacations and hobbies are appropriate parts of most everyone’s life, using them as partial escapes from professional responsibilities—as you did in taking several months off and taking up a diversion during working hours—predictably intensifies the wish you should resist and so exacerbates your problem rather than helping to solve it. A more effective tactic would be to intensify your professional involvement—for example, by updating your knowledge, trying out promising new approaches, helping young colleagues just beginning their careers, or working through a professional body to improve your profession’s ethical standards.

Second, in serving people, including those who seem uncooperative and ungrateful, you continue to carry out the commitment you made in embarking on your professional career. Though not a vow of fidelity for better or worse until death, that commitment, like consent to marriage, took into account the likelihood that the people involved—those you serve and you yourself—might change in unforeseen and disagreeable ways. Yet you made the commitment, expecting to carry on your profession for many years, probably until the age of retirement. With that in mind, refocus your concern on the true purpose to which you always should direct your work. That is not professional status, which you already have achieved, but something more important, which you cannot achieve once and for all: genuine benefits you can help bring about in those you serve. When you began your career, you obtained emotional gratification from other things: attaining career goals, professional recognition, the gratitude of those you served. Such gratification is not bad in itself, but perhaps you relied too heavily on it, so that, as you reached the summit of your profession and experienced less positive feedback from those you serve, you were deprived of emotional motivation on which you had become dependent.

Refocusing your concern to the true purpose of your profession will help you develop a different attitude toward the changed circumstances of your work. Insofar as the changes make it harder to benefit those you serve, think of the altered circumstances as challenges to your ingenuity and skill, just as you would if you were only now entering the profession. Bear in mind that each person you serve is unique, and providing him or her with the best service you can under the existing conditions is a unique problem. If the people you try to serve today really are less cooperative than those you previously served, try to persuade them to be more cooperative. If that does not work, accept that fact and lower your expectations. You should not expect more of yourself than God does. He never asks you to accomplish the impossible, but only to do what you can under the conditions in which you find yourself.

Third, while all of us need positive emotional motivation to do our work, focusing on our own feelings is self-defeating. People who work well at a craft and make a good product are absorbed in their work until it is completed; then they have the satisfaction of looking at the result and seeing all the skill and effort embodied in it. A professional seldom has quite that satisfaction, since the important results of his or her effort are within a person and, generally, are harder to assess. Nevertheless, like a skilled craftsperson, a professional can focus on how his or her work measures up to reasonable standards as it progresses, and this focus will bring some well-grounded satisfaction.

Fourth, while you tried psychological counseling, you say nothing about your specifically religious activities and whether you have modified them in any way so as to deal with your problem, which actually may be a God-given challenge to grow in holiness. If you have not already done so, I suggest you find an experienced person as a spiritual director (see CCC, 2690). Probably this person should be a priest, to whom you can confess your sins regularly and with whom you also can discuss your life as a whole and your problem with your professional work. In such discussion, you perhaps will find ways to draw greater patience and strength from prayer, to receive the sacraments more devoutly and fruitfully, and, in general, to integrate your work more perfectly with your faith. If you cannot identify someone suitable to serve as your regular spiritual director, you might use some of your next vacation for a retreat, during which you could obtain some guidance. In seeking a spiritual director or retreat master, of course, you should look for someone who is not only entirely faithful to the Church’s teaching but a real guide in religious thought and practice, so that you will receive something besides psychological counseling, which you already have tried.

Finally, since Jesus teaches that his followers should not try to dominate others but serve them, Christian professionals should take to heart the New Testament’s catechesis for slaves: “Obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ” (Col 3.22–24; cf. Eph 6.5–8, 1 Tm 6.1–2, 1 Pt 2.18–21).

Do not expect too much in this life. In the fallen human condition, people often behave badly and are ungrateful to those who serve them well. Accepting this fact as part of the cross the Lord has called you to carry, you will find in it peace and profound joy, for you will anticipate beyond present sufferings the happiness of heaven. Provided you are faithful to the end, you will find again in heaven, too, the good fruits of your effort, healed of their defects and completed (see GS 38–39).

33. Because some readers project into this question ideas of their own about the questioner’s profession, character, and spirituality, it must be noted that he never says what his profession is, and gives very little information about his character and spirituality.

34. See Jessica Skorupa and Albert A. Agresti, “Ethical Beliefs about Burnout and Continued Professional Practice,” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 24 (1993): 281–85, for references to the psychological literature.

35. A psychological approach to burnout that in some respects complements the moral considerations I shall propose: Ayala Pines and Elliot Aronson, Career Burnout: Causes and Cures (New York: Free Press, 1988).